The title was not intended to be a tongue twister but if you say it a few times fast enough it would make one think that it is. Whilst the difference between "a team of superstars" and a "superstar team" in intuitively visible and most of you would get the gist of it, this article is an attempt to delve further into the stark difference between the 2. For this we won't use the traditional divider showing a for and against comparison - we'll go manifesto style:
Individuals over teams
Overconfident individuals over confident individuals
Complacent individuals over industrious individuals
'I' shaped people over 'T' shaped people (will soon write an article on this)
Roles over responsibilities
Leaning towards autocracy over leaning towards democracy
Undermined "lesser-skilled" people over empowered "lesser-skilled" people
Manager over leader
There's no debating which one is which and just in case you haven't figured - it is "a team of superstars over a superstar team".
We're going to attempt to explain this using some facts from the 2010 soccer world cup. Why soccer - it's a global game and the audience for this article could be from anywhere on the globe. E.g. Cricket or Australian rules football (AFL) would've been difficult to explain to people who do not know about these games.
Statutory declaration: Firstly, I do not mean to offend anyone or any team through this article. I'm just using this this as an example to educate people about what a great team looks like and why it consistently wins.
Secondly, a superstar does not necessarily mean they're an 'A' player. In most instances it's self-assumed.
Team of superstars
England had an absolute cracker of a squad and their seeding reflected it. They were seeded 7th in the tournament. The picture on the left is what the top 9 teams (except South Africa - host nation) seedings looked like (ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_FIFA_World_Cup_seeding).
Well, one can argue that they deserved either a higher or lower seeding, but this is what the experts agreed upon.
There's a number of factors that go into assigning a seeding for a team in a tournament, specially one as big as the Soccer World Cup. It's beyond the scope of this article but a simple explanation is that a number of parameters are looked into: previous year rankings, recent track record, recent victories, etc...
Now let's take a quick look at the players in the squad. Just take a look at the superstars: Cole, Ferdinand, Terry, Gerrard, Lampard, Walcott, Rooney. Wow! the cup is ours, would've been almost every English team supporter's reaction.
Their coach, Fabio Capello, selected this squad and IMHO who wouldn't. These players were the best of the best. Amazing club soccer track records, had die-hard international support and fan base, were paid top bucks, probably had all their whims and fancies taken care of, had outstanding star appeal, I mean the list goes on and on...
So, what do you think happened in the World Cup. Hint: find the red box:
Yep, England bombed out and didn't even reach the quarter finals. The way they bombed out (4 -1) leads some to believe they would've lost to other teams in the round of 16 as well had they not faced the German juggernaut, which by the way can be referred to as a superstar team. We'll get to that in a bit.
Why do you think they bombed out. Sure, there were reasons, some of which are explained here, but the following could possibly have played a part too:
Over confident players
Complacency in players and management
Overworked and tired players
Players not working as a well oiled unit
Players given a role (defender, forward, etc...) but did not understand their responsibility (pass the ball around more frequently, find more gaps in the opponent's defence, rest before a big game, etc...)
Too much focus on a few superstars; almost deemed irreplaceable
Superstar status of players possibly overshadowed other more skilled and responsible players and the management team
Great coach (leader), but not empowered enough amidst all those superstars. Please note this is not servant leadership, we're talking about empowered leaders (will soon write an article on this)
There must be more reasons but you get the gist of it. Can you see the pattern in the above points. The "team" is missing. It's all about the individuals and how amazing they are and what they individually can do, but when you represent your country at the grand stage like the world cup you need to work as a team.
Now let's take a look at what a superstar team looks like. For that we'll have to fast forward 4 years to the 2014 soccer world cup. Hint: find the red box:
Let's rewind back to the 2010 world cup. Even though Germany didn't win the 2010 world cup, they were a class act and played some of the best soccer people had seen in recent times. What they were also doing, unknowingly, was setting the stage for the future as well. They won the 2014 world cup. This is what superstar teams do - keep improving and making sure they're at the top of their game in the future as well irrespective of how good they currently are. This eludes to a very important fact - there's nothing called 100% agile or fully agile. It's a myth (feel free to read my article on these myths). There's always scope for improvement no matter how good you are.
