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All-Stars and "A Players": Competition Undermines Cooperation

A second factor that impedes the crisp execution of strategy is internal competition. Many executive groups include people who are best-in-class functional experts or general managers who possess sufficient political savvy to advance. These "A players" may act like a group of baseball allstars relying on their individual technical expertise but lacking real teamwork. In an organization with such an all-star culture, A players rise to the top and peers may compete with each other more than they cooperate. At the top of the organization, the competition becomes even more fierce—with higher stakes, bigger egos, and fewer players. Such a competitive attitude at the top sets the tone for peer relationships deeper in the organization. In fact, lateral peer relationships can be among the most challenging to cultivate. Generally, there is no great incentive to develop peer relationships since peers have no formal power over each other. They do not decide on promotions, recognition, or compensation for each other. Even in organizations that use 360-degree feedback tools as part of their feedback loops, there is little one can do to openly influence the career trajectory of a peer. Often, they are rivals in the quest to succeed their boss or to win another coveted role. Indeed, some leaders may in fact encourage peer competition. As one chief executive officer put it, "I like it when people are competing for promotion . . . it keeps their heads in the game." A consequence of such competition is that peers may believe that another's success will come at their own expense, so there is little reason to help that peer succeed. Rather, there is often more reason to undermine a peer's success.

Furthermore, the A players at the top may show little appreciation for the B players deeper in the organization. Some management experts, however, suggest that B players may be the glue that holds organizations together during difficult times.3 These valuable and steady B players may become disenfranchised over time, though, if the all-stars operate in their own self-interest rather than the good of the organization and if that behavior is rewarded and recognized.

Executive Turnover Breeds Cynicism

As the tenure of executives has declined4 and turnover has once again spiked, many organizations have suffered jolting changes in direction and strategy. For example, in 2011, the (former) CEO of Hewlett-Packard (HP), Leo Apotheker, announced the sale or spin-off of HP's PC division as a major shift in business strategy. Within months, Apotheker was out and a new CEO, Meg Whitman, reversed the decision. We can only imagine the turbulence and the resulting tug of war these decisions must have wrought inside the organization.

So common was turnover and change in strategic direction at the top in another large organization that the middle managers, in a dark and not-so-private joke, called themselves the "We-Be's"—as in "We be here when you are gone." In another organization, one of us watched five CEOs come and go in a two-year period, each with his own take on what the organization needed for success. The managers and employees became increasingly disenchanted and disengaged as the door at the top revolved. This kind of cynicism undermined teamwork and commitment, evidenced by the exodus of many talented people and the eventual consolidation with another company.

Some organizations, however, have made stability and constancy of purpose critical for success. Apple, over several years, has consistently communicated its direction and executed its strategy. Even people outside the firm can articulate Apple's primary business strategy—to develop cool, well-designed products that customers do not think to ask for but must have once they see them. Further, most fans of U.S. business know how CEO Steve Jobs introduced new products—in his signature black mock turtleneck and jeans standing on a stage with the product in his hand. The image conveys clarity and no confusion whatsoever. The fact that these messages and images (will) live on after Jobs's death is indicative of their sustained power and compelling impact.

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