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Saturday, February 16, 2008

The team and the individual

This image is from the Toastmasters International site. Toastmasters is a worthy organization that helps members develop speaking and leadership skills.

Some stories are too hot to handle because, even if you do your best to disguise identity, people involved might see themselves in the tale and assume, rightfully or wrongly, you are writing about them. The story which leads to this blog entry is just that type of experience; so I cannot even come close to telling it. But its importance is undeniable, because it shows to me how important it is to meld teamwork with individual performance; and having just one element right is a recipe for (near) disaster.
Since I cannot retell the story (which, to reassure my employees, has nothing to do with them), I'll have to resort to language that is a little forced and perhaps artificial.
Here are the elements:

  1. The team scored a victory over a lesser rival, but most of its members did not cheer; there were moments when the victory could have easily turned to a loss;

  2. One member of the team scored more points than any others in his team, an accomplishment usually worthy of commendation;

  3. But in this case, the other players expressed frustration, anger and disappointment, because the player did not work with the others; did not share, did not co-ordinate his activities with his peers; he played for himself rather than his team.

  4. They were unhappy because while the team won over the opposing team with less natural talent, if the team had been matched with any other team with the same level of talent, it would have been defeated handily. And everyone saw how the weaker team, for all its limitations, actually won the game by playing it correctly.
The example illustrates some important points:
In any organization, individual talent is indeed important, and in many cases an organization of talented individuals who don't play well as a team can do better than a great team with lesser individual talent;
But talent cannot exist in isolation; prima-donna behavior can quickly tear at the soul of a team, and destroy it; individuals need to work within the team if they are to succeed; and the team needs cohesion for success in the longer term.
Frankly, the story behind this blog entry will be much easier to retell a few years from now, when the risk of relating to someone real has disappeared. More importantly, then I will hopefully have proven the hypotheses that are driving my business right now. I sense these principals will work in practice, but haven't tested them long enough to know for sure they are valid. If they are, I'll be able to write a 'how to succeed' book with confidence and provide my services as a consultant at a high hourly fee. In the meantime, here are the working principals I'm using.
Recruit to your highest standards -- don't accept anyone less.
I've established a hiring protocol that requires a thorough and systematic evaluation of any potential candidate for employment within our organization, and for which we will not lower our standards. Each job of course has different requirements; but each potential employee must go through a self-selection screening process, followed by substantial testing. We cannot succeed as a team unless we have the best possible individuals on it.
Ensure your employees can connect and work well with others on the team.
We won't hire anyone if existing employees are not satisfied; and when they must work directly with each other, the peers have veto-power over the hiring. Equally, if employees fail to meet the standards of their peers, set out in our working performance standards and guidelines, they must leave, if they cannot improve within a reasonable time.
Superior performance should be recognized, but not at the expense of the team.
Not everyone is equal; and some people will assume greater responsibilities and leadership than others; and they may earn higher compensation, or be given greater responsibilities. But if they cannot also bring the team upwards with them, they must leave as well. These are the most challenging situations in business, of course, since it can be expensive to lose a top performer. But if the team is fraying because of the behavior of one successful person, we either need to realign roles to avoid the conflict, have the top producer change his or her ways, or ask the seemingly successful (but truly destructive) person to leave.
Leadership starts at the top -- implementation of these principals requires openness and fairness.
In my business, of course, that is me. When I lose touch of the team's goals and objectives; when I put myself first and forget the needs of others; when I am selfish, arrogant, and put on airs of the owner, I deserve to lose the trust and acceptance of my employees. This is the essence and challenge of Open Book Management; something I expect to learn and implement within the next six months.

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