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Need A (Much) Better Team? It'll Take Guts – And These Six Steps

How To Build A Rock Star Team That Supports Your Success

Picture of a game of chess

Amanda was bewildered. Frankly, she was scared.

After rising through the ranks of one of the world's most successful tech companies, she had landed her dream job. She was now charged with mission-critical deliverables and leading a big team.

But after eighteen months in the role, things were not going well. Amanda's team wasn't hitting its targets, key talent was jumping ship, she was constantly getting sucked into fire-fighting, and she was working nights and weekends.

Plus, her boss was continually pressing for better results.

In the rare moments when she could find time to assess the situation, Amanda knew she was personally taking on too much. But what choice did she have? The deadlines couldn't wait – and she knew how to get things done, even if her team didn't.

When Amanda's boss had hired her, he told her he had misgivings about a few of her direct reports. He wondered aloud if they could handle the challenges he saw on the horizon. He predicted she would need to up-level the team's capabilities and maybe recruit better talent.

At the time, Amanda was confident she could elevate the existing team's skills, even with increasing demands. They were good people, after all. They just needed a hand getting to the next level.

Since Amanda had the technical know-how and vision to deliver, success was a simple matter of execution, right?

Wrong. The following eighteen months were a whirlwind. Running the daily operations absorbed all of Amanda's time, and she had few opportunities to show her team how to do things better and faster. She often found herself taking projects over the finish line alone because her people couldn't keep up.

But her herculean efforts weren't enough. Nor were they sustainable. Amanda's organization was floundering, missing deadlines, and delivering poor work-product. Morale was nosediving. Stakeholders lost confidence in her team and began working around them.

Amanda knew the situation was dire, but she didn't know what to do. She felt like she was piloting a jetliner straight into a mountainside with no way to pull up.

Technical Mastery Isn't Enough For Leaders

As an executive coach and a former CFO at Microsoft and Novartis, I've seen this drama play out all too often for new leaders quickly scaling a high-performing organization in high-stakes situations.

The root of Amanda's problem was her misunderstanding about how work gets done at scale. Like many up-and-coming leaders, she mistakenly believed that the technical skill she'd carefully honed during her career could continue fueling her professional success.

It couldn't.

While a fundamental element of success, technical mastery is not enough when leaders step into large-scale roles. Highly skilled or not, one person cannot accomplish as much as many people. That's why securing the right talent to share the load is chief among an array of competencies required for successful leadership.

And take note: Recruiting top players is step one while coaching them is step two. Although inspiring and developing a team is vital to your success over the long haul, beginning with the best talent improves your odds exponentially.

Why? Because talented players immediately take work off your plate. Equally important, they amplify your impact by modeling best practices and recruiting other high performers. In other words, hiring top talent snowballs your positive effect on the organization.

How Much Time And Effort Will It Take?

During my CFO career, I built a reputation as an organizational turnaround expert. Companies hired me to turn underperforming organizations into high-impact teams.

At the start of each job, I devoted about 40% of my time to recruiting the best talent I could find – usually for an entire year or more.

Yes, 40%. That number stuns many newly-scaling leaders. They can't imagine how they will ever carve out that much time for recruiting.

On the other hand, I can't imagine how these leaders will succeed without doing so – particularly when they're responsible for successfully positioning an organization in a fast-changing competitive landscape.

Time and the school of hard knocks have taught me: Your success depends on your people's success. Consequently, your top priority has to be getting the best talent in place as fast as you can. It's the twin sister of relentlessly communicating a compelling vision and strategy.

But the urgency to recruit top talent leads to a natural dilemma. Given that delivering results is non-negotiable, how do you both recruit and deliver? After all, there are only so many hours in the day.

One of my CEO clients recently put it this way: "If my people want to spend less time on their night job, they need to get better at their day job." And he defined getting the right talent in place as the most vital element of their day job.

I couldn't agree more. Investing your time and energy in building a great team pays big dividends down the road. It's a lot of strenuous effort now. But the alternative, frankly, is failing at your job.

How To Build Your Rock Star Team

First and foremost, please don't hastily fire your team and replace them wholesale. That approach will backfire over time. And you won't feel pride in your actions or peace in your heart, the litmus test I advocate for crucial decisions.

Instead, take these six steps to set yourself up for success with the best team:

  1. Set your standards. Define the success criteria for your direct reports on a simple two-by-two matrix. For example, you can put technical competency on the vertical axis and strategic proficiency on the horizontal.

  2. Assess the team. Plot your direct reports on your matrix. Someone highly skilled on both axes will land in the upper-right quadrant; someone who's not adept on either, in the lower-left. Notice where each person lands relative to the most desired quadrant. If it helps, add arrows to indicate your perception of each individual's movement. For example, Rohit is currently in the upper-left quadrant, moving toward the upper-right.

  3. Consider urgency. Compare the time it will take to help any individual to reach the desired quadrant versus the time available. This step is crucial. Be brutally honest in your assessment. In my experience, most leaders overestimate the available time and their ability to develop others. Don't fall into this trap, but do remember to factor in several months of recruiting and onboarding time.

  4. Make a plan. If you have enough time to develop someone successfully, go for it. If not, you need to find someone else for that role – and fast. Be sure to factor in recruiting and onboarding time, as in #3. If you need to move someone out of a job, think about how to help them find a new position where they can do excellent work. Don't forget to involve essential stakeholders in your planning process, and make sure your manager is on board.

  5. Communicate the plan. Coordinate with and inform all affected parties.

  6. Carry out the plan. Make sure to treat everyone with dignity and respect. Keep folks apprised of progress and quickly raise the red flag for any significant delays. For everyone's wellbeing, move forward as swiftly as you can.

Don't put off making talent changes because you're afraid of hurting people. While that concern might seem noble, it's not. It is vicious (even if unintentional) because keeping someone in a job they're not suited for sets them up for failure. Instead, help people get into positions where they can thrive and do their best work. Doing so advances everyone's career, including yours.

Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch once asserted, "The team with the best players wins." I agree. Quickly getting the best team in place will make your life easier, and you'll deliver better results sooner. As a bonus, your organization will become a destination within your company – and your industry – because everyone wants to be on a winning team.


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