Originally published on Forbes.com.
The rock band Stone Temple Pilots recently fired their lead singer and founding member, Scott Weiland, because, among other things, he was taking their show on the road without them. “We were in the process of putting our 20th anniversary tour together to celebrate the release of our first album, Core,” explained the band on their website on May 30th. “The plan was for a big tour where we’d perform the album in its entirety, along with some other favorite STP songs. So, you might imagine our shock and disappointment when, without any notice, we learned that Scott had seized this tour for himself as his solo tour, and decided to do exactly what we as a group had planned.”
Scott Weiland was pulling a familiar move. In the mid-1980s Mick Jagger signed a solo deal with Columbia and proceeded to go on tours in which he mostly played Rolling Stones hits. Roger Waters toured The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon without Pink Floyd. Half of David Byrne’s set list from his last solo tour, in 2009, consisted of Talking Heads songs.
What these musicians did was bank in on their star power. They figured that they could recreate the sound of their band with hired musicians and get more money and attention, all without having to deal with irksome band dynamics. Stars go solo when they let their ego get the better of them, when they attribute their band’s success solely to themselves. They become impatient with other band members’ attempts to contribute to the creative process. And they become resentful when other band members become media or fan darlings. So they go off on their own.
The underlying logic that stars are the key to their team’s success and therefore can recreate their success elsewhere is what drives companies to poach “A players” from their competitors. Companies bring in star performers to improve their strategic position. It is true that when it comes to highly complex or creative work, stars outperform average workers by up to 127%, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. But can the stars recreate that level of performance in a different organization?
Not likely. Stars need their teams. They are more dependent on the people and organization that facilitated their rise to stardom than they realize. They became stars in the first place because of the unique configuration of people and circumstances around them. Without their teams, they lose their star power.
Boris Groysberg, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance, conducted numerous studies exploring whether stars recreate their exceptional performance when they move to new organizations. One study tracked the careers of 1,052 star stock analysts who worked for American investment banks over the course of nine years. They defined a star as an analyst who was ranked by Institutional Investor magazine as one of the best in the industry. They then tracked the star’s position on the rankings to determine how moving from one company to another affected performance.
The study found that when a company hires a star, the star’s performance plunges and, for the most part, never returns to its original level. Clearly the stars were just as intelligent, experienced, and capable in their new companies as in the old ones. The problem was that the stars – and the people hiring them – were wrong about what made them stars. It wasn’t just their innate abilities. It was also the people and organizational system that supported them.
The only situations where stars recreated their performance elsewhere was when their success did not depend on their team, such as star hairdressers or punters, football players whose main task is to kick the ball. But those kinds of stars are rare. More common are star performers who, without the teams that helped them shine, will not shine as brightly again.
Top performers are more like comets than stars. Companies expecting that a “miracle worker” can come in and fix their problems will be disappointed. And stars – whether on the rock stage or in business organizations – who think they can do better on their own might be frustrated to learn that their success was not strictly their doing. This is why most solo side careers are short-lived, why Chris Cornell reformed Soundgarden, Frank Black reformed The Pixies, and David Lee Roth came back into the Van Halen fold.
Are there any situations when stars are portable? Yes. Stars like Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Paul Simon became tremendously successful as solo artists because they steered their solo careers in different directions than the bands they came out of. For these stars, going solo was an opportunity to do something else. And, like Michael Jordan leaving the Bulls to play baseball, it made sense that to do something else they needed a new team. Sting now performs only a handful of Police songs at his shows and Paul Simon only plays a few Simon and Garfunkel songs. Peter Gabriel hardly ever performs songs from his old band, Genesis.
In Stone Temple Pilot’s case, Weiland’s mistake was not only overestimating his role in the band’s success. He also made the mistake of angering his band mates so much that they fired him. He didn’t tell them about the solo tour from an advertisement; they found out about it from an advertisement. When stars leave their teams, they may find out they are no longer stars. But the greater loss may be hurting their relationships with the people who made them stars in the first place.