Category Archives: Team Building

Team creation, development, and managment issues

Are superstars worth the pain?


Once in a while, as a manager, you will be fortunate enough to have a team member who is a superstar. These people are not just above average, they are vastly better. They are smarter, more driven, highly focused, and they get far more work done than the rest. It often seems like they are just coasting through it, but miraculously they achieve well beyond the others.

If you are fortunate enough to have a superstar working for you, it usually comes with both benefits and curses. Certainly it can be a joy to have someone you can count on to excel every time you give them as task. As a manager, you dream about having the kind of team members who will just take what you give them, and exceed your wildest dreams every time. Get more than one of these people and you think you’ve died and gone to manager’s heaven.

It is common for superstars to be a royal pain when in a group.

That is, until it comes time to work as a team. There’s something about superstars that makes them innately incapable of “playing well with the other children”. Perhaps it’s their low tolerance for busywork, structure, and stupidity. It may be that they know they are superior. Maybe it’s their habit of picking and eating their ear wax… Whatever it is, it certainly is common for superstars to be a royal pain when you try to get them to work in a group.

I’ve seen dozens of superstars. Microsoft seemed to attract, select for, groom, and coddle them. I worked with some of the brightest minds in the world at Microsoft, and many people who I would consider well worth the title of superstar. I have managed more than my fair share of them. And I have the battle scars to prove it.

I made the mistake at one point of promoting one of the brightest minds at the company to be a team leader for me. One of the few pure geniuses I’ve ever encountered, his Ivy League degrees, Rhodes scholarship, and meteoric rise at the company couldn’t rescue his team from his short temper, low tolerance for mistakes, and his blatant misogyny.

On his watch, a team I’d carefully recruited and nurtured for months was disintegrating before my eyes. After numerous angry departures, threats of legal action, and failed attempts to counsel him and get the team back on track I removed him from a leadership position. And since I believe strongly in helping my fellow managers, I added “this person should never be allowed to manage people” to his performance review. He was recently mentioned in a prominent business publication as a likely future CEO of the company…

But, I digress. In this case, clearly the pain of a superstar wasn’t worth it. It was really my fault, I should have far more carefully considered his management skills before I promoted him out to a role that he wasn’t suited for. The larger question is: is it ever worth it to have superstars on the team?

The short answer is, yes, superstars are worth the pain.

The short answer is, yes, superstars are worth the pain. But only if they are in a role that suits them, and only if you can find a way to control their impact on the rest of the team.

The issues with the rest of the team are many. Very often people resent working with superstars. Even if the manager is careful to not show favoritism, people often perceive a bias in the superstar’s direction. How, after all, could they be doing so well, getting so much done, and attracting so much attention? They can’t stand watching someone else finish the task in half the time, and I don’t blame them.

But more often than not, superstars do get recognition and attention from management. And that just rubs some people the wrong way. Especially when it seems like their gift is not learned or earned, just that — a gift.

If you put superstars in charge, more often than not it ends up being a nightmare for everyone.

And if you put superstars in charge, more often than not they get frustrated, with the less competent members of the team, with the progress of the project, and especially with the bureaucracy — the processes and procedures inherent to management. It ends up being a nightmare for everyone, the team, you the manager, and even the superstar themselves.

So how do you take advantage of the seemingly infinite resource that a superstar can provide? Simple: put them in their sweet spot, their area of excellence, and do whatever it takes to make them successful. Usually that means giving them what they need and staying out of their way. And regular and earnest praise helps as well.

Superstars are worth the effort. But you have to recognize what they are good at, and let them wow you at it. Don’t mistake excellence in on thing as excellence in everything. This helps to avoid the Peter Principle and saves everyone’s sanity.

Metrics, Metrics, Everywhere


If you are in any kind of management position, there seem to be a million metrics to track. You get huge pressure to track a number of financial metrics such as EBITDA, gross sales, net profit, and others, there are sales metrics divided up every which way (by territory, by sales rep, etc.), there are productivity metrics such as cost of goods sold, labor hours per unit sold, etc., and on and on. One can metric themselves insane if they try to simply follow all these things, let alone try to lead the organization via them.

