As research on the National Football League reveals, sometimes the specific nature of a job determines whether a great performer at one company can replicate that performance at another.
Past research is clear on the benefits of high-performing, or “star,” workers. Star computer programmers, for example, are more productive than average ones by a ratio of eight to one. But reaping the benefits of such talent is not so simple. Say you hire a number of stars. How can you guarantee that they will be able to replicate their success in a new environment — in short, how portable are they?
In the past, portability has been viewed as an attribute of a person, team or organization, but it can also be looked at as an attribute of a position. Specifically, certain jobs do require different levels of company-specific human capital, thus making some workers less portable than others. Consequently, organizations should not think of talent management as a simple “build versus buy” dichotomy. Rather, there are some positions for which they can buy, and others for which they must build. Within investment banks, for example, the retail brokers (who handle individual clients) work primarily on their own. In contrast, institutional salespeople (who sell to major institutional investors such as Putnam, Vanguard and Fidelity) are more likely to perform their jobs in teams. Thus, retail brokers are more portable and can easily be hired from the outside. Institutional salespeople, however, should be developed from within, and efforts should be made to retain them.
Understanding such differences is crucial for companies attempting to attain sustainable competitive advantages that derive from human capital. The authors’ research, which has probed the application of human capital theory to talent portability, should help companies recognize that an entire class of factors — specific roles within an organization — greatly determines the portability of performance. With that knowledge, executives can gain a deeper understanding of the pros and cons of hiring certain star employees.