Do Employees Make Your System Smarter? Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Marissa Levin
Marissa Levin
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What’s the smartest and strongest aspect of your organization? Is it your employees, or is it your organization?

If you follow the thinking of the spectacularly failed Enron Corporation, who religiously subscribed to the belief that having better talent at all levels is how you outperform, then you put most of your stock in the strength of your people.  At the height of its hiring frenzy, Enron was bringing on 250 newly minted Ivy League MBA’s a year, grossly overpaying them, giving them Carte Blanche to pursue strategic ideas, and catering to their every professional demand.

Enron’s approach to hiring was a response to McKinsey & Company’s “War for Talent” after Enron hired McKinsey and paid them more than $10 million in one year to consult on how to build a successful organization. Not coincidentally, Enron’s executive team came from McKinsey. 

Flip the coin over, and for a moment, consider the idea that an organization’s strength comes from its systems, rather than its people. Now, before rumors get started, let me say that in no way am I minimizing the tremendous and essential value that employees bring to organizations. At Information Experts (, the level of intelligence, creativity, passion, and innovation that employees bring to work everyday is precisely why we have been able to grow for the past 16 years.  However, what enables them to shine and progress is the system in which they work.

One of my favorite commentaries on this discussion is Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Talent Myth” which was published in The New Yorker on July 22, 2002 (

Gladwell highlights the fact that there is virtually no correlation between a high IQ and occupational success, and discusses the dangers of creating what I personally refer to as a “hero mentality.” A “hero mentality” occurs when the success of an organization hinges on a handful of people, rather than being driven by strong inter-related processes and a robust infrastructure.

Seth Godin recently posted a blog entitled, “I Couldn’t Have Done it Without You” ( It struck a nerve because I’ve been burned in the past by being too dependent on key people to move Information Experts forward.

In Seth’s post, he suggests that those upon which the organization depends may find the dependency to be threatening. As the owner, I find the situation of dependency to be threatening. I suppose the employee that bears the weight of a project’s success can find the pressure to be daunting. But think of it from the owner’s perspective… to be so dependent on key performers is really scary.

In my experience, hiring great people and then spreading the weight around the organization, while concurrently  building a strong, process-centric system is really the best path to success… an interdependency between the most important aspect of an organization – its people – and the system that supports them. People are only as strong as the organization it supports, and an organization is only as strong as its systems.

When looking at your own organization, where do you direct your energy… towards strengthening your people, your systems or both? Would love to hear your thoughts on this, and how you continuously strengthen your organization.  


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