New Facebook hire sparks classic talent debate: Is one great star better than a good team?


Facebook recently generated buzz when it hired whiz-kid George Hotz, rekindling a classic debate over whether it’s better to focus on snagging star performers or on building strong teams. (ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

The buzz surrounding the young prodigy’s hire might say nothing more than how fascinated we all are with the social network giant. But it also reveals something about Silicon Valley’s current obsession with talent. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in a New York Times piece in May that “someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better.”

But are they really? A war of words has broken out about that very issue over at the Harvard Business Review Online (where, yes, believe it or not, theories about talent practices can spark some pretty heated debate). Nearly 300 comments—many vitriolic in nature—have been added to a post written by Fast Company magazine founder and management writer Bill Taylor, who wrote earlier this week that Zuckerberg is wrong, and that “great people are overrated.” The post generated enough interest that Taylor wrote a follow-up piece.

He cites everything from sports teams to research from the always smart Boris Groysberg to make his point: that good teams can actually be better than individual stars, and to go after the latter blindly might not lead to good long-term performance. In response, two contributors weighed in with counterpoints, claiming that in fact Zuckerberg was only wrong in that he didn’t go far enough, and that in reality, true leaders value individual talent more than a collective team because our brains are hard-wired to not perform as well in groups.

With all due respect, I think it’s kind of a silly debate, because of course every organization needs both. You need the stars to lead, to pioneer high-profile projects and to take risks that only they are able to take. But without the hard work and collective energy of all your “pretty good” people, a dream team can devolve into a clash of egos.

I tend to side with Taylor on the general idea that we place too much emphasis on star talent, and not enough on getting more out of everyone by helping them play to their strengths. But even the best-coached teams with the best chemistry—Taylor cites the Dallas Mavericks and Barcelona’s excellent soccer team—have their essential superstars, too. The Mavs have Dirk Nowitzki. Barça, as it’s known, has Lionel Messi, arguably the best footballer in the world.

This is not a new question. As long as some fields have a talent shortage (yes, they do exist despite the horrible economy), star players will be paid handsomely and salivated after by companies in need, even if they’re falling victim to the talent myth. But deciding whether teams or stars are more important is not the right debate. Figuring out how to get both a few brilliant players and a cohesive team that works well together is the real argument leaders should be having.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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