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It’s ordinary people that deliver the extraordinary results
March 30, 2004
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New York, N.Y. -- Companies heavily depending on business superstars rather than ordinary people are heading for a fall, concludes an article in Across The Board, The Conference Board's bimonthly magazine.

"Companies look for unicorns -- mythical creatures with amazing powers -- because they have been told they must," says Adrian W. Savage, President of PNA Inc, a California-based organizational-intelligence consultancy and author of the article. "This is the incorrect way to operate. What really matters in organizational success is how the company utilizes the vast bulk of ordinary people, since that is what it will always have in greatest abundance. The organization that gets extraordinary results with ordinary people will wipe out its competition."

Organizations that transform themselves from good to great rarely use high-profile individuals imposed on the organization according to Savage. The process is driven by a group of dedicated leaders working together, first through the systems already in place and only then by changing those systems if needed.

“The 'war for talent' is a mirage," says Savage. "Over the past few years, some three million Americans have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Most of these people are talented in some way. A select few are more highly talented. But even the most talented person cannot transform a messed-up, misaligned organization into a winner."

Savage says that without first changing the organizational structure, recruiting a different kind of person just increases retention problems.

Organizations that create alignment between the people they've got and the strategies they want to carry out will get spectacular results, says Savage. All that they need is intelligence and the patience to get the structure aligned before they start implementation.


Occasionally, an organization gets lucky and finds a unicorn -- but rarely does it know what to do with its new star, Savage says. It harnesses the unicorn to drag a cart, then wonders why it doesn't handle the job up to expectation. They try to graft this alien growth onto the organization, which proves to be stronger than any individual. The star is later blamed for not changing things singlehandedly -- even though the weight of the organization's systems and tradition has ensured that is exactly what will happen.

A recent Harvard Business Review article explains why companies devote such effort to drafting clever, A-level players: "Most CEOs find that recruiting stars is simply more fun; for one thing, the young A players they interview often remind them of themselves at the same age. For another, their brilliance and drive are infectious; you want to spend time with them."

Most organizations have a great deal of trouble absorbing unicorns, which is why such people usually found their own businesses or stay outside the organizational world altogether, Savage argues. These people are difficult, demanding, clever, and they know it. They don't follow instructions, and they don't like being told to fit in with less able people.

"Organizations are groups of interlocking systems, populated by people," concludes Savage. "Unless the systems themselves change, the most talented and charismatic person, whether a frontline worker or top executive, will have almost no impact on what happens."

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