Most firms have 15% of star players so they must be used well

Companies who perform best are those that treat star talent as the scarce resource it is

Once your leadership has determined who and where the stars are in your organisation, it must make sure business-critical roles are filled with “A” players first. Photograph: iStock

Talent is what separates the best from the rest. The best-performing companies simply have better people. Right?

That's certainly what we thought before Bain & Company launched its in-depth investigation of workforce productivity.

Bain performed detailed organisational audits on 25 global companies. We benchmarked the practices of these organisations relative to companies widely regarded as best in class. To complement this research, we collaborated with the Economist Intelligence Unit to survey more than 300 senior executives from large companies worldwide. What we found surprised us.

On average, 15 per cent of a company's workforce are "A" players, or "stars". The amount of star talent does not differ dramatically between the best-performing companies in our sample (the top quartile) and the rest (the average of the remaining three quartiles).


What does differ between the best and the rest is how each group deploys its star talent.

So what steps should organisations take to make the most of their star talent? Our research highlights five best practices:

Know who the stars are in your organisation

Most companies employ some form of assessment based on performance and potential, typically as a vehicle for determining compensation and career progression. “A” players are employees who score highly in both dimensions.

Know where your “A” players are (and could be) deployed

Knowing who your stars are is just the beginning. You also need to know how effectively they are being deployed. For each star in your company, ask two important and related questions: Where are they currently deployed? Could they perform some other role with the same (or similar) performance?

Identify the business-critical roles in your company

Some roles are inherently more important than others in successfully executing a company’s strategy and delivering superior performance. The best companies identify these roles explicitly.

Treat star talent as a companywide resource

Your star talent can quickly become the property of a single business unit or function unless you have the processes and practices to ensure that these scarce resources are invested on behalf of your entire company, not just the division, business, geography or function where they currently reside.

Ensure that business-critical roles get first dibs on star talent

Once your leadership has the information it needs to determine who and where the stars are in your organisation, it must make sure that business-critical roles are filled with “A” players first, and then turn its attention to roles that are important but less business-critical.

Ever since the start of the “war for talent”, companies have invested billions to attract, develop and retain the very best. Now that war looks like a stalemate: most companies, on average, have the same amount of stars. The companies that perform the best are the ones that treat star talent as the scarce, hard-won resource that it is.

Michael Mankins is a partner in Bain & Company’s San Francisco office and a leader in the firm’s organisation practice.

– Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017