You Don’t Always Have “A” Players…Then What?

I have long be fascinated by the inner workings of teams.  Starting out early in life primarily on sports teams and school related activities, then transitioning to business, philanthropic and government affiliated organizations during my professional career, I’ve always been interested in what causes some teams to succeed where others perform in an average, or quite frankly miserable, fashion. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate enough to have worked with some amazing leaders and teams.  Combining that experience with a ton of reading and reflection, I have come to believe that a strong leader, heading up a team of good people in a culture that embraces learning, change and evolution in a positive way should be able to out-perform many if not all of their competitors.  Not always of course, and in the case of business, if the business model itself or end market are below average or hyper competitive, or capital intensive, etc., even a strong team’s success can be dampened.  But on a relative basis, I would still much prefer to partner with the strong leader and star team working in a great culture – even in those more challenged circumstances.  While that’s probably obvious, and people in the investing and leadership world talk about things like “I’d rather have three “A” players and pay each of them above market than be stuck with a larger team of “B” and “C” players who are less creative, less productive…” the reality is, most organizations don’t have a team of only “A” players.  I was reminded of this recently when discussing this topic with a good friend of mine who recanted the story of his father who spent his career in the military.  In the military, in most cases, you don’t get to handpick your team of “A” players, you get what you get, and your job becomes how do you get the most out of the team.  This lesson stuck with my friend, and its the cold hard truth in most businesses as well.

It might be a theoretical panacea to say “we only hire and retain “A” players…”, but other than the likes of Ray Dalio at Bridgewater, not too many companies realistically even try to pull that off.  They may talk about it, Steve Jobs famously used to tell people ” “A” players hire “A” players, and “B” players hire “C” players…”  However, the reality for most leaders or managers is different.  They have what they have, and the goal more often than not is how do you get the most out of the team you have?  Well unfortunately, there’s no secret formula, it often comes down to being a good motivator and mentor in my experience.  You need strong people skills.  You need to spend a chunk of each day and week pro-actively thinking “How can I get the best out of these individuals and this team?”  You must be willing to invest time there.  Some leaders are naturally good at this, many aren’t.  But as with anything else in life, if you choose to focus on it, you can improve.

In doing some research on the topic, I stumbled onto an interesting 2010 HBR article, Managing Yourself: Bringing Out the Best in Your People, which articulates a model wherein there are two different types of managers – “multipliers” and “diminishers” – each use different tactics across five areas of leadership – talent, culture, strategy, decision making, and execution.  While there are many good nuggets in there about collaboration, leveraging strengths, etc., what struck me is how their “multiplier” managers basically mirror in their leadership the idea of the “growth mindset” – a concept of motivation and learning aptitude coming out of research done by Carol Dweck.  Dweck’s work, at a high level, breaks people down into two categories – those with a “growth mindset” and those with a “fixed mindset.”  Growth mindset oriented individuals tend to believe that they are capable of evolving, learning and growing when they apply themselves.  They tend to be more resilient, and, often times more successful.  Multiplier leaders seem to have this same view with their teams – they seek out ways to allow people to take responsibility, leverage their strengths, work collaboratively and to think independently – the seek out ways to allow them each to improve.  There are plenty of anecdotes of success I’m sure by dimisher leaders, but in playing the probabilities, I’ll take the multiplier profile with a growth oriented mindset every time.  What can you do to behave this way if it doesn’t come naturally?  One tip from the article – ask questions – “Stop worrying about having all the answers. Use your knowledge of the business to ask insightful questions that prompt the members of your team to stop, think, and then rethink.”  Amen…