But, lest you think I’m not a fan of metrics, please be assured that I think people who don’t track their business in some careful and meaningful ways are playing fast and loose with the fate of the organization. The issue is what to track, how to track it, and what to do with the results. That’s where some careful thought is warranted.

When it comes to the people side of the business, there is no shortage of interesting metrics to track. As I have mentioned in other places, I am a fan of numerical performance review ratings, and using those ratings effectively. And I like to see people paying attention to things like the ratio of the highest paid to lowest paid employee. It helps keep things real (unlike here and here). Another good one is counting the number of layers there are in an organization — how many people from the top to the lowliest janitor. (I like to see no more than 7 or 8… when I was at Microsoft, there were 13). And one of the first things I like to look at when talking to a manager for the first time is how many direct reports they have (5 to 10 is good, fewer leads to organizations that are too deep, more means chaos).

You can’t let the measurement run the organization, that’s your job.

But in all these metrics I have no hard and fast rules. I’ve seen people manage 14 people effectively. I’ve see cases where people earn and deserve huge paychecks. Like most good metrics, you can’t let the number alone tell the whole story. You have to dig deeper, to understand the situation in its entirety. The metric is just the flag. It’s not “Danger, Will Robinson!“, it’s more like “something is up here, maybe you should take a closer look”. You simply can’t let the measurement run the organization, that’s your job.

There are many reasons to be wary of metrics. First and foremost is the problem of measuring things accurately. Even with the simplest of measurements there can be arguments about what a good rule is. Do temporary employees count in a measurement of layers? Do one-time bonuses really count in a compensation ratio? Can I rely on the sales figures from a certain period of time with all the changes due to returns and unsold inventory in the channel? This is the business equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where some things just can’t be measured accurately (or perhaps aren’t worth measuring).

There are many reasons to be wary of metrics.

Then there is the problem of the observer effect, where the mere act of simply measuring something changes the thing being measured. In business, this tends to be the real problem. The second you begin to watch a metric and people find out that’s what’s being measured, they react to that measurement. In the best case, people try to improve that metric as you hoped and expected. In the worst case (a cynic would say in every case), people try to “game” the metric and try to trick their way to higher measurements. They “stuff the channel” right before a quarter end. They don’t show costs until the next quarter to improve profitability. Whatever the game, measuring something almost assures that someone will try to figure out how to win.

And of course we all know intuitively that people don’t do well at measurement. They respond badly to being treated like numbers, or simply cogs in a machine. They round or fudge the numbers when they are asked to measure things. And they make simple human errors. So it’s best not to build systems that rely on only metrics to judge organizational health or success.

Use metrics as one view into your world.

Again, that is not to say I don’t think there is a reason to use metrics. I think it’s important for an organization to find the things that they have in shortest supply, or that are the few keys to success, or that make a real difference in the long term health of the business, and measure those. I’ve worked with several companies to build such tools. And they prove extremely useful shorthand ways of finding out how things are going. A business dashboard if you will.

The key to all of this is to remember what metrics are: one measure of some small part of the operation. No one metric can hope to capture the whole organization. No metric is immune to mis-measurement. No metric is impervious to being gamed by those effected. And no metric is worth going insane over. Use metrics like you use all of your senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch, and intuition): as one view into your world. A meaningful blend of of all of these inputs usually provides the best information.

Jerk Is To The Bone

Jack and Suzy Welch
The Welches

In a recent article in BusinessWeek magazine, Jack and Suzy Welch advocated active pruning of the jerks from your organization. They said “nothing hurts a company more than when the bosses ignore, indulge, or otherwise tolerate a jerk.”

They go on to compare employees on two scales, performance and values. They talk about nurturing the good performance, good values players, and getting rid of the bad performance, bad values ones. These are the obvious choices. The third type is someone who is not up to par on performance, but deeply understands and honors the organization’s values. Both the Welches and I feel that these people can be taught to improve their performance.

