Outstanding Performance Demands Outstanding Teams

How do you achieve outstanding performance without building a high achieving team? You don’t.

Today I saw a quote by Steve Jobs that really struck a chord with me:

Steve Jobs - A, B, C Players

“A small team of A-plus players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” – Steve Jobs

It reminded me of something that I wrote about 10 years ago when I recorded a list of Human Resources principles that I live by. Here is what I wrote:

“Pay people well when they do a good job.  Pay them VERY well when they do an outstanding job.  An “A” performer really can’t be paid enough.  A “B” performer is paid what they are worth.  A “C” performer needs to become a “B” or leave, and anything below that needs to be dealt with immediately.”

What’s the message of Steve Job’s quote and of my statement? Simply this: If you want to achieve outstanding performance don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can do it without outstanding people to strategize, plan, and execute.

All too often I see business people with the attitude of “I am smart enough to direct and control a group of B, C & D players who have technical skills and experience that reasonably match what I am looking for. I can’t afford to find and hire “A” players and I don’t care about soft skills.”

The result? Teams of B, C, and D players that never perform as hoped. The business “leader” is stuck with hands on issues every day. He is constantly working in the business solving problems and never proactively working on the business to create internal improvements and external opportunities.

On the other hand, on a rare occasion I meet business leaders who take a much different position. Their thinking is something along the lines of, “I want to find A players that can work with me to determine a shared outcome and then independently work together to achieve something greater than I could achieve if I have to run the team every day.”

Great companies have this attitude of hiring the best. They also often have total compensation packages that are among the best in their industry. Think IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Apple in the tech industry. For food and consumer goods think Kraft, P&G, and Nestle. You get the idea.

What is interesting to me is that a team of A players can be put together inside of any organization including larger companies that struggle and small and mid-size companies that have more limited resources than their larger competitors. (By the way, “company” can include non-profits and government organizations.)

Here are some suggestions of how any organization can build a team of A players:

  • Define “A” player for each position. Education, experience, skills, interests, relationships, compensation, location, and other identifiers of an “A” player (or ideal candidate) should be identified in a good job description for each position on a team. Remember, an A player for Steve Jobs at Apple may not be an A player for what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Look internally first. Are there people already working with you that are “overqualified” for their current position, or are ready to take a next step and  are ready to take on more responsibility and really grow?
  • Hire “overqualified” people. People are afraid to hire “overqualified” because they’ll leave. Guess what? Everyone leaves. Everyone changes jobs. “A” players can make a huge impact quickly so be thankful that they’ll work for you and figure out a way to keep them happy and so they want to stay for a while!
  • Hire for attitude as well as aptitude. What good is having the “smartest” person in the company on your team if they won’t cooperate, try to over power the rest of the team, or can’t buy into the strategy and execution plans? Find people that have a genius for achieving results as a team.
  • “Soft” skills make the team. While “A” students may make dean’s list, it’s often the “B” students that learn that getting along with others, participating on teams, and making things happen are all crucial skills as well. It is MUCH harder to teach people these “soft” skills. When is the last time you worked with someone who changed their personality? But don’t we all know a lot of people who learn new technical skills every day?

Once you’ve hired the A players, they need to form a cohesive team. Here are proven ways to turn groups of individuals into teams:

  • Clear goals, strategy, and measurements. Every good team needs all three to thrive. Clear and specific goals define what the end results need to be. Goals must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.) A cohesive strategy must identify how to meet the goals, including resources available to the team. Defined measurements tell the team how success will be measured and what milestones indicate success along the way.
  • Team and individual rewards. Team rewards bring people together. Individual rewards that don’t create conflict between team members inspire peak individual performance.
  • Ongoing objective feedback. Part of identifying measurements includes determining Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) that are routinely and regularly measured and reported. KPI’s should be measured at least daily. KPI’s should be reviewed at least weekly as a team to track progress. KPI’s should be continually available for team members to review on an as needed basis.
  • Ongoing subjective feedback. Once a year sit-downs for a formal performance review are almost useless to help people grow. Good behaviors should be rewarded and encouraged continually. Bad behaviors must be identified and dealt with immediately.
  • Decision making capability. The team must be able to make decisions. Allow them to make as many decisions as possible without going to a supervisor or committee. Define limits (i.e. spending amounts) and methods (team consensus, team leader, leadership team, etc.) so decisions can be made easily and so nobody is wasting time trying to figure out how to get something done. This will also reduce team “politics.”

Building a team that achieves outstanding performance is not easy, but the results can be spectacular. The combination of 1) Team members who are A players with key hard and soft skills, and 2) Team unity and focus, can create teams that continually exceed expectations and achieve outstanding performance.

Let me know about your favorite team that consistently achieved outstanding performance.

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