HOW TO BUILD AN A-PLAYER LEADERSHIP TEAM
In the previous 5 Minute Growth Tip article, I shared some tips for developing a successful strategy to compete and thrive in your market. Yet, developing a great strategy (and executing it) takes more than a framework. It takes a high performing leadership team. That, in turn, takes high performing leaders.
The People Challenge
As a CEO, president, owner or entrepreneur, you’ve likely had department heads on your team that didn’t meet your expectations or were poor leaders. It can be frustrating to be repeatedly disappointed or to have to continuously push, cajole or just grin and bear it.
Yet, it’s entirely feasible to resolve these headaches and prevent them from happening in the first place.
This is about ensuring that, on the leadership team, we have the right people in the right seats doing the right things in the right ways.
The key to getting it right is not to start by looking at the people. The first thing to do is define the right seats, right things and right ways, and then ensure we have the right people that fit what we need.
First, we want to ensure we have the right seats - the right roles needed on our leadership team. These usually include some common functional roles like marketing, sales, operations, accounting, finance, human resources, technology & systems, etc.
Keep in mind that, often, leadership team members in mid-size companies need to play more than one role. Certain functions don’t need a full time leader just yet. By thinking of it this way, we can identify what functional roles are being played by each leader, and whether the right roles exist on the team.
It may be that certain roles don’t exist that need to, or a role has been left unfilled.
It’s also helpful to identify any roles that seem to have more than one person playing them, causing mixed messages and confusion. It may also be that certain leaders are in too many roles, therefore being stretched thin and dropping balls.
Having the right seats means having clarity about what roles are needed and where there are gaps and overlaps.
We also want to get each leader, and the whole leadership team, on the same page about what each role means and what is expected in terms of results (eg. role: marketing => results: qualified leads).
It’s best if these results expectations are quantified with metrics and specific targets (eg. 50 qualified leads per month). The results, metrics and targets are the productivity side of each role.
The “right things” will often also include the big changes and improvements that need to be made within each function over the course of the year and/or the quarter.
We also want to be clear about the behavioural side. This includes defining the behavioural expectations needed across the leadership team and across the company.
These behaviours are captured in our core values. These core values distill the essential behaviours expected of everyone in the company, including the leadership team members. This is what enables great teamwork, productive conversations and problem-solving, developing a strong strategy and execution plan, and coordinating to execute.
Clarity on core values is also critical because leaders living them is one of the main ways the company’s culture is brought to life among employees.
With productivity and behaviour expectations clear, we want to ensure we have the right person in each seat.
We can ask ourselves: is each person on the leadership team meeting our expectations...in terms of both the results expected in their role AND the behaviours captured in our core values?
Furthermore, if we want to build a thriving company, we’ll need A-players. We define A-players as being among the top 10% performers for the specific role and for the pay we can afford, AND they live and breathe all of our core values.
Being a top 10% leader doesn’t just mean doing a great job at one’s function: marketing, accounting or human resources, etc. It means getting great productivity from their people - both quantity and quality of work. This takes strong planning, communication, delegation, monitoring and coaching skills.
Often leaders tend towards one of two extremes: micro-managing or laisser-faire management. Strong leaders will stay involved enough to monitor and be supportive while at the same time letting experienced employees use their skills, be self-sufficient and take initiative.
A-player leaders create an environment in their department that inspires employees to perform at their best.
The Challenge of Behaviour Change
When it comes to leaders who don’t live our core values, it’s often a dead end. Because a person’s values can’t really be changed.
People behave according to what they believe. If they grew up believing that learning and adapting is valuable in its own right, they’ll learn and adapt on the job. If they believe that tradition, duty and compliance are noble, they won’t behave in adaptable ways.
If they don’t believe in one of our core values, there’s often not much we can do about it. We can coach them on that core value, and they may start behaving more in alignment with it for a while. And if so, great. It’s worth giving it a try. But often, they’ll slip back into their habits.
This means that often, a leader that isn’t living one or more of our core values never truly will. And so they’ll never be an A player leader, at least not in our company.
Addressing the Gaps
As CEOs, presidents and owners, we can often be hesitant to let a leader go who doesn’t fit. Our underlying concern is often that maybe we weren’t clear on our expectations or maybe we didn’t coach the leader enough or very effectively.
So, it can be reassuring to start by establishing clear expectations and providing better coaching where needed. At the end of the day, the leader may still not meet our expectations. But at least we’ll know that we did what we could to support them.
A good practice is to, every quarter, ask ourselves how each of the members of our leadership team are performing both in terms of results AND core values. Then, for any team members that aren’t performing, ask, what will I do about it this quarter? Will I coach them or cut the chord? If we keep coaching the leader on the same issue quarter after quarter, we should not only question their leadership, we should question ours too.
Sometimes a leader’s poor performance IS in fact our fault. It’s entirely possible for a CEO to create an environment where people can’t perform well. Maybe we’re the micro-manager, or the laisser-faire manager. Or we set a poor example by not being accountable or not living some of our core values.
If we have just one or two leaders whose performance is in question and the majority of the leaders reporting to us are performing great, we may have a people issue. Yet, if most or all of our leaders are struggling, chances are our own leadership is what needs work.
Working Through Hesitation
Usually, the decision to let a leader go isn’t hard. Once we think it through, it’s often pretty clear. It’s just that we avoid thinking it through. We avoid it because of how it feels. It’s sad. It’s disappointing. It’s nerve-racking. We can feel guilty or like a failure.
If we acknowledge, accept and process those feelings, we can then face the facts of the situation and come to a logical, firm conclusion. This can usually be tackled with some pros and cons thinking, considering all the impacts of the leader, on both the culture and performance of their department, the leadership team and the company as a whole.
Replacing a Leader
It’s one thing to come to realize and accept that a leader has to go. It’s another to feel confident we can successfully replace them with an A-player. If you’re concerned about this, you probably have a recruiting and selection problem. And you’re not alone. The average hiring process picks an A-player 25% of the time.
Implement the Top Grading or A-Method hiring process and you’ll notch that up to an 80 or 90% success rate. Replacing a top level leader is a great reason to make that change. You’ll get two trees with one stone: an A player leader and a drastic improvement in your hiring process.
As Jim Collins found in his research for Good to Great, the foundation of a thriving company is “disciplined people”. This includes being a Level 5 leader (determined AND humble) and getting the right people on the bus in the right seats on our leadership team. Only then can we create a great strategy collaboratively with our leadership team, to achieve efficient team buyin. And with buyin and a great leadership team, we can implement the right structures, systems and processes to grow more rapidly, profitably and sustainably.
Right? Not quite.
This is where great execution comes in. In my next 5 Minute Growth Tip article, I’ll share the common challenges with executing a strategy and the three key execution disciplines to minimize drama and maximize profitability.
How can you have more A-players in your company?
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