What Makes a Super Star Employee: Bell Labs, The Best & The Relevance of the Karate Kid

We all talk about hiring the best and wanting to work with the best.  I know I have heard this from nearly every employer I had ever worked for or with.  When I hear firms espouse this, I find more often than not that they have under defined what being the best means.  Best often gets truncated and diluted down to a set of bullet points on a job description that say things like:

  •  Three to five years’ experience in ….
  • Preference for those that graduated from an Ivy or Ivy Plus university
  •  Must possess a Certificate of ….

Other times, the list of must haves look like a Frankenstein set of qualities representing an amalgam of the firm’s top performers. These often are piss poor proxies that lead firms to inferior hiring decisions or under investment on employee training.  Both approaches implicitly assume that the best arrive at day one with the knowledge and skills needed to be a top performer. The reality is that proper training creates your very own Dream Team. 

On the off chance you do not believe me, then it might surprise you to read that one amLaw 100 firm discovered a few years ago that the lawyers with the highest billable hours and longevity with the firm came not from top ten law schools.  This gave rise to question why they set their starting salaries as high as they do given the market pay was meant to attract graduates from the top 10 law schools.  This analysis caused the law firm to ask what created these top performers as many firms have done before.

Robert Kelly's study of Bell Labs (aka the Google of the 20h century), gave all of us the crib notes with his study of what created top performers in a firm that was considered best in class. His two-year study ruled out the following traits as the determining factors in being a top performer:

  • Superior cognitive abilities
  • Personality traits like risk taking, confidence, and ambition
  • Social factors like being labeled a leader, and
  •  Historic factors like education and prior work history

Kelly found nine actions top performers under took and can be found in this hyperlink.  While much can be written about each trait, we chose to focus on what Bell Labs and Kelly did with the findings to be most interesting.  Bell Labs created a formal training program to teach these nine actions to employees.  What they found was an increase in performance and productivity in those that had partook in the training course versus the control group.

In order to work with the best, you have to define what that is for your firm, the skills and traits it requires, and then you have to train them. It is funny how a firm could be more successful if they took management lessons from watching any of the Karate Kid movies then trying to Frankenstein a social heuristic of what a top performer is.  

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