Why It Has Never Been More Important to Have the Right People on Your Team
For the past 12 years, I have been teaching in the Directors Education Program (DEP) at business schools across Canada. In more than one hundred sessions, I have asked the same question: “What is the most important responsibility of a public company board?” Typical answers include assuming stewardship of the corporation, adopting a strategic plan, identifying the principal risks of the business, and holding management accountable. These are critical tasks indeed, but the board's most important job is this: to make sure the corporation has the right chief executive officer. Governance expert extraordinaire, David Beatty OBE, calls it the “sacred duty of the board.” David’s pronouncement is seconded by investment legend Warren Buffett. “The bedrock challenge for directors remains constant,” he writes. “Find and retain a talented CEO …” And finally, there is management thinker Jim Collins who calls it the “first who, then what” principle. “Great vision without great people,” he says, “is irrelevant.” There are, of course, DEP participants who will get the answer right. And while we should listen to them and the experts, we must be sure to understand why they are right: If corporate directors oversee the wrong people, no matter how good the oversight may be, stewardship, strategy, risk management, and execution plus everything else will not be as good as they could otherwise be or, in fact, much worse. The endeavor does start with the right people; everything else follows.
This insight does not stop with boards of directors. Leaders at every level must make sure they get the right people on their team, and they must constantly ask themselves whether they still do. But this often will not happen. In my experience, managers will go to great lengths to justify, and sometimes rationalize, why they cannot and must not replace a single person who is currently on their team. It may be true that in a tight labor/talent market replacements indeed cannot be found, but it is equally true that with the wrong people on your team any of the following three things will happen: (1) you are doing their work for them and you don’t get to your real work as a leader; (2) your results are not as good as they could be, and (3) relationships and morale deteriorate so that the good people you do have get frustrated and may even leave. They are the right people after all and someone else may be actively looking for them!
So, what to do? Some managers will ask their human resources professionals to develop assessment & evaluation models - Nine Box is popular at the moment, and it is certainly useful. But then they will start critiquing the model and will put energy into developing the perfect assessment tool. As a result, the tool will become ever more complicated - in one engineering company I worked the managers wanted to “upgrade” a performance matrix by creating a three-dimensional cube model! This could not be more misguided. So here is my advice: instead of spending countless hours fine-tuning the perfect model, spend your time actually talking to your managers about their people. Instead of a fancy multi-dimensional, multi-rating, multi-whatever assessment form just ask some key questions and do not put up with superficial answers. Here are questions to get you started but please make sure you come up with questions that work for you in your context.
- What do you look for in people? How do you know whether someone is the “right person?”
- Does this person take responsibility for both, achieving results and building relationships?
- What meaningful accomplishments can they point to? Can they help you move the organization forward?
- Does this person contribute to the kind of culture you want to build?
- If someone were to try hiring this person away from you, would you make a counteroffer?
- Who on your team has shown development and today has significantly more responsibility than when they started (on your team or someone else’s team)?
- In the past 2-3 years, who did you cut from the team?
I am by no means advocating for a “hire and fire” mentality. On the contrary, as the world gets more complex, experience and more time spent in a particular position can add huge value. But if you have never made a hard decision, you should ask yourself why. Also, just because someone is the wrong person for your team, they can well be the right person for someone else’s, and they will be much happier there. In fact, I can point to a list of people who made a move to a better position for them after termination. And I have yet to find a person who would have regretted that they made a difficult people decision.
Warren Buffet says that when directors get the hiring decision right, they need to do little else. It is not quite that easy for a manager but there is some truth to it. Having the right people on your team, people who know their stuff, people who get things done, people on whom you can rely, and people who will challenge you when needed, will take the work stress level down and will allow you to concentrate on the part of your work that matters most and that only you can do. It will do nothing short of changing your work life.
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