Why you should care
Becoming a successful launchpad is about more than just figuring out how to collect and cultivate top talent. It’s about welcoming the loss of it.
Have you ever wondered how some companies and organizations manage to stay competitive despite a steady outflow of their best and brightest? How do successful enterprises from Saturday Night Live to McKinsey & Co. to top sports dynasties perform at such high levels with an ever-changing cast of key players?
For companies like Google, such questions are far from academic; they are mission-critical, especially as the list of key ex-Googlers grows into a virtual All-Star team that includes Marissa Mayer (Yahoo, CEO), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook, COO), Tim Armstrong (AOL, CEO), Dick Costolo (Twitter, CEO) and many, many others.
Surviving as a ”launchpad” requires more than just being able to recruit and develop new talent.
Surviving as a “launchpad” requires more than just being able to recruit and develop new talent — lots of successful organizations can do that. Rather, as the stories of places like McKinsey and Saturday Night Live attest, what separates a successful launchpad from the pack is how it copes with, and even embraces, the fact that its best people will inevitably leave the nest.
”F*** Chevy”: When Removing a Tall Tree Lets in the Sun
Learning to survive, and even thrive, while hemorrhaging top talent gets woven into the DNA of some organizations very early on. NBC’s late-night comedy series Saturday Night Live (SNL), now in its 39th season, might be the entertainment world’s single greatest success incubator, but mostly because it had to be — just to stay on the air.
In its very first season in 1975, the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” and SNL creator Lorne Michaels faced an existential crisis due to the overwhelming popularity of one of its original cast members, a tall, bumbling comedian named Chevy Chase.
With New York magazine calling him the next Johnny Carson and film deals and other big-dollar projects knocking on his door, Chase left SNL after just one season. Michaels felt betrayed, and the rest of the cast worried whether the fledgling show could stay on its feet absent its mighty oak. But fear soon turned to resilience and, the crew adopted a new attitude, described by one writer as: “F*** [Chevy], we’ll make it even better.”
As Michaels recalled the key transition: “If Chevy hadn’t left, John [Belushi] and Gilda [Radner] wouldn’t have emerged. Suddenly, a very tall tree was gone, and there was more sunshine and lots of other things sprouted.”
Over the next five seasons, SNL’s viewership would skyrocket and its cast would become known as “the Beatles of comedy.” But while its reputation as a “breeding ground for stars” grew, SNL, according to Michaels, “began to be perceived as a step, not an end. It changed the attitude of the people who worked there.”
Feeling burned out and abandoned by the stars he had created, Michaels left the show after the fifth season, only to return five years later when the show was on the brink of being canceled. In handing the wheel back to Michaels in 1985, NBC head Brandon Tartikoff called for SNL to embrace its status as a launchpad, and reaffirm “the idea that [SNL] was an ongoing, perpetual franchise — a comedy factory of talent on television.”
That factory went into overdrive the very next year. Following a mass cast exodus in 1986, Michaels and SNL reloaded, adding Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Kevin Nealon. When Nealon, Mike Myers, Adam Sandler and others left the show a decade later, Michaels brought in Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond and Colin Quinn.
“This is what Lorne does: He replaces people, he develops talent,” says James Andrew Miller, co-author of Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live.
But sometimes it’s not enough just to reload and invest in your new arrivals. You also have to invest in the ones who walked away.
Up and Out: Moving From Ex-Employees to Alumni
McKinsey & Co., an elite management consulting firm founded in 1926, has long been known as a “CEO launching pad.” According to one recent tally, more than 70 Fortune 500 CEOs are McKinsey alums, and at 1 in 690, it was once estimated that the odds of a McKinsey consultant becoming a future CEO are the best of any firm in the world. Tidjane Thiam (Prudential), James P. Gorman (Morgan Stanley, CEO) and Vittorio Colao (Vodaphone, CEO) are among the many notables who got their starts at McKinsey.
And while the firm’s consultants may be best known as “ax-wielders” who help clients downsize their ranks, they’re also fixated on how to grow young talent, particularly their own.
McKinsey’s longstanding “up or out” motto and its policy of rapidly promoting young talent has naturally led to high turnover in its ranks. The firm has also faced a number of external recruiting threats through the years, from the rise of competitors like Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to Wall Street to the dot-com boom. Today, only one in six hires remain at the firm for more than five years.
McKinsey has learned to treat its former consultants not as ex-employees but valued alumni.
Still, even as “up or out” has morphed into “up and out,” McKinsey has largely been able to maintain its status as a prize employer. In part it has done so, as Duff McDonald illustrates in his recent book The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, by doubling down on talent development: requiring weekly mentor-mentee meetings and having partners devote up to six weeks a year to personnel evaluation and non-billing matters.
Most of all, though, McKinsey has learned to embrace being a “leadership factory” and to treat its former consultants not as ex-employees but valued alumni. As Bill Matassoni, CEO of the Glass House Group that worked for both McKinsey and BCG, told McDonald: “BCG asked me how come their alumni aren’t as happy as McKinsey’s. I told them it was simple: When a guy left BCG, they shat all over him and considered him a failure. When people leave McKinsey, they are counseled out and are proud of their time there.”
Having a vast number of proud McKinsey alumni in circulation not only provides a growing pool of potential clients, but also helps replenish that all-important but largely unquantifiable element that fuels a true dynasty through good times and bad: mystique. Sometimes what you need most is a little swagger.
”It’s a ’Cane Thing”’: The Swagger of Selflessness
Rampant turnover comes with the territory in college sports. Which is why it’s so difficult to build anything resembling a dynasty, and why the accomplishments of the football program at the University of Miami from 1983 to 1992 are downright remarkable. During that time, the Miami Hurricanes won four national titles and played for seven, and the roster of star players they produced then and since reads like an NFL Pro Bowl team, including the likes of Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp, Russell Maryland and Ray Lewis.
What Miami succeeded at creating was a powerful and self-affirming institutional ethos — a combination of ’belief and bravado.’
Famed coaches like Howard Schnellenberger and Jimmy Johnson may have brought an expectation of winning to the struggling private school in Coral Gables, but coaching alone doesn’t explain how “the U” became a factory for pro football talent, or how dozens of players from the poorest South Florida neighborhoods were honed into world-class athletes.
Despite the team’s “bad boy” image, what Miami succeeded at creating was a powerful and self-affirming institutional ethos — a combination of “belief and bravado,” as Bruce Feldman describes it in The Cane Mutiny. “It’s a ’Cane thing,’” players would often say. “you wouldn’t understand.”
“A ’Cane’ thing” referred to intimidating opponents with hard play and sometimes questionable tactics, but it also invoked an ethic of hard work and mutual support. It was a swagger of selflessness, of putting your teammate’s development on par with your own. According to former Miami star linebacker and head coach Randy Shannon:
“If it’s me and you playing the same position and I’m the older guy and you’ve got talent, I’m gonna teach you what I know to try and beat me out. I want you to take my position because if you take it, we’ll be a better team. … That’s what ‘a ’Cane thing’ means.”
Will today’s emerging launchpads learn to leverage their own talent drain in similarly creative ways? No one wants to be a pit stop on the way to greatness, but as Google, Facebook and other elite companies try to navigate around key personnel losses, they could learn a lot from SNL’s tree-cutting, McKinsey’s alumni system and the ”Cane thing.”
Whether it’s mentoring, mind games or a tactful blend of both, it’s about recognizing that top talent leaves, and deciding what you’re going to do instead of merely watching it circle the drain.