Third Place is You’re Fired

Interesting article on Slate about the impact of Tiger Woods on other golfers' performance. One would assume that playing with a superior golfer would raise the performance of other golfers. But evidently, when that golfer is Tiger Woods, so superior at his game, the reward structure is reduced and incentive to win is also therefore reduced.

At work, we all may be looking to hire the "rock star", but really, could it be best to hire just strong performers? When evaluating performance, those that work hardest will likely be those that feel they have a chance at being the best. When there's one standout, it could potentially be demoralizing for the tier two (and still very productive) performers. It's interesting to think that for the good of the team, you may not always hire the Tiger Woods (and seriously, who wouldn't just hire him anyway?). I think that the successful manager, when given an opportunity to hire someone exceptional, would start to think about whether they could use that person to raise the collective performance level on the team.

Comments (26)

  1. htd says:

    I think that ‘rock star’ should be promoted into tech lead, group lead position quickly. It’s fair, it’s the best position for them and it’s good for the team according to what you just said.

  2. Ben R says:

    I think it depends on the kind of job. In an independent sales position, yes you want the star performer.

    If you’re talking about a team that needs to work closely together, you may can hire the best person as long as sharing and teaching others is not a problem.

  3. HeatherLeigh says:

    htd – well, it would seem fair, for sure (assuming that we are talking about a tech team….which I don’t know that much about). But what would you do as a manager if, by hiring this "rock star", the overall production on your team went down? Could be an interesting problem to have.

    Ben R – agreed to some extent, as long as people are rewarded based on sales alone, regardless of what their peers are getting.  X in sales menas Y in income, then yeah, I would agreee that is fair.

    Agree also on utilizing the hot shot for sharing/teaching. Though, I do think that to some extent, it’s not about learning and it’s more about personal motivation. It’s hard to teach someone to be motivated.

  4. In some cultures, rock stars are revered and the world revolves around them.  The Mac world has room for just one rock star.

    Rock stars working on their own often create groundbreaking software: Ray Ozzie would be one, and Dan Bricklin is another.  Of course, there’s a difference between "rock star" and "visionary"!

    The key is to find the right team for the rock star, and sometimes the solution is to develop a team with the rock star as the foundation and a collection of young guns eager to sit at the feet of the master.  The problem is that this approach, while great for prototyping, isn’t always practical for production.

    Managing a rock star can be harder than understanding quantum physics: a good manager wants the star to keep producing without upsetting the team’s cohesion.  It’s a good problem to have!

    The best addition to any team is is an individual top performer who improves the performance of the rest of the team.  Sometimes a team will know where they’re underperforming and may, for example, seek a database rock star to handle gnarly performance problems.

    If you’re a rock star, be modest and be gracious.  Don’t talk about yourself; let your work speak.  If you’re that good, others will talk about you.

    I’ve been a rock star and I’ve played rhythm guitar.  What matters to me is the music the band makes—we all hear the same applause.

  5. HeatherLeigh says:

    Reeve – Wow…well said!

  6. wine-oh says:


    Have you heard of this new site called where companies pay people for interviewing? If you want I can send you an invite to it as its still in Beta. It was released yesterday. It got alot of press and traffic to the site has made it perform sluggish. But the concept is interesting and I’d be curious to  see if a recruiter like you would use a tool like this.

  7. HeatherLeigh says:

    Wine-Oh, Yeah, I have heard about it. I have an initial reaction to it which is that we aren’t paying people to interview with us. We want to interview people that are interseted in working at Microsoft, not people who are looking to make a little extra cash. I find the concept a little distasteful, actually.

  8. Very interesting dilemma to have, but I suppose it depends on the definition of Rockstar. I think that a real Rockstar would make an effort not to make the others look bad and thus, not demoralize them.

    I remember learning this lesson when I was about 15 and working in a warehouse when one of the more senior guys came and said: "Hey! Don’t work so fast! You’re making the rest of us look bad!!" I’m sure he was [sort of] joking, but I never forgot the lesson.

