Choosing a Winning Team

If we use the body metaphor to describe a team, we should imagine a graceful, powerful, highly coordinated athlete in motion—each sinew and muscle firing and contracting in perfect harmony; each part mutually excelling the other in importance.
In: Column, Teamwork

February 8, 2011

One of my fondest memories from elementary school is playing Prisoner’s Base, our school’s version of Capture the Flag. We would run and run, dodge and twist, feint and sprint for the goal—a huge oak tree at the end of a broad, grassy field. Choosing teams in those days was easy: boys against girls or line up and count off—1, 2; 1, 2... Either way, the sides were usually evenly matched.

As we grew older, picking a team got more complicated. Sometimes the teacher would name two captains, and they would alternate choices. Now politics, peer pressure, and the not-so-subtle influence from the opposite sex began to cloud the process. Do you pick the cute new girl with pigtails and braces or your best friend who has a cool mini-bike but thinks sports are for Neanderthals? (He became a Ph.D. in biological statistics. His published papers are so hard for me to understand that it makes me want to hit something with my club and go play with fire.)

In the real, grown-up world, assembling a winning team is one of the greatest keys to organizational success. Winning the Super Bowl, sport's most over-hyped event, is a case in point. (Did you notice that most super-expensive commercials were bought by snack food and carbonated drink manufacturers? Hmmm. Throw in some beer, and you’ve got a complete athlete’s training diet.) Becoming a champion is all about the team, not any one player. The fact that this year’s NFL MVP, Tom Brady, was not in the Super Bowl actually reflects the normal trend. It is the best team, not the best player, that wins the ultimate prize.

Picking a team is not the same as assembling a winning team. The single most important critical success factor is to have the right people in the right job so they complement each other. If we use the body metaphor to describe a team, we should imagine a graceful, powerful, highly coordinated athlete in motion—each sinew and muscle firing and contracting in perfect harmony; each part mutually excelling the other in importance. If you put 11 quarterbacks on the field, who will catch, block, and run? How will you afford the trillion-dollar payroll? Who is going to carry the team clipboard?

A CEO in our peer group has mentioned several times that one reason for a dramatic improvement in his bottom line has been hiring and training the right plant manager. He attributes much of that success to bringing more intensity to the selection process. Here are a few things to consider as you build your team:

  • Have you thoughtfully defined all the qualities and attributes required for each key job?
  • Do you make a battery of proven tests part of your selection and promotion process?
  • Have you engaged professional help to shore up areas that are not your strength?
  • Few people move into a top position fully formed. Do you agree in advance on what to measure during the critical trial period?
  • Waiting to undo a poor people decision is disastrous. Have you pre-agreed on a plan if, despite best efforts, it doesn’t work out so you can move quickly?
  • Do you periodically make deep dives to evaluate your team’s performance? Do you have real synergy or a collection of talented individuals?
  • Do you make relevant, tailored continuing education mandatory? Do you plan and manage the process?
  • Does your team understand working with different personality types?
  • Have you identified high-potential employees and engineered a progressive development plan that includes training and stretch assignments?
  • Are you mentoring your possible replacements?

It takes a lot of time, effort, and some investment to build and maintain a winning team. Small business owners and managers struggle to wear many hats and are hard-pressed to find the time to devote to team building. Consider outsourcing.

Finally, of course, you pick the cute girl! How else is a skinny kid with big glasses going to get noticed? And besides, your super-nerdy best friend will get over it the next time the two of you play Risk over the phone.

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