Identify Critical Roles to Improve Performance

Putting strategy into play requires knowing your organization’s crucial roles and making sure your best talent occupies them.

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Brian Stauffer/

Leaders like to show that they value employees. They proclaim that everyone on the team is critical to the organization’s success. As uplifting as that sentiment is, it simply isn’t true. Talent can be a source of competitive advantage only if great people are in the most critical roles. Having stars in jobs that aren’t critical is just a waste of talent.

It’s accepted wisdom in strategy execution that focused application of concentrated strength — identifying, developing, and leveraging critical capabilities — is required for success. Yet until these capabilities are translated into specific roles, with systems in place to ensure that high-quality employees occupy such positions, a strategy is just an intention. Unfortunately, too many organizations build strategy around the people they have at the time and current skill sets — when they should instead be devising the most promising strategy, developing a better understanding of the roles that will be most critical in executing it, and then staffing those roles with the best available talent. As we’ll demonstrate, applying data and analytics to that problem can help you determine exactly where your top talent needs to be placed.

There are two ways to figure out which roles have the most influence on key results: using data to deduce this from the bottom up and inferring it from the top down. Where the context is appropriate and the data available, taking the bottom-up approach can yield answers that may be surprising. In such cases, leaders must be prepared to let the insights guide their decisions.

Data Reveals the Difference Makers

Data can be used to help tease out both who your current stars are and what positions have the greatest influence on organizational outcomes. It can help identify hidden talent in situations where performance is a team effort and point out roles that may be much more important to success than leadership has realized.

Take soccer: There is much debate around which positions on the field are the most valuable. Forwards, including strikers, are the primary scorers — they capture the limelight as well as the largest salaries by producing goals. The top 50 highest-paid athletes worldwide include six soccer players — and they are all forwards — according to a 2023 Forbes report.

Since soccer is a low-scoring game, every goal matters — so preventing an opponent’s goal is an equally crucial contribution.



1. D.A. Garvin, A.B. Wagonfeld, and L. Kind, “Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter?” Harvard Business School case no. 313-110 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, April 2013).

2.Breaking the Grass Ceiling: Why the Bundesliga Is the Go-To League for England’s Frustrated Youngsters,” Bundesliga, accessed July 21, 2023,; and M. Delaney, “How the Bundesliga Is Attracting the Premier League’s Best Young Players and Why It’s Just the Beginning,” The Independent, Jan. 16, 2019,

3. B. Groysberg, “Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance” (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010).

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