My starting point is this study by biz school professors (unfortunately paywalled) about how power law distributions define employees in sales, scientific research, entertainment, and really much of skilled labor: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/peps.12054/abstra...
In effect, it's common for 20% of employees to be responsible for 80% of a company's productivity.
I'm a writer at Priceonomics, so you can read the blog post I wrote about the research and the topic here: http://priceonomics.com/whats-so-special-about-star-engineer.... I'd love to hear what HN thinks in the context of this thread.
It's a longread. I think the most important points are:
1) You find star performers in many industries
2) Star performers are not inherently more productive - context is important. They are talented but also benefit from the system supporting them. In one study, the performance of 10x Wall Street analysts crumbled when they switched employers if their team did not come with them.
3) If you get obsessed with 10x employees and A players - and lose sight of important points like the importance of team - you will become Enron. Really. Enron lived and breathed the A players motto until their idolizing of "talent" lost all connection to reality. You can find a link to a great Malcolm Gladwell article on the topic in my post.
Stakhanov was held up as the >10x more productive coal miner; however, it's now generally understood that this was the result of a propaganda effort, and he had a team preparing and clearing for him.
This is a common risk in work-rate-measuring systems, how do you account for worker A spending time which saves the time of worker B? Especially in knowledge work, where the old guy/gal who does very little but carries all the oral history of the company in their head can be more important than anyone realises.
But there are a few things about star performers that I see. They tend to pick up the toughest problems and work on them. Importance to small yet important details. Extreme importance to quality, relevance and impact of the problem has on the real work and business scenarios.
In most ways, it has nothing to do with education, talent or skill. These are really good habits cultivated and sustained over time.
The key point from that being that it isn't so much that there are A players, and B players, it is that you only get true stars when the role fits the person. (Stated that way because it is easier to fit work to people than vice versa.)
Rereading the Medium piece now draws me to its relative lack of citation especially in the moral arguments toward the end, with a lot of judgments on a shaky empirical ground.