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The Value of 'Portable' Careers

The Value of 'Portable' Careers

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Published by HBSWK
Can you predict whether star performers will replicate their success in a new environment? HBS professor Boris Groysberg and colleagues ask this question of professional football teams, and the results offer valuable lessons for star performers and hiring executives of business firms, too.
Can you predict whether star performers will replicate their success in a new environment? HBS professor Boris Groysberg and colleagues ask this question of professional football teams, and the results offer valuable lessons for star performers and hiring executives of business firms, too.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: HBSWK on Feb 04, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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01/08/2012

 
 
The Value of a 'Portable' Career
Executive SummaryCan you predict whether star performers will replicate their success in a newenvironment? HBS professor
Boris Groysberg
and colleagues ask this question of professional football teams, and the results offer valuable lessons for starperformers and hiring executives of business firms, too. Q&A with Groysberg, LexSant, and Robin Abrahams. Key concepts include:High performance is "portable" for some positions but not for others.Professional football teams hire on the basis of talent. Detailed statisticsallow researchers to examine whether performance is as portable as many inthe National Football League believe.In football as in other organizations, stars whose jobs require them tocooperate and collaborate with other workers may have difficultymaintaining performance when they move to a new company. Recognizingthis fact, firms can do a lot to smooth the transition.Workers who have already developed extensive firm-specific human capital(in the form of relationships or mastery of the firm's system and processes)should weigh carefully the decision to change jobs.By
Martha Lagace
 Stellar teamwork and star talent was on display February 1 at the National FootballLeague's annual Super Bowl. For football fans, the much-awaited Super Bowl isthe highlight of the year, and this year's game was a cliffhanger resolved only inthe final seconds.Minus the dramatic interceptions and exciting touchdowns, however, footballteams are not so different from organizational teams in other fields of life,including business. And watching the career moves of football stars may shed lighton how you, too, can plan your next step.That's the message of new research by HBS professor Boris Groysberg, Lex Sant,and Robin Abrahams. Their case study "When Stars Migrate, Do They StillPerform Like Stars?"looks at the "portability" of performance and the likelihood
 
that some positions may improve or diminish one's prospects for careeradvancement. In autumn 2008, Groysberg and coauthors described their work onthe National Football League in the 
. "As research on the National Football League reveals, sometimes the specificnature of a job determines whether a great performer at one company can replicatethat performance at another," they wrote.The lessons are directly relevant for hiring managers, too, says Groysberg."Managers might want to think strategically about what positions they can hire atop-notch outsider for, and which ones they're better off developing talent forinside the organization."Groysberg and team recently fielded e-mail questions from
 HBS WorkingKnowledge
.
Martha Lagace:
Your work highlights the pros and cons of hiring high-performing or "star" employees. How and why did studying the career trajectoriesof star football players give you a window on better management of organizationsand careers?
Boris Groysberg, Lex Sant, and Robin Abrahams:
Sports teams areorganizations much like many others, subject to the errors that are commonelsewhere. But their successes and failures are highly visible and amplified by thefact that they perform in a zero-sum world. In order for one team to win, anotherteam has to lose. As a result, their focus is especially performance-oriented.Moreover, success in professional sports is thought to be especially dependent onthe talent of individual performers, since there is no special product technology orother long-lived advantages on which the team can depend.So we know that teams hire stars on the basis of talent
 — 
as do many organizations.But with professional football, for example, we have a much tidier time measuringperformance since it can so easily be quantified with widely available, speciallydetailed, and highly accurate statistical data.As a result, we can look at the performance of hiring decisions to see whetherperformance is as portable as many in the NFL believe. To us, the fact that it isportable for some positions and not portable for others is interesting.
Q:
Companies' hiring managers must avoid errors, especially these days. Whentrying to attract star performers in their field, what guidelines do you think 
 
managers should bear in mind? How can they increase the likelihood that starperformers will replicate past success in a new environment?
A:
Our research shows that stars whose jobs require them to cooperate andcollaborate with other workers have a hard time maintaining performance whenthey move to a new organization. So if you're a manager, you might want to think strategically about what positions you can hire a top-notch outsider for, and whichones you're better off developing talent for inside the organization.If you do hire outside talent for a highly interactive job
 — 
which sometimeshappens
 — 
give them adequate time to get up to speed, and provide them withmentorship and structure. Don't be too quick to get rid of someone who needs toreestablish his or her network in order to succeed. Instead, focus your efforts onhelping those individuals to build the network they need. Careful integration is akey.
Q:
From the point of view of someone's career in the current economic climate, itwould seem wiser to cultivate portable skills as opposed to company-specificskills. Based on your research, does that sound reasonable to you, and if so, howcould people better plan their own career in terms of accepting new assignmentsand responsibilities so as to avoid overreliance on one company alone?
A:
In any climate, workers with portable skills are the least vulnerable when theyswitch firms. What our research suggests is that portability isn't only determined bywhat industry you are in, or what particular company you work for, but it's also aresult of how collaborative your job is. This suggests that workers who havealready developed extensive firm-specific human capital (in the form of relationships or mastery of the firm's system and processes) should weigh thedecision to change jobs carefully, because their major value is in the company theycurrently work for and the teammates they work with. If they do change jobs, theyshould make sure that the new employer is invested in their success and will givethem the resources, and the time, to build the relationships that they need.If your strengths are in collaborating with others, don't pull away from that in orderto build a more "portable" career. But do extensive due diligence on anorganization before you join it, because rising in an organization might be a betterway to maximize your long-term value than frequent job-hopping. And make sureyour collaborative efforts take you outside your own team, and get you workingacross departments and with people outside the firm. These boundary-spanningrelationships can help protect your portability
 — 
and your value in your current job.

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