    The other thing I wondered is: Would a team of strong performers be negatively affected by a Rockstar? I can see how average people may be discouraged, but strong performers are motivated/demotivated by different things…

  9. Wine-Oh says:

    I agree and thanks for your take on it. I signed up just to see what happens from a prospective interviewee point of view. But through the process, I was wondering why a company would sign up. I would think they would not be able to qualify a candidate as well as through other methods. At the end of the day I think it hurts both the company and the interviewee. There could be those serial interviewees out to make a buck, thus resulting in lower credibility. Companies already have successful methodologies of how they recruit. I think this is a gimmick.

  10. HeatherLeigh says:

    Yep – agreed. Only way I could see it working for a company is if they have no employment brand to speak of and need that hook to get candidates to even look at them.

  11. HeatherLeigh says:

    Ian – I think that some Rockstars don’t intentionally make others look bad. It’s just that they are so good that others pale in comparison. I don’t relaly think there’s intent there, necessarily.

    I would have fired that guy in your warehouse. The best thing for the business is to get maximum productivity. That guy was hurting the business for his own benefit.

    Re: the stroing performer to rock star thing…it depends on the people, the einvironment/culture, the reward structure, etc.

  12. When presented with an opportunity to "hire the best" but instead you go for "strong performers," how do you feel when the competiton then lands the "rock star?"

    Julie for WOW!

  13. Rick Pennington says:

    Well, it really depends on the secondary skills of the "Rock Star".  I am assuming that by gaining the label of "Rock Star" someone is outstanding at performing their job duties.  The hypothetical manager need not worry about those. But how does this "rock star" interact with others? Is the person a "people person" that can interact with others well? If so, hire them, hire them right now, because they will lead your org into another level and probably move right up the chain of command.

    The problem with the workplace nowadays (and, judging from Mini, Microsoft is no exception) is that people believe that just because you are great at doing x, you can lead other people in doing x.  Usually, leadership and x are two entirely different skill sets.  Its why there are a lot more poor managers in the world than good ones.

  14. HeatherLeigh says:

    Well, I am sure there’s some of that everywhere. I have seen a significant investment recently in management excellence training. I did that one 4 day class and it was really awesome. Did I meet some people where I thought that they might be better ICs than managers? Sure. But hopefully their manager saw something in them that made them think that management was a good path for them. People here do move back to IC roles from manager roles for any of a number of reasons. But yeah. It’s imperfect.

    We have developed better career path options for senior ICs. So people don’t have to go into management to move up. I find managing people really challenging (mostly bc it’s realtively new for me) and I’m trying to learn all I can about how to be a good manager. But at some point, I could see taking an IC role if it was something that rounded out my skill set or that I found particularly interesting. But def. want to put my time in here first to give myself an opportunity to learn.

    So anyway, I have seen it both ways and we are doing things to get better at getting the right people into mgr roles and equipping them to be successful.

  15. Rick Pennington says:

    Heather, in my experience, the best managers are those who are able to balance three things. One is the realization that the people you are leading are people, and they have feelings, emotions and problems just like any other person.  People don’t necessarily look to you to solve or fix the issues, but recognizing them goes a long way towards earning the respect of those you manage.

    The second balancing act comes in the form of integrity.  People that feel that their managers stand behind the decisions they make (unless they are horrendously stupid) and are willing to go to bat for them when the ca-ca hits the fan (which it inevitably does at least once) make the most productive employees.

    The third and final balancing act is the needs of the organization. A good manager is able to advocate for org needs and supervisee needs at the same time.  They are able to make the supervisee feel like they make a valued contribution to the success of the organization while still keeping the org’s goals in mind.  This is actually an outgrowth of integrity, as people tend to respect managers that are able to succeed without burning the managees out.