The fourth type is the star performer who doesn’t share the values. They put it like this:

You know the type–who doesn’t? They exist at every level in almost every organization. These high performers can be mean, secretive, or arrogant. Very often they kiss up and kick down. Some are stone-cold loners, while others are moody, keeping those around them in a kind of terrorized thrall.

Jack unabashedly counsels you to get rid of these people. He even recommends that you make it a public hanging, making sure everyone knows why the person was canned, so they can learn from the experience.

Although I don’t always agree with him, I deeply respect Jack Welch. I’ve had the privilege of a special conversation with him, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates (more on that wonderful story another time). Jack meets many of my fundamental criteria for a great leader. He is direct, well-spoken, and looks for the simple solutions. Sure, he has made mistakes. Like the silly infatuation with Six Sigma or that business about charging GE for his private jet time after he left. But the man took a lumbering behemoth of a company and turned it into one of the real stars of the last 20 years. That’s good work, and he deserves credit.

Jerks just need to be expunged, even if they are the best performers.

In this case, Jack is absolutely right on target. As former head of HR at Microsoft, I have had to deal with my share of superstar jerks to be sure. And I have seen first hand the deep, insidious effect these people have in other organizations as well. I even watched a whole shop floor give a standing ovation as a jerk was finally escorted to clean out his toolbox. Jerks just need to be expunged, even if they are the best performers. The organization needs to know that company values are more important than performance. [Side note: Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software has an interesting take on values over performance in his post here]

Even though I read this article by the Welches a few weeks ago and thought it was right on, what brought it to my attention was a letter to the editor in the December 4th edition of the magazine. In his letter, Rabbi Richard Davis argues that “firing inappropriate workers when they are top producers is not smart, and it may even be counterproductive.” He goes on to say:

The cycle of firing, hiring, orientation, and training as a policy is risky and expensive. New hires are the devils we don’t know. Difficult yet valuable managers can often be brought along with less expense and with significant return on investment. Professional coaching designed to focus on the developmental tasks of executive growth, with a commitment to align with corporate values, has been shown to produce effective, lasting change.

With all due respect to the Rabbi, and with the important note that I’m also an executive coach, he is trivializing the problem. It is too easy to underestimate the damage that jerks do to the organization. And making a leopard (a true jerk) change its spots (long lived habits) is exceedingly difficult. Harder than training a new person. Simply put: jerk is to the bone. I am a firm believer in drawing another card from the deck rather than suffering with a hand that has lots of problems. That next card could be an ace.

But, a key factor here is an environment that gets new people up to speed promptly. You need to be confident that you have the systems in place to train and develop the newcomers in a way that is not “risky and expensive”. You need this not only to backfill for the jerks you shot, but also for the health of the company in the first place.

The key to Jack’s low tolerance for jerks is his confidence that he could draw another card from the deck and be happy with the result

Under Jack, GE had exceptional talent development systems — just look at all the CEOs they produced. I also had the privilege of spending a day with their head of HR, to study their amazing development systems. I’ll relate that fascinating visit some other time as well. But the key to Jack’s low tolerance for jerks, and his belief in turning out the bottom 10% of employees as well, is his confidence that he could draw another card from the deck and be happy with the result. His systems could identify the jacks and turn them into aces, and also quickly tell the twos and threes from the rest.

None of this is to say that I don’t think people never change. I have seen true jerks mellow over time — lots of time. I just don’t think you or your organization needs to wait them out. And maybe, just maybe, your canning the jerk will be just the kind of cold water in the face they need to start turning around. On someone else’s dime.

Teams of Individuals?

Reading an interesting article in Fortune Magazine entitled “How to Build Great Teams” made me think about the classic debate: do I want a team of superstars or a team of simply good people who work together superbly? The world is filled with examples of both, and this article seems to think “The A-Team” from classic TV is a great example. Whether or not you agree with that one, I can think of a number of examples from the real world.

At the risk of veering dangerously into the sports world, showing my allegiences, and taking this blog into the netherworld of incessant and ridiculous sports arguments, I think baseball has some crystal clear examples of the teams vs. individuals debate.

