The Value of a ‘Portable’ Career

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.
by Martha Lagace
Stellar teamwork and star talent will be on display February 1 at the National Football League's annual Super Bowl, in Tampa Bay, Florida. For football fans, the much-awaited Super Bowl is the highlight of the year. Minus the dramatic interceptions and exciting touchdowns, however, football teams are not so different from organizational teams in other fields of life, including business. And watching the career moves of football stars may shed light on 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 Still Perform Like Stars?" looks at the "portability" of performance and the likelihood that some positions may improve or diminish one's prospects for career advancement. In autumn 2008, Groysberg and coauthors described their work on the National Football League in the MIT Sloan Management Review. "As research on the National Football League reveals, sometimes the specific nature of a job determines whether a great performer at one company can replicate that 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 a top-notch outsider for, and which ones they're better off developing talent for inside the organization." Groysberg and team recently fielded e-mail questions from HBS Working Knowledge.

Martha Lagace: Your work highlights the pros and cons of hiring high-performing or "star" employees. How and why did studying the career trajectories of star football players give you a window on better management of organizations and careers?

Boris Groysberg, Lex Sant, and Robin Abrahams: Sports teams are organizations much like many others, subject to the errors that are common elsewhere. But their successes and failures are highly visible and amplified by the fact that they perform in a zero-sum world. In order for one team to win, another team has to lose. As a result, their focus is especially performance-oriented. Moreover, success in professional sports is thought to be especially dependent on the talent of individual performers, since there is no special product technology or other 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 measuring performance since it can so easily be quantified with widely available, specially detailed, and highly accurate statistical data. As a result, we can look at the performance of hiring decisions to see whether performance is as portable as many in the NFL believe. To us, the fact that it is portable for some positions and not portable for others is interesting.

Q: Companies' hiring managers must avoid errors, especially these days. When trying to attract star performers in their field, what guidelines do you think managers should bear in mind? How can they increase the likelihood that star performers will replicate past success in a new environment?

A: Our research shows that stars whose jobs require them to cooperate and collaborate with other workers have a hard time maintaining performance when they 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 which ones you're better off developing talent for inside the organization. If you do hire outside talent for a highly interactive job—which sometimes happens—give them adequate time to get up to speed, and provide them with mentorship and structure. Don't be too quick to get rid of someone who needs to reestablish his or her network in order to succeed. Instead, focus your efforts on helping those individuals to build the network they need. Careful integration is a key.

Q: From the point of view of someone's career in the current economic climate, it would seem wiser to cultivate portable skills as opposed to company-specific skills. Based on your research, does that sound reasonable to you, and if so, how could people better plan their own career in terms of accepting new assignments and responsibilities so as to avoid overreliance on one company alone?

A: In any climate, workers with portable skills are the least vulnerable when they switch firms. What our research suggests is that portability isn't only determined by what industry you are in, or what particular company you work for, but it's also a result of how collaborative your job is. This suggests that 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 the decision to change jobs carefully, because their major value is in the company they currently work for and the teammates they work with. If they do change jobs, they should make sure that the new employer is invested in their success and will give them 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 order to build a more "portable" career. But do extensive due diligence on an organization before you join it, because rising in an organization might be a better way to maximize your long-term value than frequent job-hopping. And make sure your collaborative efforts take you outside your own team, and get you working across departments and with people outside the firm. These boundary-spanning relationships can help protect your portability—and your value in your current job.

Q: From the point of view of companies that want to attract and retain stars, how can they manage the complexities you have highlighted of portability versus company-specific skills? What could they do to make certain positions less portable while keeping those employees challenged and fulfilled?

A: Many managers will express opinions about whether it is possible to hire talent or not, just as many football fans can argue whether signing expensive free agents is likely to improve their teams' prospects. What our work demonstrates is that the question companies should be asking is, "Under what circumstances can talent be hired, and for what positions?" For those positions where talent must be developed, resources can be applied accordingly. But you would not want to spend those same resources on another position for which talent could more easily or less expensively be acquired.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My colleagues and I have a few other projects ongoing. In one project, we focus on the biases people have when they change employers. In another project, we are trying to determine what companies can do to develop their employees, as well as understand what drives star performance. We have also written a few cases on these topics. One in particular focuses on an event planner who is planning to change firms ("Don Jenkins, Between Opportunities").

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.