Silhouette of a guitarist on stage

Should we recruit Rock Stars? – only if we can provide the right culture and leadership

A little while ago, I was speaking to an associate of mine who is a leader in the venture capital world. He introduced me to Jeff Hyman’s book, “Recruit Rockstars”. He had read the book and was a firm advocate of its central theme. Initially, I was not so sure and felt that rock stars needed to be counter-balanced by more grounded, predictable people. My colleague sort of agreed with my views, but preferred the idea that the team should be full of rock stars, only for every lead singer and lead guitarist, there needed to be a bassist and a drummer; all rock stars, but with very different roles to play.

The Alex Ferguson approach

Shortly afterwards, I read an article in Forbes by Liz Ryan with the title,  “We Need a Rock Star’ is Idiotic (and False)”. Her conclusion was as follows, “Let’s stop talking about hiring ninjas and rock stars and talk about a simple and obvious topic. We can build cultures that will attract awesome people”. This led me to think about both these views; here are my thoughts:

In November 1986, Manchester United Football Club appointed Alex Ferguson as the club manager. Over the next 27 years, Sir Alex would become one of the most effective leaders in any walk of life. In that time the club won 13 League Titles, 5 FA Cup titles and 2 UEFA Champions League Titles. What I believe Sir Alex did so effectively, was to create a culture in which “rock star” footballers could flourish. Indeed, over the years he attracted the likes of David Beckham, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo. The other side of that culture, however, was a huge team ethos, a clear vision and defined boundaries that his players must not cross. If any player, no matter how gifted they were, started to behave in a way that was detrimental to the culture of the team, they would be removed.

How to implement it

If we therefore transfer this ethos to an organisation of which I am more familiar (e.g. a biotech company, a VC organisation or, indeed, an Executive Search company), then I would suggest the following:

1. Agree the definition of a “Rock Star”. Certainly someone who is creative, will “think out of the box” and challenge the status quo. They are likely to have high energy and intellectual rigour.

2. Ensure that you have a culture in which they can thrive (a culture driven by process is unlikely to be attractive). This may include broadening the normal boundaries and accepting some initial challenges that allows them to thrive (but see 4 and 5).

3. Work out a recruitment process which can identify a “Rock Star” (unlike a football club, we do not see these people performing on a public stage, week in, week out). Remember the recruitment process is two way; this is our opportunity to showcase our great company. These people are likely to be in great demand.

4. Provide real leadership – ensure they understand the company’s vision and the absolute boundaries of acceptability are clearly understood.

5. If their behaviour prevents others from performing to the best of their ability – take action!

I suppose that my take home message is as follows: Rock Stars are great; Culture is even better.

Paul Edwards is the Managing Partner, Global Healthcare with Horton International, a leader in the Executive Search community.