Thursday, May 28, 2009

Good People Aren't Enough

There is a popular strain being quoted a good deal these days that getting the best people is the key to success. In fact, it has been suggested that having the best people is more important to achieving success than having a clear goal. The argument is made that with the best people their combined mental activity and talents will eventually coalesce around some idea and that they will develop a goal and a way ahead, and that the leader’s real role is to facilitate the creative environment that allows this intellectual synthesis.

It may be true. I have never seen it, and despite some of the examples provided, I’ve never heard of it. In every example people offer there was always a kernel of thought, an idea already present, that identified the goal and around which the creativity and capabilities of the group were able to condense and form. And there was a key figure who in some way championed the idea.

In fact, every time I have seen an idea ‘born,’ it has always had a champion, someone who latched onto it and made others believe as well. That this will happen spontaneously is doubtful.

Furthermore, there are two key issues that you have to solve: first, you can’t always have the very best: they may already be taken. So, you have to settle for the ‘best available.’ This becomes even more watered-down when you add ‘the best available within the budget and the time line.’

Many years ago I heard Robert Townsend talk about a company he had been hired to fix. A large management-consulting firm had assessed the firm and its leadership and pronounced that it was the poorest led and managed firm they had ever surveyed. If my recollection is correct, they told Townsend that there was not one person working for him that was fit to manage in a Fortune 500 firm. Several years later Townsend invited the same firm back in and they conducted another assessment of the management team. This report sang the praises of the leadership, stated is was one of the most talent rich organizations they had ever assessed, and noted that they had many, many managers able to operate at any level through-out the Fortune 500.

The key to all this, as you have certainly guessed, is that Townsend had hired no new people. What he had done was provide a clear goal and clear guidance, then gave his managers the authority and support so that they could execute the plan. To use today’s jargon, once he had made them all ‘believers,’ he empowered them. The key was his senior leadership.

As for the talent, it was already there, but the leadership had prevented it from growing. Under the wrong leadership even the best of talent can be stifled. Under the right leadership people will grow and achieve more than even they thought they were capable of.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t times to both fire people and hire new people, but my own experience is that it rarely has to do with levels of talent. Rather, it is a matter of perspective. The folks who aren’t ‘on-board’ with the new direction need to go, and their level of talent is irrelevant. *

Second, the litany of teams (in sports, business and government) that have been made up of ‘the best’ but have fallen short is long and torturous. The fact is that the best often don’t ‘play well’ together. Success in most business endeavors as in most other activities is a ‘team sport.’ Having a bunch of folks who work well together, who all pull in the same direction, where the weaknesses of each are known and compensated for by the various strengths of each, that is a recipe for success.

Furthermore, how many collections of great athletes have failed, repeatedly, to gel into a team? Sports history is full of these stories. So is politics and business. There is also a cautionary tale: how do you know you have ‘the best?’ Reading resumes is usually an exercise in bad fiction. Even references from all but the most trusted of friends will come across skewed. On paper the leadership at General Motors over the past 20 years sounds nothing short of remarkable. The same can be said for any number of the big banks and credit houses that have failed over the past year.

In the end, if you are the leader, you have to lead. You can ask for advice from the people in your organization that you trust, those with intellectual gifts, etc. You can engage in debate and seek new ideas. In fact, you should. But you have to choose. And then you have to take the talent on hand, give them guidance and authority and let them go.
* Perhaps their level of talent isn’t irrelevant” if they aren’t talented at all they can’t do much harm. The people who really need to be fired are the ones with real talent and intellect who aren’t supporting the new direction.