    I am glad to see that you’re a manager. Judging by the thoughtfulness and humor of your blog entries, I think you’d make a good manager, especially with your focus on learning (the best managers are always trying to improve themselves).  I hope your path takes you to a place you enjoy, wether as a manager, an IC, or something completely different.

    on another topic: I didn’t mean to imply that Msoft had a monopoly of bad managers (even if I do read Mini :-).  It’s just a common misconception in the general workplace that people that are good at their individual jobs must be good at managing others doing the same job.  Unfortunately, people tend to hire people like themselves, so one bad manager usually gets three to four more bad managers promoted before they leave and the cycle continues…  

  16. HeatherLeigh says:

    Rick – great points. It’s mid year career discussion time around here so I am kind of in that mode of thinking what the next step is. Still not 100% sure what I want to be when I grow up. But learning is part of it.

    And I knew you weren’t implying that we have a monopoly on bad managers.That stuff happens everywhere. I just wanted to say that we are aware of the phenomenon and actually doing something about it.We aren’t perfect but we try 🙂 Everyone has a story about a bad manager, right? I’m fortunate in that I have had more good than bad. I guess I just try to emulate the good ones. Still much to learn!

  17. Bal Krishna says:

    Just came across the Notchup concept, and researching that, read a few opinions here. Must say the idea does have potential, and that the Notchup marketing team has done a very poor job in communications, and that when the product does at least have potential.

    For instance, why can somebody not turn interviewing into profit making; well; simply because each company that they interview with, gets to leave a feedback, much like ebay and also contributes to stats for the candidate (If the candidate interviewed, were they selected (a yes or may tell something about the deserving of the candidate), and if they were, did they join or not.

    Again, so much like ebay feedback numbers, these feedback numbers are bound to help the market forces get the right candidate favored over the poor ones, and let the market decide.

    How does that help? Well, this service may never interest senior level managers or the companies interested in pursuing them. Additionally, Heather was right in saying it may not help Microsoft, or a company larger than a few thousand heads. In my view, Notchup could be much more effective for entry and mid level candidates, both for candidates and the interviewing firms.  The fee structure per candidate may deter small firms and managers interview entry and lower mid level candidates without really having an idea of what traits they are looking for (most true for consultants and sales jobs). On the other hand, it also does help genuine firms get more value for money in terms of being more selective, and choosing at their convenience.

  18. HeatherLeigh says:

    The concept of storing any kind of interview feedback in some web-based too, outside of a corporate firewall makes me alittle sick to my stomach.

  19. crawdad13 says:

    Oh my god…  The idea that some of the brain donors that I have interviewed with in my life actually getting to rate ME.  That is disgusting.  No exaggeration, I have had four people walk into a room, none of whom have ever spoken with any other member of the group about what they are trying to accomplish through the interview, and ask me questions – rapid fire.

    They didn’t even look up from their pages of questions, nor did they listen to the questions of the others in the room, so I ended up being asked the same question five different times.  That’s right…one person asked it twice.

    Or how about the company whose recruiter called me unsolicited and asked me to interview for a position marketing to the med-tech world.  I told her that I thought the job sounded interesting but that I had no experience in that vertical, to which she said "don’t worry about it, they are just looking for someone with good general experience."

    Then, when the hiring manager calls me, the first thing he asks is, "So, tell me about your medical experience? "  When I tell him that I don’t really have any, he responds, "What, you’ve never been to the doctor?"  As if this would give me some special insight into the trends in the bio-tech and med-tech community.

    Does that guy get to rate me?  How about the recruiter, can we count on her being allowed to shape my future in any way?  I am already assuming that there are notes on me somewhere that talk about what kind of idiot I AM, virtually ensuring that I will never get another interview with this company?

    Seriously, I think there should be a federal mandate stating that any information written down by anyone during an interview MUST be disclosed to the applicant.

    Also, what happens if I interview someone, then my boss does too.  I like the person, but my boss hates them…does that mean I am somehow compelled to enter into the public record an opinion that completely contradicts my boss?  Even if my boss is a complete douche bag, why would I do this?  So that some total stranger, or worse yet, one of our competitors can use this information against me?

