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For career progress, company with strong identity trumps individual's performance

August 1, 2009

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

If one is fortunate enough to have two job offers early in one's career, which of two options should one choose -- a high-paying job at a little-known company or a position at a well-known company for lower pay and with less responsibility?
The current recession notwithstanding, such a dilemma is anything but unusual. And, while there is unlikely to be a single right answer for every circumstance, research presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Chicago, Aug. 9-11)  gives a definite boost to the latter of the two options.
The study finds that working for organizations that have strong positive identities has a decidedly "beneficial impact on career progression," an impact, indeed, that "exceed[s] the benefits of prior performance, especially early in one's career."
The report's author, Dan Halgin of the University of Kentucky (who conducted the research as a doctoral candidate at Boston College), cites as examples the tag of "Fairchildren" that was bestowed on former employees of Fairchild Semiconductor or the cachet of "Bainies for life" enjoyed by former Bain consultants or the special status enjoyed by former employees of GE, commonly referred to as "Graduates of Welch U." 
He adds: "The benefits of social identity are especially applicable to industries that are complex due to high turnover. For example, media experts in the high-tech industry have begun to refer to former executives of Yahoo as 'ex-Yahoos' and former employees of Google as 'Xooglers.' " And those former employees gain further by positively "identifying themselves as members of these recognized social categories, which have already caught the attention of media experts and hiring committees. Presumably, the career progression of these category members will be enhanced in the years ahead."
The professor reached these conclusions in an unusual and ingenious way -- through an analysis of the career progression of NCAA basketball coaches."Most prominent among the findings," he concludes, was that coaches who were members of salient "coaching families or coaching trees obtained positions with employers of greater prestige than was the case for coaches who were not members of [such] coaching groups."
Further, the previous won-lost records of their teams was not even a factor in their gaining plum jobs. "Prior winning percentage was not even statistically significant," Halgin comments, "which demonstrates the difficulty of climbing upward from obscurity, even when you've been compiling a good record in obscurity."
The salient coaching groups, he explains, "serve as social identities that order the field...reflecting a lineage dating back to a legendary coach [such as] Dean Smith (the Tar Heel Family), Tom Izzo (the Spartan Family), Rich Pitino (the Pitino family), and Pete Carill (the Princeton Family)...For example, recognized members of the Tar Heel Family include the current head coaches at Auburn, Southern Methodist, the University of North Carolina, and the former head coach of Tennessee...Another long-lived coaching group is the Coach Pitino Coaching family, which includes the current head coaches at Arkansas, Florida, New Mexico State, Minnesota, and Oklahoma State."
The sample used in the study consisted of all NCAA Men's Division I basketball coaches active between October 31, 2001 and October 31, 2007, a period in which there were 282 coaching changes. Through analysis of industry articles, Halgin identified 16 prominent coaching groups that were validated by media experts, identified all coaches who belonged to the groups, and viewed their Web pages to determine which coaches publicly acknowledged group membership. The prestige of schools was gauged by annual rankings from ESPN of the 299 most prestigious Division I programs.
Of 282 head-coach hirings over the seven-year period, 80 were of members of prominent coaching groups, of which 66 publicly claimed such identity. Being associated with or identifying with the 16 coaching groups counted for a lot more in landing a prestigious position, Halgin found, than a coach's prior overall winning percentage. In addition, coaching-group membership considerably outweighed the number of coaches with whom a candidate had worked, the number of wins achieved by the winningest of those coaches, or the prestige of the candidate's most recent employer. It even slightly outweighed the number of NCAA tournaments a candidate's teams had participated in or whether his team had played in the tournament during the previous year.
Beyond being generally well-known, Halgin notes, the coaching groups were recognized for particular styles of play or for such off-court character traits as commitment to academics or to community or to ethical values. "The groups are more than just familiar names," he says. "They stand for something that provides valuable information about what hiring committees can expect from a given job-seeker."
Halgin also investigated whether additional factors beyond being well-known and standing for something positive added to groups' influence on hirings. He found that extra media coverage of the group or its leader did not; nor did the size of a group or the average prestige rankings achieved by group members.
Explains Halgin: "A reporter for the Topeka Journal once wrote that not even European monarchs can trace their lineage any better than college basketball coaches. When you're royalty, an  extra measure of fame and prestige doesn't appear to matter." 
The study, entitled "The Effects of Social Identity on Career Progression: A Study of NCAA Basketball Coaches," was among several thousand research reports presented at the Academy of Management meeting, held in Chicago from August 9th to 11th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has close to 19,000 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting drew more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, careers, technology development, and other management-related topics
Media Coverage:
Reuters. Working for a company with a strong identity. (Tuesday, August 11, 2009).
The Globe & Mail. Status beats record in landing a good job. (Wednesday, August 12, 2009).

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