LeBron on Ice, or the Fallacy of the Corporate Superstar

Here's a silly thought for you. Imagine that the Washington Capitals were looking for an edge in the upcoming ice hockey playoffs (that's not the silly part, hold on a second). They get a call from someone, saying "I'd like to bring my talents to the hockey rink." The caller reveals himself to be basketball superstar LeBron James. Should they sign him?

Unless the Capitals were looking for a publicity gimmick, the answer would be a very clear no. While James is a once-in-a-generation basketball talent, the odds that he would be even passable at professional ice hockey would be quite low. The skills required to play hockey are very different from those required to play basketball. He would have to train in completely different ways, and unlearn many of the things that have allowed him to succeed at his chosen sport.

That's no dig on James. His skills and work ethic suggest that it would be reasonable to assume he could have been a world-class ice hockey player if he had dedicated himself to the sport as a youth. Further, I am quite confident that he'd be far superior to the vast majority of the population. But he wouldn't necessarily be world-class. Being a superstar at one sport doesn't make you instantly great at any athletic event, particularly those that involve a different skill set.

Corporations commit the LeBron-on-ice fallacy all the time. It starts innocently. A company makes the strategic decision to create a group dedicated to the creation of innovative growth businesses. They then start staffing the group. They want the group to succeed, so they pick the superstars — the corporate athletes that have demonstrated success in the core business.

It's a natural thing to do — to assume that someone who has succeeded historically will succeed in this challenging new assignment. But a range of research has shown how successful entrepreneurs generally act differently from successful operators.*

All the techniques and mental tricks executives develop over time to run established businesses can be completely counter to what is needed to successfully innovate. Your best performers have demonstrated mastery over a task that might be completely irrelevant for the task now facing them.

That doesn't mean that the Corporate Superstar has no role to play in innovation. Certainly many of the skills that help a leader succeed are highly relevant to the pursuit of new-growth business. And some superstars have very innovation-friendly experience, such as launching a new product, opening up an office in an emerging market, or operating in a constrained environment. But I urge companies to consider three things.

  1. Look for the aliens. Software entrepreneur Donna Auguste used this term when we worked together helping a newspaper company formulate new growth strategies. Auguste said the people at the fringes of the core business can often be the best sources for creative ideas. They don't quite fit the establishment, and that's exactly what you want.
  2. Bring in outside perspectives. Online video provider Hulu is a rare example of a traditional media-backed startup (key investors include Disney, News Corp and NBC Universal) that has created a viable, growing disruptive business. One thing Hulu's parents did right was hiring Jason Kilar, who had experience in the online world at Amazon.com (interestingly, Kilar recently has been butting heads with his corporate sponsors).
  3. Send the team to school. Innovation muscles can be built. If you can't find the aliens and don't have the time to bring in outsiders, think about ways you can consciously improve the team's innovation skills through applied training. For example, have them work together to experience the end-to-end process of creating a new business, even if it has nothing to do with your company or industry.

Performance is contingent on circumstance. It is always worth asking whether you have really created a team whose capabilities align with the task at hand. If they don't, but they have time to develop them, that might be OK. If they don't and you are about to enter the Stanley Cup finals, be prepared for a bruising.

* See specifically High Flyers by Morgan McCall, A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, The Innovator's DNA by Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen, and recent research from Saras Sarasvathy from the Darden School of Business.

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