Are Great Employees Overrated? #sxsw


The Gadsden flagI am speaking on a panel at #sxsw. It’s called Are Great Employees Overrated?

Who is worth more — one amazing employee or one hundred adequate ones? You’ve heard about the war for talent. If your business is looking to take over the world (or just your industry), how do you first build your talent pool? Do you fill your ranks with free-agent superstars, or foster a team of people whose names will never make the marquee, but are skilled enough to make your company a success? Your choice has implications for your culture, and your bottom line. This debate kicked up a tremendous response on the Harvard Business Review‘s website (, but the jury is still out. What makes the world go ’round — individual brilliance or group genius?

The panel was crafted in response to two articles.

Great talent is awesome… and that’s an obvious statement, right? Unfortunately, we have lots of myths about work in America. It’s nice to think that we’re on the cusp of a fundamental transformation from corporate slave to rogue change agent, but the fundamental change in America is actually happening in the opposite direction.

First of all, let’s look at some numbers.

Work in America looks different if you’re part of the .01% who work at Facebook or the 99.9% who work in a common, low-wage job.

But you say — Facebook hires for unique skills! They need to source and hire technologists and engineers who have passion and talent! Those jobs deserve a giant paycheck! Just like bankers and analysts on Wall Street, kids at Facebook deserve big paychecks and bonuses! Companies like Burger King and Marriott and Sodexo need to hire hire low-wage workers in a high-turnover environment to clean up shit and service guests. The market dictates that those jobs pay a lower average salary.

Well, uh, it’s not that easy. Yes, it is very difficult to hire great software engineers. It is also difficult to hire great receptionists and fry cooks. And what makes someone great, anyway? Is it enough to do your job well or do you need to be passionate?

We will discuss that in Austin.

I hope we can discuss disparity in wages because great talent is not compensated fairly in America. Both the Tea Party and Occupy movements were born out of an increasing frustration around the lack of economic fairness and social justice.

  • The Tea Party believes in a free market solution (to health care, to the economy, to talent)
  • while the Occupy Movement believes that the playing field (at work, in private enterprise, within the government) is neither free nor fair.

In both scenarios, great talent doesn’t have a chance because of nefarious outside interests. It doesn’t matter if you bring passion or skills to your job because someone is always out to fuck you. Maybe it’s the government. Maybe it’s George Soros. Maybe it’s the Koch brothers. But they’re out there.

But that’s another subject for another day, I suppose.

Just know that I’ve been warned that my panel might veer off into areas like performance management, employee engagement, compensation, succession planning, etc. We might talk about whether or not workers are a commodity or an asset. And someone asked — are great employees always great or do they have a shelf life?

Personally, I wonder how we manage the burden of health and welfare benefits. That shit is tied to employment in America. How do we create a better covenant between employers and employees so that people aren’t hanging on to the last vestiges of work in order to have access to a health insurance plan?

And what about the motherfucking war on talent?!

Holy smokes, this panel might explode.

I have been asked to participate on the panel to represent my opinion. And if I may be so bold, I might be there to represent Human Resources the practitioners who deal with this stuff on a regular basis. So I’m asking for your help.

Are great employees overrated? And what else? What else should I make sure to say? What points do you want me to convey, dear readers?

Also, what should I wear? I watched clips from #sxsw 2011 and everyone seem to try really hard to look like they’re not trying too hard. God, I hate that. I might put on some lip gloss.

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