Jan 2021Brad D. SmithArticle

The Five Principles of Leadership: Principle #3 is People

In an earlier post, I shared a definition of leadership that I believe best articulates what is required for leaders to succeed in the fast-moving 21st Century. In doing so, I foreshadowed a framework derived from more than three decades of benchmarking, learning, applying and adapting. I call it “The Five Principles of Leadership” – Potential, Purpose, People, Playbook, Pay-It-Forward, and committed to devoting the next five articles to diving deep into each of these “P’s”, sharing lessons learned, best practices and pragmatic tips for implementing the model in our daily leadership habits and organizations.

With this backdrop, this is the third of the deeper dive articles – assembling the right people.

One of the best examples of getting this right was the 1980 U.S Men’s Olympic Hockey Team. When college coach Herb Brooks was hired to helm the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team, he set out to assemble a team of college all-stars with a singular goal of uniting his squad against a common foe, the heavily-favored Soviet team. As the story goes, Brooks invited the top players in the country to try-out for the team, and in an unexpectedly short period of time, made his selection. A surprised committee member expressed that Brooks was missing the best players, to which the Coach famously responded – “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones.” The U.S. team went on to overcome insurmountable odds and win the gold medal, delivering what has since been called “The Miracle on Ice.”

So how does a leader set out to build an all-star team, and not just a team of all-stars? The answer lies in three purposeful actions: (1) selecting the right talent, (2) assembling the right team, and (3) cultivating the right environment.


Selecting the Right Talent

There are three characteristics that I have found to be most valuable in a team member: (1) a high curiosity quotient (or CQ), which indicates a “learn-it-all” versus a “know-it-all” mindset; (2) humility, exhibiting a modest view of one’s own importance; and (3) grit, combining passion and perseverance to achieve a goal.

There are best practices developed by world class companies to ensure you are hiring individuals who possess the attributes you seek. The practices are referred to by many names, but they share a common approach to interviewing with equal weighting based on culture fit and craft expertise. The best practices include:

  • Define the core values and critical skills you wish to assess during the interview process
  • Select a “bar raiser” interview panel made up of the best on your team in these areas
  • Draft culture questions for each interviewer to ask, and design a “craft demo” or “case study” to assess mastery of specific domain skills being sought
  • Require each interviewer to complete a one-page assessment, with quantitative rankings (0-10 scale) and a qualitative summary to support the rating
  • Submit the summary to the hiring manager independently
  • Convene the bar raiser interview panel to meet as a group with the hiring manager, reviewing and discussing each summary, debriefing on areas of variation, and making a final determination on the candidate’s qualifications
  • The hiring manager should conduct reference checks personally with a best practice being a singular question – “relative to the best you’ve ever worked with in this type of role, how would you rate this individual on a 0-10 scale and what would make them a 10?”


Assembling the Right Team

There are three conditions that I have found will increase the odds of building an all-star team versus a team of all-stars. They are the team’s commitment to (1) diversity and inclusion, (2) vulnerability and trust, and (3) a willingness to prioritize “we before me.”

Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a choice. Great teams understand the power of diverse and inclusive cultures and work to ensure they role model the best practices of world class companies in this regard: (1) must see it to believe it, (2) set goals (not quotas), (3) measure and inspect progress, (4) operate with transparency and candor, and (5) continuously listen and act on new input.

Vulnerability is a strength, but very few are strong enough to be vulnerable. Trust is created when a zone of safety exists for individuals to be vulnerable, creating the environment to make mistakes and engage in constructive debate while preserving the relationships around them. One of the best tools to kickstart an environment of vulnerability and trust is open sharing of every team member’s personal journey-line, a simple two-dimensional matrix with the x axis representing periods in the person’s life beginning with childhood, and the y axis representing the emotional highs and lows during those periods. At the bottom of the chart, a brief explanation for the highs and lows is provided, summarizing major moments that shaped who we are as individuals, and as team members. Give it a try – it is powerful!

The combination of these things leads to trust. General Stanley McChrystal once shared a definition of trust with me that resonates to this day. He explained that trust is dependent on two conditions being met – benevolence in your own actions and assumed competence in others. Simply stated, “we” before “me.”


Constructing the Right Environment

Knitting the right talent into the right team is only 2/3 of the formula. As a leader, you must then create the conditions where creativity, constructive debate and continuous improvement occur. The goal is to have team members treat every day as Day One, embracing their curiosity quotient, while looking at problems and opportunities with fresh eyes. This can be achieved through the questions a leader chooses to ask. It’s known as leadership through inquiry.

For a leader starting a new assignment, I encourage the completion of a listening tour, whether you are an internal incumbent or new to the organization. Asking internal and external stakeholders at all levels consistent questions brings amazing revelation and exposes patterns that will quickly focus your attention. For me, the three questions I found most helpful in this context have been (1) what is the single greatest untapped opportunity that you see before us?; (2) what is the single greatest risk that we must address?; and (3) what could I do to screw things up?

For day-to-day leadership, it’s important to stay connected to what is happening closest to the customer and the work being done on the front lines. A useful tool is a skip level chat, consisting of 10-12 individuals selected for their willingness to “speak truth to power.” I sought to conduct one skip level per week, asking the following questions: (1) what is better than it was 6 months ago, and why?; (2) what is worse than it was 6 months ago or isn’t making fast enough progress?; and (3) what should I know that you worry I may not know? Again, the patterns and focus areas will quickly emerge.

Leading through inquiry extends to new ideas as well. As Mark Twain famously stated, “a wise man learns from his own mistakes, a genius learns from others.” For new ideas that teams may seek to present to you, I have found it useful to ask the following three questions: (1) who are companies outside our industry who have attempted to solve this problem, and what did you learn from them?; (2) who are teams inside our industry or company who have attempted to solve this problem, and what did you learn from them?, and (3) what are at least three ways you considered solving this problem and begin by walking me through your reasoning for eliminating the other two before pitching me your idea. I think you get the point.

Finally, when presenting an idea, I have found the Amazon best practice of a six-page narrative the most compelling and efficient tool to codify learnings, address frequently asked questions and paint a vision for what is possible with actionable next steps. In the absence of a six-page narrative, requiring all assertions to be “evidence-based” in a discussion is a useful surrogate. The most effective tool I have found to achieve this objective-based discussion is adopting the “because of x (research, experiment, benchmark, etc.), I believe we should do y (idea being advocated).” It requires every idea to be grounded in some basis of reasoning, not opinion.

It is the combination of these practices that I have found increases the probability of building an all-star team, and not just a team of all-stars: (1) selecting the right talent, (2) assembling the right team, and (3) cultivating the right environment.

What approaches have you found to be most effective for building high performing teams?

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