The question arises because in gardening, context matters. The point isn't simply to find good plants, but to put the right plant in the right place: Japanese laurels at the back of a shady border, lupins in sheltered sunny spots and so on.
Exactly the same is true for people. Very often, successful hires depend not just upon the qualities of the hireling, but the match between him and context: what matters is putting square pegs into square holes.When the match is right, individuals look like great workers and when it's wrong they look like duffers even though they are the same people. For example:
- Tony Pulis struggled to turn Stoke from a team of mediocre cloggers but has done well in saving Palace from relegation.
- Christine Bleakley and Adrian Chiles looked like successful, popular presenters when they were on the One Show, but lost a big audience when they joined ITV's Daybreak.
- Boris Groysberg has shown that "star" equity analysts often see their abilities deteriorate when they move job. "Exceptional performance was more context-dependent than is explicitly recognnized by star performers or their employers" he says.
- Firms who hire managers from General Electric see very variable (pdf) results, depending upon whether the manager's experience is a fit with the organization or not.
- The performance of the same cardiac surgeons varies according to which hospital they work at. "surgeon performance is not fully portable across hospitals" conclude (pdf) researchers at Harvard Business School.
The question, then, is not: is Axelrod a clever chap? It's: is his successful experience with the Obama campaign portable or not? And there are reasons to fear not: UK elections are less fought upon attack campaigns and TV adverts than US ones. Outside of the US context - for example in his attempts to help Mario Monti - Axelrod's record is not stellar.
And herein lies my concern. I fear this hire is another example of cargo cult management - performing the ritual of hiring a star without inquiring closely into whether the star has the right context in which to succeed.
In this sense, Miliband seems still to believe in one of the most noxious aspects of New Labour ideology - a belief that organizations can succeed if only great men can provide "leadership." Such an ideology doesn't just help sustain inequality. It is also empiricially dubious.