Updated: Apr 28, 2021
Five better questions to help you build your A-player team.
Do you have the leadership team you deserve?
I believe this question misleads us. In fact, I believe the kind of thinking it supports is detrimental to leadership.
A better question is, “What is the leadership team you’re asking for?”
“What is the leadership team you’re influencing with your own actions?”
I believe leaders get the teams they deserve, ask for, and multiply up. As leaders, it truly lies with us, not with them.
Instead of putting the onus on your leadership team to measure up to “what I deserve,” here are some questions you can ask yourself about the kind of team you are asking for:
How long does our company take to hire a new team member? And if they aren’t a good fit, how long does it take us to let them go?
Do I understand how to measure A-level success for each role in my leadership team? Am I crystal clear on their specific accountabilities, competencies, and metrics?
Does each member of my leadership team understand those accountabilities, competencies, and metrics fully? How bought in are they to achieving them?
Where do I most often put my focus, attention, and energy as a leader: on my A players, B players, or C players?
Do I model 100% commitment every day, in terms of intellect, engagement, and creativity, in my company and with my leadership team?
Question 1: How long does it take us to hire a new team member? And if they aren’t a good fit, how long does it take us to let them go?
This question comes back to the old adage of “slow to hire, quick to fire.”
Any CEO you talk to will tell you the hardest part of their job is letting people go. It is a conversation people will go farther than almost any other to avoid. Sometimes years will go by before that conversation happens – and when it does, it is often forced by some kind of crisis that is equally painful for the team member and the company.
As hard as it is, “quick to fire” is ultimately what’s most fair for your team, your company, and yourself as a leader. On top of that, it’s even fair to the person you are letting go: ultimately, they will find that they are a better fit elsewhere.
Apex North Star Client Story: “There was someone on our team who was a great cultural fit. They’d been with the company a while, everyone liked them, they’d been great years ago, but weren't adapting. When we looked at it honestly, the other leaders and I had to admit that this person hadn’t been contributing in a meaningful way for several years. So we talked it through, and agreed we had to let them go.
That was the first time we ever did that – let someone go not just for doing something really egregious, but because they truly were not the right fit anymore. It felt affirming to those of us who are showing up 100% to see that we’re not just letting someone stick around when we all know they shouldn’t be here.”
If you do it well, with respect, many times you set a person free to find something that really fits. And many times, being fired is a wake up call: you can’t just show up. You have to fully show up.
But what about the first part of the adage: “slow to hire”?
Question 2: Am I crystal clear on the specific accountabilities, competencies, and metrics each role in my leadership team is accountable for?
“Hiring” begins long before we think it does. Before you being seeking potential candidates, first design the seat they’ll sit in with thought, deliberation, and strategy.
But what if I know someone who would be a great fit at our company? Can’t I just find a spot for them?
Of course you want great people. But a company full of “great people” doing a bunch of random tasks will lack clarity of direction and accountability.
Instead, focus on the role first. Ask yourself: how much am I investing in this role year after year? What do I expect in return for that investment? Get extremely specific. Be deliberate and strategic. What truly counts in this role (disconnected from a person)? And then ask yourself: how do I count it?
Design each role on your leadership team with its own unique scorecard. Think of it like a baseball trading card: an easily understandable display of each role’s unique competencies, accountabilities, and expectations.
What are the specific accountabilities of this role? At an “A-player” level, what competencies will someone working in this role display? Which metrics will you measure to track success? Only after you’re able to answer these questions should you begin to search for the right person to fill the seat – not the other way around.
Question 3: Does each member of my leadership team understand those accountabilities, competencies, and metrics fully? How bought in are they to achieving them?
When you fully understand the roles on your leadership team (and in your organization overall), you are one step closer to ensuring the people who fill those roles fully understand what goes into them as well.
Every day, everyone at your organization should be able to look back and know whether they did their job today, or not. They should be able to do this without a manager or executive telling them so. They should be able to know simply by checking their scorecard.
Use scorecards to guide the conversation when interviewing new candidates.
If they don’t understand, they have clear language in front of them to point to and ask about. If they say they can deliver, both of you know exactly what they are promising to deliver...because it’s right there on the page.
