The Myth Of The Rock-Star Leader


This article was originally published on CEOWORLD Magazine.

In 2011, amid much fanfare, JCPenney appointed Ron Johnson as its new CEO. Hailing from Apple and Target, where he held powerful positions, Johnson was glorified for great innovations at both. He rode into JCPenney waving the flag of change.

However, after a disastrous 17 months that included a $6 billion drop in sales and 40,000 layoffs, JCPenney replaced Johnson with his predecessor before hiring the quieter, humbler Marvin Ellison.

On the surface, hiring superstar leaders may seem like a sexy solution for your . The problem, especially for startups, is that these “rock stars” sometimes care more about their careers and celebrity than the company.

While many idolize the caricature of an arrogant, self-centered “superstar,” in reality, companies run by narcissistic senior leaders don’t perform as well as those led by their more modest counterparts. While this spells trouble for large companies, it can be ruinous for a startup looking to gain momentum.

Having hired most of the senior-level staff at my company, I’ve learned that so-called superstars are rarely what they’re cracked up to be. Considering that Fortune Magazine and the Great Place to Work Institute named us one of the 50 Best Workplaces for Flexibility and one of the 100 Best Workplaces for Women, respectively, I’m happy with my decision to avoid superstars.

Forget About Status

When hiring leaders for your organization, people with rock-star reputations can seem like a no-brainer: If they were successful before, they will be again.

But this logic is flawed. Many “superstars” rely on people around them to do a good job and then take a lot of the credit. To ensure that any touted successes are based on real leadership, look for candidates whose natural dispositions are more reserved and humble; assess whether they laud the successes of their teams rather than their own.

Here Are Three Points To Keep In Mind As You Search:

1. Don’t confuse the rising tide with all boats.  Just because people ran successful companies doesn’t mean they were the ones driving them. Seek people who will dig in, focus on the company, make hard decisions, and lead their team — even in bad situations.

To gather this evidence, ask for references from supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Question candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, but also evaluate their character by asking references to rate their performance in the context of problematic situations.

2. Beware of confusing correlation with causation.  Focus on outcomes versus reputation. Investigate claims of results by asking for specifics on financial outcomes, company growth, and return on investment to ensure the candidate played a true hand in those successes.

Another way to approach this is to use your job description to outline what success at your company looks like at various stages. Be upfront about specific KPIs, responsibilities, and top challenges so candidates are clear about what they’re getting into.

3. Know that the real rock stars don’t always shine the brightest.  When leaders of larger companies are brought into entrepreneurial environments, they often struggle because they’re used to operating with a big team, ready to do their bidding.

It’s not bad to bring in talent from top companies — you sometimes find the right person there. Sara Peary, for example, was a rock star in her role at Pfizer when she left to become CEO of a small startup, where she could have greater impact.

Her previous corporate employers had relatively solid processes in place. But Peary quickly learned the pace of a startup is much faster, with oft-shifting business models, partnerships, and organizational structures.

Still, because she was humble and low-key — more interested in boosting the startup than her own career — she succeeded. This is the kind of leader you want to hire.

Leverage Your Leaders

Leaders can be catalysts for change, but high performance requires team effort and alignment between all areas of the company. Success and growth lie in a unified organization, not in one “great leader.”

To get the most out of a team, its leader must foster cooperation, cultivate camaraderie, and vision. Ignore star power — bring leaders into your organization who have the ability to create that synergy, and your culture will be able to withstand and navigate tough circumstances that arise in the future.

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