Note: this article is part 3 of a series called Accelerated Velocity. This part can be read stand-alone, but I recommend that you read the earlier parts so as to have the overall context.
People working in teams are at the heart of every company. Great companies have great people working in high performing teams. Companies without great people will find it very difficult to get exceptional results.
The harsh reality is that there aren’t that many great people to go around. This results in competition for top talent, which is especially true in tech. Companies and organizations use diverse strategies in addressing this challenge. Some use their considerable resources (e.g. cash) to buy top talent though with dubious results – think big corporations and Wall Street banks. Some create environments that are very attractive to the type of people they’re looking for – think Google and Amazon. Some purposely start with inexperienced but promising people and develop their own talent – a strategy used by the big consulting companies. Many drop out of the race altogether and settle for average or worse (and then hire the consulting companies to try to solve their challenges with processes and technology – which is great for the consulting companies).
But attracting talent is only half the battle. Companies that succeed in hiring solid performers then have to ensure their people are in a position to perform, and this brings us to their teams. Teams have a massive amplifying affect on the quantity and quality of each individual’s output. My gut tells me that the same person working on two different teams may be 2-3X as productive depending on the quality of the team.
So no matter how good a company is at attracting top talent, it then needs to ensure that the talent operates in healthy teams.
What is a healthy team? From my experience it looks something like this:
- Competent, motivated people who are…
- Equipped to succeed and operate with…
- High integrity and professionalism…
- Aligned behind a mission / vision
That doesn’t seem too hard. So why aren’t healthy teams the norm? Simple: because they’re fragile. If any of the above pieces are missing, the integrity of the team is at risk. Throw in tolerance for low performers, arrogant assholes, and whiners, mix in some disrespect and fear, and the team is broken.
(Note that the negatives influences outweigh the positives – as the proverb says: “One bad apple spoils the whole bushel.” If you play sports you know this phenomenon well – a team full of solid players can easily be undone by a single weak link that disrupts the integrity of the team.)
This leads me to a few basic rules I follow when developing teams:
- Provide solid leadership
- Recruit selectively
- Invest in growth and development
- Break down barriers to getting and keeping good people
- Aggressively address low-performance and disruption
Bonial had a young team with a wide range of skill and experience in 2014. Fortunately many of the team members had a bounty of raw talent and were motivated (or desired to be motivated). Unfortunately there were also quite a few under-performers as well as some highly negative and disruptive personalities in the mix. The combination of inexperience, underperformance and disruption had an amplifying downward effect on the teams.
To build confidence and start accelerating performance we needed to turn this situation around. We started by counseling and, if behavior didn’t change, letting go the most egregiously low performers and disruptive people – not an easy thing to do and somewhat frowned upon in both the company and in German culture. But the cost of keeping them on the team, thereby neutralizing and demoralizing the high performers, was far higher than the pain and cost of letting them go.
(A quick side note: there were concerns among the management that letting low-performers go would demoralize the rest of the team. Not surprisingly, quite the opposite happened – the teams were relieved to have the burdens lifted and were encouraged to know that their leads were committed to building high performing teams.)
We started doing a better job of mentoring people and setting clear performance goals. Many thrived with guidance and coaching; some didn’t and we often mutually decided to part ways. Over time the culture changed to where low performance and negativity were no longer tolerated.
At the same time we invested heavily in recruiting. We hired dedicated internal recruiters specifically focussed on tech recruits. We overhauled our recruiting and interview process to better screen for the talent, mentality and personality we needed. We added rigor to our senior hiring practices, focussing more on assessing what the person can do vs what they say they can do. And we added structure to the six month “probation” period, placing and enforcing gates throughout the process to ensure we’d hired the right people. Finally, we learned the hard way that settling for mediocre candidates was not the path to success; it was far better to leave a position unfilled than to fill it with the wrong person.
How did we attract great candidates? We focussed on our strengths and on attracting people who valued those attributes: opportunities for growth, freedom to make a substantial impact, competent team-mates, camaraderie, a culture of respect, and exposure to cutting-edge technologies. Why these? Because year over year, though employee satisfaction survey and direct feedback, we find these elements correlate very strongly with employee satisfaction, even more so than compensation and other benefits. In short, we’ve worked hard to create an environment where our team-mates are excited to come to work every day.
(This is not to say we ignored competitive compensation; as I’ll describe in a later post, we also worked to ensure we paid a fair market salary and then provided a path for increasing compensation over time with experience.)
Over time, as our people became more experienced, our processes matured and our technology set became more advanced, Bonial became a great place for tech professionals to sharpen their skills and hone their craft. New team members brought fresh ideas and at the same time had an opportunity to learn both by what we already had as well as what they helped create. The result is what we have today: a team of teams full of capable professionals who are together performing at a level many times higher than in 2014.
Some closing thoughts:
- You’re only as good as the people on the teams.
- Nurture and grow talented people. Help under-performers to perform. Let people go when necessary.
- Get really good at recruiting. Focus on what the candidate will do for you vs what they claim to have done in the past.
- Don’t fall into the trap of believing process and tools are a substitute for good people.
Footnote: If you haven’t yet, I suggest your read about Google’s insightful research on team performance and how ”psychological safety” is critical to developing high performing teams.