    God, I could go on and on about what a HORRIBLE idea this is, but what’s the point, I’m sure they will find some stooges who think this is a really compelling idea, just as soon as the bugs are worked out.

    I have spent most of the past 8 years doing due diligence on startup companies and ideas like this are the worst because you know there is someone at the other end of the viability analysis who thought this up and thinks it is an awesome idea, but as Heather mentioned, the legal issues alone blow a big enough hole in this concept that it will never float.  Add to them the distastefulness of unqualified HR people making value judgments about the quality of a person’s experience, or even how well they come off in an interview, when they don’t have a clue what it is that person actually does day-to-day and there is no legal, moral or ethical reason that this company should ever be used.

    Now, if there were a confidential way for job applicants to rate and report on their experience in the application and interview process…That would be an idea worth supporting.

  20. HeatherLeigh says:

    Gotta love the rant. What’s worse is that there are some staffing industry leaders that will say I don’t "get it" because I’m not all giddy and drooling over this bad idea. And to that I say be very careful about who you choose as a leader.

  21. Bal Krishna says:

    All the rant and the fears are justified, but I am a big fan of the  normal curve evening things out. For a minuscule population, there may be a bad set of interviewers one after the other, but  a) NO System is perfect and b) that is what is called the chance factor.

    A firm believer in the power of the free hand of the market forces, I would also think in the possibility that candidates (who also should be able to check the feedbacks left for company interviewers by other candidates) may avoid going to a company with a sufficiently large proportion of negative candidate feedbacks. The result may predictably kill the enterprise with bad hiring practices (if they don’t kill their hiring managers that is).

    As for Crawdad’s experience of bad hiring managers, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ship was already sinking and that is why they were hiring in the first place.

    More than anything else, my love for the Notchup model is borne out of the fact of putting an objective number (price) to the candidate’s time and efforts as well. In my precollege days, just too many headhunters seemed to call me for a chat without any idea of what they wanted. In fact, in crawdad’s previous example of the recruiter deliberately ignoring a lack of medical experience, things would have been VERY different, if the recruiter was paying a candidate fee to crawdad. That fee structure would have necessitated a more thorough search for the med-tech company, and prevented a waste of time and resources for both crawdad and the hiring company.

    Yet, given the idea is in infancy, we would get to know more about it only after it has lived for some time. There might be many loopholes in the structure, but in the interest of preventing experiences like crawdad’s, I want to continue hailing notchup.

  22. HeatherLeigh says:

    Well most legal departments of corporations aren’t going to be comfortable with the “chance factor” and I have to agree with crawdad….I have had some people interview me where I had to wonder how they got their job. We aren’t rating movies on amazon…these are people.

    There’s plenty of feedback on companies in the blogosphere. I still can’t help but wonder why an employer would try to motivate prospects to consider them by paying the person to interview. The currency in the interview model is time. Money just dirties it up by introducing a new motive to interview; getting paid.

    I;m not going to come around to the point of view that paying people to interview does anything good for the company. Not going to happen. Companies should invest that money in improving their employment brand.

  23. crawdad13 says:

    wow, I’m not even sure I understand most of that argument.

    I am starting to think that you might work for Notchup (except that they don’t have any employees yet.)

    There are two issues with the Notchup concept:

    1) It is a one way street – interviewees should be able to provide feedback on companies.  This would necessitate hiring managers, rather than HR people, doing the base-level recruiting and interviewing.  For most big companies that is inconceivable, at the early stages, not to mention inefficient.  

    We have all had interviews where we thought to ourselves, "If I could only talk to someone who understands what I do, instead of this recruiter, I could put my best foot forward."  Nobody, except the bottom-of-the-barrel candidates and those looking for entry level jobs, would sign up to subject themselves to even MORE scrutiny by people who may not be in a position to make a truly educated assessment.  

