Twinkle, twinkle, little star

Britain’s Got Talent would make a nifty patriotic slogan, for what is – in ‘reality’ (quotes intentional) – the name of a competitive game show that pitches individual ‘talents’ against each other. “England’s Got Talent” might have made a good tabloid headline about a month ago, but would now have the appeal – at least to the footie minded – of stale lager. Which illustrates one central conundrum of modern culture: the ‘star system’. Evolved in Hollywood, it might be perfectly adapted to the entertainment industry, but most occupations are not actually about the luminous performance of individuals. Organisational development is no less a team game than football, and in neither case is the display of either striking talent or overbearing celebrity the real point: the real point is to achieve goals.

The star system shares one surprising quality with a popular conception of the Jesuit wing of the Roman Catholic church: the desire to “get ‘em young”. Our tabloid friends in the UK – like many of our politicians – enjoy politicising education, and the degree of competitiveness in school activities is just one hot topic. The Daily Mail, for example, recently clearly enjoyed running the front page headline, Return of REAL school sports: Tories to revive competitive games in bid to turn nation back into champions. It spoiled its argument a little by then quoting Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, who said:

Sport – whether you win or lose – teaches young people great lessons for life. It encourages teamwork, dedication and striving to be the best that you can be.”

Stephen Uden, Microsoft’s UK head of skills and economic affairs, is a little clearer about one impact of the individualistic basis of the school assessment system – which he finds increasingly perplexing as is it at odds with the rise of online social interaction and collaboration:

The education system is biased towards knowledge and the ability of people to recall, and regurgitate remembered information, whereas technology is promoting the ability to source relevant information quickly. That is what is becoming important among employers such as ourselves.

Problem-solving, good communications and collaborating in teams are happening all the time over the internet, but these skills are not valued in the way that young people are assessed in examinations. Collaborating in exams is called cheating. Yet the first thing we want to know when people come on board here is that they will collaborate.”

Mr Uden is not the only voice recently decrying the impact of ‘the star system’ on life in the modern workplace. Academics and their institutions, it seems, suffer from the effects as much as those they are working to educate and develop. The Canadian Association of University Teachers recently took issue with it, pointing out that a pattern of appointments that at first looked to be merely sexist (as no women were appointed) revealed deeper issues on closer inspection:

But behind these failings lies another that is not so obvious — that is our fetishization of “academic stars.” This is not just the language of the press; two of our new Canada Excellence Research Chair appointees are described as “stellar,” and two as “rising stars,” on the CERC website. The essence of the star system is to romanticize individual performers while (and by) underplaying the contributing role of their teams, institutions, and other support networks.

The prevalence of this system in popular entertainment and spectator sports can be blamed on the blindness of markets. There is no such excuse for its recent institution in our universities, which are supposed to be governed by politicians and administrators.

How wise are the existing Canada Research Chair program, the CERC program, and allied star systems by which our governors have channeled all direct federal funding to post-secondary education since the end of transfer payments in the mid 1990s? Let us count their failings.

Poaching experts from other universities does not produce expertise — it only moves it around. It may boost the research profile of University X, or even of Canada, but it nets nothing in new research. It is basically a high-level form of beggar-your-neighbour.”

Another seven failings are duly detailed, each pointing out that the ‘star system’ that is developing is adversely affecting the long-term health of the institutions it claims to be bolstering. Nor are university’s alone – while we poke fun of the silliness of it while we eat a Delia-approved TV dinner on a Janet Barker sofa in front of Big Brother or I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, the less desirable aspects of ‘celebrity culture’ can establish a negative stronghold in unlikely places. Hamish McRae wrote in this week’s Independent about the virtues of failure, our acceptance of it allows us to learn and move on. In the article, he commented:

Once a business executive achieves such a star ranking he or she not only gets showered with adulation and wealth, but also becomes difficult to control. Sir Fred Goodwin became the star of Scottish banking and was for many years very successful. But when he overreached himself it became hard to rein him back. The result was the catastrophic near-collapse of Royal Bank of Scotland. There was failure, massive failure indeed, and one that could with hindsight have been avoided. But it was a result of business adopting the sporting star system as much as failures of regulation, monetary policy and political leadership.”

Royal Bank of Scotland isn’t the only organisation that has been reviewed in these terms by well-known commentators (who are now, of course, becoming stars in their own right, such is our unceasing desire to elevate – or to be elevated). Malcolm Gladwell wrote a long article about ‘celebrated’ business catastrophe, Enron, in the New Yorker back in 2002. Called (no doubt with an eye on provocative outcomes) The Talent Myth: Are smart people overrated?, it’s a long but thought-provoking read that is difficult to summarise in a pithy sound bite. The following extract, for the purposes of this article, will have to suffice:

The broader failing of McKinsey and its acolytes at Enron is their assumption that an organization’s intelligence is simply a function of the intelligence of its employees. They believe in stars, because they don’t believe in systems. In a way, that’s understandable, because our lives are so obviously enriched by individual brilliance. Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.” 

What’s as significant is that over-pampering the ‘stars’ makes things worse: like filmstars, they ‘start to believe their own PR’, make increasingly poor decisions and show less inclination to take on board new ideas or to learn. It seems that, keen as we may sometimes be to identify and label talent as the way forward, our best plan is to continue to develop, invest in and grow it rather than assuming it can be somehow simply bought.

To quote another example from the world of sport, the following is an extract from an interview between Matthew Syed, BBC commentator and former national table tennis champion, and journalist Tess Vigeland:

Matthew Syed: It’s quite a big sport in the U.K. And yet when I looked around me the other great table tennis players in the country happened to come from my street in a very enormous suburb of a very normal town in southeast England. And I thought to myself hang on a second. I knew enough about Darwinian evolution to understand that there hadn’t been a genetic mutation that had only affected our street and none of the others.

Vigeland: You weren’t surrounded by geniuses on every block.

SYED: Exactly. It was to do with opportunity. And in particular, the opportunity to practice with a brilliant coach in the only 24-hour day club. So all of us, that cohort in that street started out as ordinary table tennis players, but we ended up as extraordinary players.

Vigeland: You cite all kinds of endeavors and famous people who excelled at them. Mozart clocking 3,500 of practice by his sixth birthday. You talk about David Beckham kicking a soccer ball from the same spot for hours on end. So does genius come in here anywhere, or is science telling us that really that is irrelevant?

SYED: I suspect that no matter how long we probe into the DNA of these master performers we won’t find anything implicated in that sequencing. What we will find is extraordinary upbringings.”

One way forward is what is called ‘deliberate practice’ (about which Stubbleblog has an interesting post). That apocryphal 10,000 hours practice can improve anyone’s ability at most things, but how they spend and focus that practice time is important. Organisations that want to develop more of their staff more effectively would benefit from reviewing just how effective their learning and development strategies are, and how lasting the effects of each intervention.

But in a work context, learning and development do not operate in isolation. Reward and recognition systems, performance appraisal and management processes, leadership styles and many other aspects can reinforce both good and bad practice – to that extent that they create inertia that can block the possible positive outcomes of new learning. If the organisation needs effective working relationships and employees who – at every level – facilitate, support and assist each other, its systems and culture need to encourage those behaviours, rather than creating successive generations of ‘stars’.

Remember that sporting analogy. In Fabio Capello’s shoes, you might have been thrilled to have Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard on your bench, but how happy were you after the match?

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