The Origin of Leaders #7: “A” Players. Surrounding yourself with the Right People

by Conor Neill on July 26, 2011

Leo Messi is the greatest footballer in the world.  His peers say so.

He plays for Football Club Barcelona.  3 of the other world top 5 footballers also play at FC Barcelona.  Leo Messi doesn’t play with his best friends from school.  He doesn’t keep a space on FC Barcelona for a friend who just happens to be available.  He doesn’t, but most business people and entrepreneurs do.

Why do we treat football differently than business?  Is it less important?  Is it more important?

How to run your talent program like FC Barcelona

At a conference at IESE Business School last week, Geoff Smart spoke to the audience about how to source, select and attract top talent to your organization.  He asked “has anyone ever hired someone who looked great on paper, only to find out weeks or months later that it was a terrible decision?”  Many hands were raised in the air.

Hiring for football is easier – we see past performance, in business it is possible to hide the past in paper (CVs).

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, says that the very first step of leaders who create massive success in their businesses is “get the right people on the bus”…  and the corollary…  get the wrong people off the bus.

There are four parts to hiring well.

  1. Know clearly what you want the person to achieve. Go beyond vague descriptions of skills. eg. “Analytical Thought Process” develop further to “Distinguishes key facts from secondary factors; can follow a progressive thought process from idea to idea; makes sound observations.”  Jonathan Davis, founder of HireBetter says that this is a big failing of hiring managers
  2. Go to where the best people are. Where are the best people? They are not looking at job adverts.  They are not spending their weekend reading job websites.  They are passionate about their current role.  It is unlikely that those who are actively searching through non-personal channels are top performers.  The top performers are still doing well in their current jobs. How to find the best people? There is only one way: Network. If you want talent: ask who the best people are, get to industry events, meet people at conferences. Watch people in action, know them through their activity, read their books, their tweets, their Quora profiles, their blogs.
  3. Selecting the A players: focus on the past, not the future. Don’t ever ask “how would you solve the problem?”.  Ask “tell me about a time when you solved a similar problem?” Everyone can tell you a great story about what they would do.  The top performers are not smarter, don’t have better to-do list systems, better technology.  The differentiator is that they have found the way to overcome procrastination.  They actually do the things that they say they will do. Give them a present problem and ask them to solve it. See their creative thinking, not necessarily the solution. Look for performance, don’t ask for opinions.
  4. Selling the opportunity, building the culture. Selling the opportunity to an A player does not mean “be their friend”; it means sell them on the personal growth, the professional growth the opportunity to impact the world on a massive scale.  This is what great people want.  Not more friends. They want to be pushed and demanded and be allowed to change the world for the better. Jonathan Davis says that culture is hard to build and easy to destroy. Jonathan turned down a hiring contract recently with a big company.  He told the CEO “You cannot be client of ours.  I’ll tell you why. Your VP of sales is a !@#$%^!. He won’t waste an opportunity to tell you how awesome he is.  We can help you recruit a great employee, but he will leave.” It is the culture that you build that will really attract and keep the top talent.  If you create a great culture, you don’t need to pay employees to bring people in…  they will bring their ambitious, high performing friends in.  The online shoe retailer Zappos pay $2000 for people to leave.

How do you do this without any effort?  You don’t.  Good talent doesn’t just happen because you are showing up.  One of the hardest things in business life is removing a loyal but mediocre performer from your team.  There may be bonds of friendship, there may be many good shared experiences in the past, feelings of connection.  However, the continued presence of mediocrity in your team is a cancer that will eat away at your ability to achieve important goals.  One way to reduce the pain of having to let go of mediocre performers is to get very good at only hiring star performers into your team.

My father once told me that the greatest service you can do for an unhappy, underperforming employee is to let them go – it frees them to search and find a place where they can contribute and find greater meaning.  They won’t thank you in the moment, but this is the service of a leader – it is not about giving – it is about serving; it is not about the easy answers, it is about the right answers.

Highly Demanding, with Love

How would you get Leo Messi to play for your football team?  It would help if you had 3 of the top 5 footballers in the world already on the team.  How do you attract the top talent to your team?  Build a culture of high performance around you.  This starts with a zero tolerance of mediocrity.

A participant on my course last year began his speech “I have often wondered whether it is better as a parent to be permissive or authoritarian.  Which is better?  At a conference a few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak to one of the world guru’s on child development.  I went up to him after his talk.  I congratulated him.  I asked him the question: ‘is it better for a parent to be permissive or authoritarian?’  The guru smiled and said ‘highly demanding with love’.”  It is the same as a leader – can you be highly demanding, with love.  Expect the best from those around you and they rise to the challenge.  Accept the worst, and they will coast in comfort.

Conor NeillConor Neill is the professor of Leadership Communication at IESE Business School in Barcelona and an entrepreneur who has founded four companies. Years ago, he was a manager in the Human Performance consulting practice of Accenture. He loves rugby, mountain climbing and will run a marathon next march. Conor frequently blogs at conorneill.com and tweets as cuchullainn
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  • Jack Hayhow

    Hi, Conor!  Great post – practical and insightful.  My experience is you can’t stack enough good people up to make a great one.  And great people completely change the game.  Thanks for your wisdom.

  • http://www.conorneill.com Conor

    I just finished reading Blindside by Michael Lewis – about American Football and how recruitment plays such a big part of the college game.  Michael Oher was the hottest pick of the year after having played only 2 games in high school – why?  because he had a unique combination of size, speed, attitude that every coach knew could turn into the best Left Tackle in the country.  The story reminded me how important it is for a sports team to have the right people, and how much more time is spent on it in sports than in business.

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