Before either of you sign and agree to it, let them know you’ll be meeting again over the scorecard in 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days. Use those meetings to check in on their progress, questions, and support needed. This way, the scorecard holds the team member accountable, but it also holds you accountable. By signing, both of you are agreeing on what this seat is, and more importantly: what it isn’t.
Update the scorecard every year to reflect the growth in capacity and expertise you will undoubtedly observe in this individual. By investing time to clearly define their seat before they even sit in it, you are that much closer to ensuring they play at “A” levels in your company, stay with you, and attract others like them.
Question 4: Where do I most often put my focus, attention, and energy as a leader: on my A players, B players, or C players?
Every company has individuals who “play” at A, B, and C levels. It doesn’t look the same across the board, but you can usually identify who’s who by answering the following question:
“If given the opportunity, would you enthusiastically rehire everyone on your team back today?”
The key word is enthusiastic. We spend so much time and energy on those players we likely wouldn’t hire back, much less enthusiastically. These are the C players. In my experience, they fall into one of two categories: The Golden Retriever, or The Toxic C.
The Golden Retriever is usually someone who has been with the company a long time. They live and breathe the core values. But when it comes to their accountabilities, this person does not measure up.
It’s hard to be honest about Golden Retrievers. When I talk to CEOs about their own, they hedge. They say, “Well, they’ve been with us forever, it was really different when they started,” or “How could we do that to them? All the clients love them!”
The lobby of Iams Pet Food is home to a key team member. The first time I visited, I saw a beautiful Golden Retriever sitting there, smiling at me as I walked through the door. I asked the receptionist whose dog it was. “Oh, that’s the company’s dog,” she told me happily, “He’s our mascot. Everybody loves him.”
If you have an employee who doesn’t deliver on their performance expectations, but is as loyal and lovable as a Golden Retriever, save yourself the investment. Coach that person out of your company, and buy a cute dog for the lobby.
The same can be said for the Toxic C. This is the individual who always hits their number, but runs roughshod over the company culture and values. You want to keep them because of their stellar performance, but their presence on the team (and often with your customers) is lowering morale and making you into a hypocrite. Both Toxic Cs and Golden Retrievers cause companies to lose valuable team members and customers. They simply can’t be tolerated.
It may sound harsh, but the energy and time we invest in C players has to be minimized. They will drain your energy, lower the level of the team, and take the time and attention you should be lavishing on A players.
A players want to play on “A” teams. Transfer the energy those C players take up to ensuring your culture attracts and rewards A players. And what about B players? Tolerating the middle group equals death by a thousand cuts. Coach them up to A level (using clearly defined expectations and metrics on their scorecard), or out. Once individuals at the “B” level see the time and energy focused on A players, they will want to rise to that level. And it lies with you to help them get there.
Apex North Star Client Story: “We’d made some new hires, and one of them wasn’t doing well. I didn’t feel it was right to just let them go, so we sat this person down and gave them a plan that was really direct: clear expectations on their role, how we will support them, and what we’re expecting to see in 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days. In one month, I couldn’t believe the change. This person was a rockstar. He rose up to the challenge, but also the clarity. And he knew we were there to support him.”
Question 5: Do I model 100% commitment every day, in terms of intellect, engagement, and creativity, in my company and with my leadership team?
When I was a CEO, I knew I had a great team, but I knew that I wasn't getting their full potential out of them. I didn't even know where to begin. We didn't have accountability, we didn't have scorecards. I tried the EOS way of doing it, where everyone has a number, and I couldn't even figure out what number people should have. There was no one to talk to, no one to tell me how to do this stuff. So I made a lot of mistakes, and learned the hard way.
The hardest part about all of this is the simple fact that building a culture of “A” players, training them and retaining them, starts with you as the leader. People will mirror the energy they see and feel around them. If you are bringing your “A” game each and every day, and holding the members of your leadership team accountable to that same level of commitment, those who don’t align will naturally fall away.
Asking yourself if you have the leadership team you deserve sets up an unequal relationship. It makes you a passive participant and separates you from your leadership team. As CEO or owner, you are the driving force of your company's culture. If you model A-level accountability, commitment, and engagement with your vision, your team will follow your example.
And in the end, you will get the leadership team you deserve. By multiplying their efforts with A-level leadership, you will create an environment of trust, respect, and accountability, and a company that attracts the best talent to continue its legacy. If you are putting in A-level work, you deserve nothing less.