    This seems to me to be the catch 22 of this idea.  There can’t be any of those in order to be successful because when you get out in the world and try to sell this to companies, people a lot smarter than me are going to put you in that box and you’ll never get out.

    2) More practically, judging by the website, the value proposition is extremely weak.  Unless you have ten huge companies and dozens of smaller ones already signed on, pre-launch, in my experience there is very little chance of this company succeeding.  I have seen more raw ideas than this, but I have never seen a worse one succeed.

    I like the numbers and pitch when up against a retained search firm, but not against a "normal" job site.  Plus, the problem with even the side-by-side comparison with outsourced recruiters is that you really aren’t comparing the same level of applicants.

    I also see a problem with the vetting procedure here.  If I am a new person to the site, why would anyone interview me?  I haven’t been properly vetted by the other members of the community.  If I am an experienced interviewee, the question is: "If I am serious about fining a new position, why have there been so many interviews but no offers?"

    Finally, If I have interviewed a lot, been offered many jobs but haven’t taken one, why would a recruiter I interview me because I am clearly only interviewing for the money or to try to gain some insight that I can use against my competitors.

    The rating system, as it is set up right now, doesn’t really guard against any of that.

    By the way:  going back to my previous post, the sinking ship that called and asked me to interview for the job, marketing to the medical space, was a certain huge software company that we are all familiar with and the other company that I referenced was one of the the fastest growing companies in America in 2006, so they weren’t exactly sinking either.

    Plus, I never said I had an issue with Hiring managers, per se.  I have a general wariness of Recruiters, however, because in my experience it is difficult for someone without detailed knowledge of the very specific issues that everyone in my niche faces to ask intelligent questions or even relevant ones.  For low level jobs, this is easier, but when someone has 10-15 years experience, there shouldn’t really even be a gatekeeper anymore.

    It would be like me trying to hire a VP of HR for some big company.  I wouldn’t know what questions to ask to make sure I was getting the specific skills necessary for my company’s situation.

    In the end, I just don’t see it happening for notchup, but I think anyone who puts themselves out there and makes a run at it is a rock star, no matter what, so good luck to the guys that are trying to make it work.  It is not without potential, it just needs some massive changes for it to make sense to me.

  24. HeatherLeigh says:

    I can’t imagine interviewing anyone that would even care about being paid a nominal fee to interview.

  25. crawdad13 says:

    Yeah, but nominal might be understating it a bit.  I went to the site and went through their little wizard…It recommended that I charge $580 per interview.

    Can you ever imagine a time when, given the number of people that your team sources, you would pay that?

    Like I said before, I can see how it is still dramatically cheaper than paying a retained search firm, but when you do so, the idea is that they are vetting the candidates.  It isn’t like you would then have to wade through 10 first round interviews as Notchup is suggesting.

    The math only makes sense in a vaccum.  You can tell this is a company that is being built by people who have never been in the recruiting world.

    The two founders are colleagues from a previous startup and one listed one of his "other" job duties at a previous company as recruiting.

    This is what the site says:

    <I>NotchUp was started by Jim Ambras and Rob Ellis, two managers who have collectively recruited hundreds of candidates.

    On the corporate side, we noticed three common themes in the recruiting process at every company we worked at – significant amounts of time and money are wasted in the recruiting process, key unfilled positions can cripple a company’s growth, and every company wants to hire great individuals.

    As individuals who have interviewed for our share of jobs, we noticed the system was equally broken.

    The recruiting process for candidates is characterized by cold calls and mass emails, outside recruiters that don’t have your best interests at heart, and taking time out of your busy schedule to interview with a company that doesn’t always seem interested in you.

    The only winners in all of this are job boards and headhunters.

    We realized there had to be a better way to connect companies and candidates.</I>

    There is a better way…This is not it.

  26. HeatherLeigh says:

    Yeah, agreed. The solution they came up with doesn’t address the issue. How about they focus their attention on an effective applicant tracking system. That would make thousands of recruiters jump for joy.

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