Germany (the superstar team) beat England (the team of superstars) by 4 - 1. The German squad was full of younger, lesser experienced players, brimming with confidence, hope and skill and backed by an empowered leader Joachim Loew, their coach, and most importantly they were a solid team. The way they passed the ball around, found gaps, long passes almost always found a German player, etc...
Have a read of what Loew said about his team selection and the players here. The team did not have too many superstars, yet they beat the likes of England and Argentina (my personal favourites for the 2010 world cup).
What do you think happened there:
Industrious players and management that trusted each other
Well oiled unit - everything just worked together
Players given a role (defender, forward, etc...) and responsibilities (pass the ball around more frequently, find more gaps in the opponent's defence, etc...)
Focus on the team; extras ready to go if required
Superstar status of the odd player did not overshadow other "lesser-skilled" and responsible players and the management team
Empowered coach (leader)
You can clearly see the difference between the English and the German sides and it reflected in their performance, in this case it reflected in the 2014 world cup performance as well.
Should we hire superstars
Yes absolutely. The comparison above may have lead you to believe that a team of superstars is probably the worst team to be in. Well, it may not be the best if you're not a superstar and also not the worst one out there. There's a lot more worse things that could happen to you in a "really bad" team. But a superstar as an individual can be a great asset for your organisation. There's no denying the value they bring to the table in terms of getting things done no matter how complex.
It's not all doom and gloom though. Let's look at the brighter side:
one learns a lot while working with modest and humble superstars
some work just needs a superstar to get done, there's no way around it
a great superstar can provide the edge you've been after
a supportive superstar can be a massive morale booster
a empathetic superstar can become a fantastic leader
a collaborative superstar can make teams win
The essence here is hire the "right" superstar. They already know the subject - probably way better than others in the room who are interviewing. So, hire them for the qualities that your organisation deems "right". Collaborative, empathetic, modest, humble, supportive are some of the cultural and behavioural traits to look out for.
What does a superstar team look like
It's like a car - ok a nice car that's in good shape. Every part of the car is in sync with the other part and moves completely in tandem without disturbing the other parts. The engine, the wheels, the steering, the lights, etc... all work as expected when things are normal and change their course of action when an unexpected event happens. For e.g by suddenly jamming the brakes the wheels stop moving, the tail lights switch on, the speedometer goes down to 0, etc... Everything just seems to work. All these parts are the people that make up a superstar team.
To build a superstar team try and get people together who:
Believe in the team's / organisation's vision
Speak and understand the same language - ubiquity
Trust each other
Encourage each other
Learn from mistakes
Continually improve (they do not aim for 100% agility because there's no such thing, it's just how they work)
Always believe there's room for improvement
Listen, challenge and work with their leaders
Share knowledge and cross skill each other ('T' shaped individuals)
Have appropriate skills as a collective
Have an empowered servant leader - (please read my article the "disempowered" leader here)
How to create a superstar team(s)
Culture culture culture and then skill, unless there's no other way around. You would probably need to change your hiring strategy. I cannot think of a better example than Australia Post (DDC). Special thanks to Cameron Gough, Carl Rigoni, Claudia Lajeunesse, Daniel Fajerman, Idan Manor, countless developers and agilists and HR (way too many names to mention) who made their hiring strategy a reality. Is it the best place to work, probably not, but it's certainly up there and I would not hesitate to recommend it to others looking for a job - I'm writing this based on the experience I had from 2014 - 2017.
The key learnings of a hiring strategy that I've learnt over the years from various organisations and teams and people are:
embrace micro cultures (team) within a macro culture (organisation)
hire for good cultural fit, one that supports a micro and macro culture
don't be afraid to hire superstars as long as they're a cultural fit
give preference to 'T' shaped people
hire servant leaders and ensure that they're empowered
most importantly it's about the team. Let no one ruin that good thing.
Please share your experiences by commenting on this article. Would love to incorporate suggestions and ideas.
Happy days and happy learning and sharing :)