Top Talent aka Super Stars Don't Make a Super Team

Guest Contributorby Dwight Ueda | Posted | Performance Management

Top Talent aka Super Stars Don\'t Make a Super Team

Superstars supply the competitive advantage that organizations exert over their opponents as they aspire to market dominance. As academic research and personal experience tell us, top talent is smarter, more capable, and ultimately more productive than their average counterparts.

In fact, in a 2012 research paper titled The Best and the Rest: Revisiting the Norm of Normality of Individual Performance, researchers Ernest O’Boyle Jr. and Herman Aguinis concluded that the difference between top performers and everyone else is even starker than previously asserted.

“…applying a normal distribution, that assumes the majority of individuals will perform in an “average” manner, does not present an accurate picture of the way that individual performance unfolds in an organization. In fact, as some of us may witness in our own organizations, the findings of this research provide evidence that the majority of work is carried out by a small number of people that out-perform the rest.”

This academic research adds resonance to the voices of talent management experts who urge organizations to focus on the identification and cultivation of A-players, even if it diverts significant resources away from others.

A critical, yet hidden assumption about top talent

While no one disputes the productivity of top talent, much of this research assumes that individual productivity translates into organization success. But is this assumption correct?

The 2012 research looked at researchers, entertainers, politicians, and amateur and professional athletes. These are fields in which individual achievement, not organizational or team performance, determines success.

To examine the assumption that individual productivity generally translates into organization success, we decided to look at how top performers impacted their teams in two team-oriented sports: football and basketball.

Do top performers' teams win championships?

We looked at individual season accomplishments in the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, seeking instances when they coincided with team championships.

We looked at the statistics used to measure individual productivity in each of those sports.

In basketball, that included players who were the year’s top scorers, rebounders (people who collect missed shots), and assist makers (players who make the passes that result in a score).

In football, we looked at top quarterbacks (ranked by touchdown passes and passer rating) and running backs (ranked by rushing yardage).

Here's a breakdown of the number of times a statistical leader played on that year’s championship team:

League (sport) Leadership category Instances that the year’s leader played for the year’s league champion team

NBA (basketball)

Top rebounder

11 out of 63 seasons*

Top scorer

11 out of 67 seasons

Top assist maker

5 out of 67 seasons

NFL (football)

QB with highest passer rating

8 out of 44 seasons

QB with most TD passes

7 out of 44 seasons

RB with most rushing yards

4 out of 44 seasons

*Rebounding statistics were collected in 1950; scoring and assists were collected at the NBA’s beginning in 1946.

This quick analysis shows little relationship between the performance of the year’s most statistically productive player and their team winning the league championship. The highest percentage of times that both events occurred in the same year was 17–18%.

It seems clear from this data that there are limits to the impact of individual productivity on collective success.

The impact of a superstar

Consider the professional careers of the NBA’s greatest showman, Pete Maravich, and the NBA’s most dominant player, Wilt Chamberlain.

Despite having unparalleled talent for ball-handling (i.e., controlling the ball by dribbling and passing) and offensive creativity (Maravich), and towering records in scoring and rebounding (Chamberlain), both players have had somewhat disappointing careers if you look at the number of championships their teams have won. Between them, their teams only won two championships (Chamberlain's in both cases).

Of the two, Maravich’s team record is more checkered. His teams were at best mediocre, only enjoying two winning seasons. Maravich was never able to elevate his team to be a contender, much less a champion. His style of play made it difficult to integrate him into the team. And the owner’s preferential treatment of Maravich proved corrosive to his team’s cohesion. 

Sporting an unusual combination of rare athleticism and even rarer height (7’ 1”), Wilt Chamberlain excelled in all statistical categories of the sport: scoring, rebounding, blocking shots, and making assists. Many of his records stand today and will probably remain unmatched.

While a thoughtful and intelligent man, he was sometimes criticized for not always doing what was necessary to win the game or having the competitive fire needed to win. His legacy remains a perplexing one — an unparalleled record-holder with few championships.

And what about other NBA superstars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan who have led their teams to multiple championships?

Although among the best in many statistical categories, Bird never led in any individual statistical category when his Boston Celtics won their three championships.

Magic Johnson was the league's assist leader in only one of his team’s five championship seasons.

Michael Jordan stands as the lone exception with his scoring titles coinciding with his team’s six championships. But Michael Jordan led the NBA in scoring 10 years, so not all of his productive years resulted in championships.

Clearly, having the stats leader on the team does not equate to winning the season.

Superstar teams…inevitable champions?

Even a collection of superstar top talent doesn’t guarantee a championship team.

When he played for the Los Angeles Lakers, Wilt Chamberlain was teamed with two other players considered to be the greatest of all time: Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In the three plus seasons they played together, the Lakers did not win a single championship, losing to far less talented teams who had better chemistry and team work.

Roughly thirty years later, the Lakers attempted this super team strategy again by collecting the league’s best players: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton. This team lost the championship to a Detroit team whose players have since fallen into obscurity.

The top talent ceiling

While top talent is important for success, they only get you so far. And we shouldn't confuse individual achievement with team success.

This year’s Super Bowl game featuring the Denver Broncos with historic Peyton Manning versus the anonymous Seattle Seahawks should remind us of this fact.

Despite Manning’s historic statistical year (and career) and the Denver Broncos being favored to win, the team was trashed, unable to even make the contest competitive — even though Manning set yet another record for the most completions in a Super Bowl.

This, like many individual achievements, didn't affect the game’s outcome.

And in business, ultimately, it's the organization's success that matters.

Reader beware

I'd suggest your read The Best and the Rest: Revisiting the Norm of Normality of Individual Performance, with caution.

I also wouldn’t recommend talent management actions that divert significant resources away from the non-superstar workforce and that focus solely on the care and nurturing of superstar top talent.

While our analysis of basketball and football championships is hardly definitive, it does call into question the wisdom of relying on the individual achievement of superstars for organizational success.

Superstar talent is good to have, but it doesn't necessarily elevate the organization itself to superstardom. And giving excessive attention to superstar talent can also lead to unintended consequences for the rest of the workforce.

Winning at the organizational level is ultimately a team sport, not an individual sport.

Your Turn: Do you see superstars helping or harming team and organizational success?

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