THE BLOG
07/26/2011 06:50 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2011

The Debate Continues: Do You Prefer Superstar Individuals or Effective Teams?

The blogosphere has been all abuzz lately over whether the super-smart individual contributor is better than a great team. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was quoted in a New York Times article saying, "Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better."

This prompted Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company, to argue in a recent HBR blog that superstar individuals are overrated. How paradoxical since Bill heads up a magazine that encourages people to build their own brand and standout among the crowd. Taylor's post sparked a down and dirty discussion over the relative value of a stellar software engineer, for example, versus 1,000 mediocre engineers. It also prompted a rebuttal from Jeff Stibel who argued he would take the stellar engineer any day over a mediocre team, and that there's a reason why CEOs of giant corporations are paid so handsomely.

What I found most interesting, however, was that it was men who posted the majority of the comments in response to these two blogs and a follow-on post by Taylor. The discussion is a living example of the point that men -- or certainly many of these men -- are indeed from Mars: combative, argumentative and desperately wanting to establish their own dominance in the pecking order.

The whole argument is a little bizarre. The use of teams versus individual contributors is completely dependent on the nature of the work. If the work can be done singularly and efficiently by a talented individual, then why set up a team? But if the work is dependent on a number of people playing their part on a larger stage and ensuring that other disparate groups are in on the final product, then you want to assemble the best team.

Let's look at this from a female perspective. All of the women entrepreneurs I've studied embrace teamwork and absolutely depend on it to run their organizations. But more importantly, they know that in order to ignite the creative spark that gets teams to produce value, they must build a culture and value system that treats the individual with respect.

This means not blindly applying rules to all in an equal, unbending and algorithmic fashion. It means focusing on removing barriers to effective communication. It means recognizing people have lives outside of work and allowing them the flexibility to manage both worlds -- often one in the context of the other. It means expecting each person to produce results above and beyond what he or she thinks is possible. It means creating an organization that respects and celebrates differences in people and leveraging those differences to achieve a superior product or service. It means hiring primarily for "cultural fit" rather than skills, which can be trained. And it means being the humble, emotionally intelligent leader who is not afraid to get her or his hands dirty in the trenches.

So what does women's penchant for teamwork boil down to from a performance perspective? A growing body of research indicates that when there is a critical mass of women in the senior management team, companies are more profitable, share prices are higher, R+D teams are more innovative and new ventures are less likely to fail. Moreover, an article in the June edition of Harvard Business Review summarized research indicating a team's collective intelligence rises when more women are included.

But if you're still considering hiring that star, you might want to think again. Boris Groysberg, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, found that male stars who were hired away by another firm suffered nearly a one percent performance drop after moving. In contrast, female stars experienced a modest performance boost at their new firm. However, entire teams that were hired away intact experienced no performance decline. As the research shows, here's yet another reason to bank on women -- whether it's the superstars or female-populated teams.