NY Yankees logo

Take the New York Yankees (please…). Fueled by personal cash of George Steinbrenner and the near-infinite TV revenue of the NY market, the Yankees have consistently assembled the best players in Major League Baseball. With stars like Daryl Jetter, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, etc. the team is a veritable Hall-of-Fame-in-Waiting. Yet, their results are not commensurate with the caliber of the team. Sure they win championships, but they also have spectacular failures. Two years ago they melted down against the Boston Red Sox, this year they were summarily dismissed by the Detroit Tigers.

A group of great people is not necessarily a great team

What this shows is that a group of great people is not necessarily a great team. In fact, the qualities that make a great individual star are almost always the exact opposite of those that make a great team member. Superstars tend to be loners, obsessives, and egotists who concentrate so hard on their own performance that they fail to see the need for the rest of the team. A locker room filled with these people is a nightmare of conflicting egos and self-righteous bickering.

On the other hand, the world (especially the sports world) is filled with examples of amazing teams that grew from a rather unremarkable collection of people who bonded in some almost chemical fashion and rose to greatness. Seemingly out of nowhere comes this juggernaught of a team that achieves miracles, and leaves everyone wondering how it happened.

Seattle Mariners logo

In my own personal circle, the 2001 Seattle Mariners were just such a team. Filled with good, but certainly not great, players the team bonded remarkably, and went on a season-long roll. They ended the year tying the record for the most wins in a season by any major league team (and then collapsed in the playoffs, as Seattle teams are required to do).

I had the pleasure of working that year with Jay Buhner, a former member of the team, and then part-time commentator for the club. He told of a team that was just a delight to be around. All of the players supported one another, they were all quite humble and “aw-shucks” about their winning streak, and they simply went out every day expecting to win. Success bred success, the more they won, the more they thought they should win. They beat incredible teams (including the Yankees) by playing “small ball”, by simply assembling good performances from every member of the team. The year included very few “walk-off” home runs, very few dramatic and heroic efforts, just consist performances from a very good team.

Detroit Tigers logo

People tell me that’s what we’re seeing this year from the Detroit Tigers. I remember them from 1984, when we lived nearby, a year that Sparky Anderson lead them to a world championship. They were this way as well. Just a group of above average players who became a great team. I guess they’re doing it again this year.

What this tells you as a manager of a team is that success doesn’t require superstars, just a great team. That team you have right there could be great, if you can find the magic to get them working together well. To paraphrase the Wizard of Oz, you don’t need to go out and get superstars to win, you proabably have all the team you need right there today.

You proabably have all the team you need right there today

It also tells you that, if you have superstars, it’s more important to help them to work with the team, than to help them to excel even more. I’ve seen more teams melt down because of conflicts with and resentment of superstars than any other cause. So, if you are blessed with them, watch closely their interactions with the team, and don’t be blinded by their magnificence. And if problems arise, carefully consider what the team might look like without them.

Finally, if you intend to win the world series, perhaps it’s the coach that matters more, not the players. Perhaps you need to buy a mirror… Much more on this fertile topic to follow.

How To Do Effective People Audits

Many organizations have all kinds of good intentions when it comes to developing and managing the growth of their people. They talk and plan and argue about how best to get the most out of their people. But somehow they never seem to get around to taking any definitive action. Real life always seems to intervene.

A People Audit helps focus the organization on the details that matter.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to force the issue, and to get organizations to actually do something to help their people, is to get them into the habit of an annual “People Audit”. Just like the financial audit or the budgeting process that they already go through every year, a People Audit helps focus the organization on the details that matter. In this case, the focus is on the people and positions they have, and how best to use and grow them.

The first thing that people tell me when I offer this advice is: “We need another HR process like we need a hole in the head.” But they are missing the point, their people are (as the old cliche says) their most important asset. If you aren’t willing to spend the few hours a year working to develop your organization, then you shouldn’t be leading it.

And the process doesn’t have to be long, drawn-out, or painful. Many people actually have fun.

The attached How-To document outlines how to do good People Audits, and how to get the most out of them. Try it. You’ll like it. And your organization will be better for it.