Getting the right people on board for a successful team

Robert McHenry, executive chairman of OPP, has learned through experience what it takes to construct a good team around you. Here, he gives some advice.

The old adage, ‘People are your most important asset’ is wrong. The right people are your most important asset. This is the assertion made by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great – one of the few management books worth reading. Collins goes on to say that business success often follows if you get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. Then you can decide where to drive it.

When I started up in business, I had the advantage of knowing how to select good people. That was the expertise I was selling to others. However, I was slow to realise that you only get the best out of them if you put them in the right seats. Everyone I employed was clever, willing and capable but some were poor at managing others and most struggled to sell what we had to offer – particularly to potential clients.

Many of my friends who ran small businesses made up of professional and technical specialists complained of the same things. We just wanted to drive the bus but we kept stopping to let people on and off, calm the squabbling among the passengers and move people around the seats.

After six years of slow revenue and profit growth, I decided to review the qualities and expertise that I had in the team around me. As you may have already guessed, it was a narrow spectrum. Then I attempted to list which qualities relevant to success were missing or underrepresented in my team (including me). I used a method recommended in an article in the Harvard Business Review where about 25 ‘competencies’ relevant to business were described and you had to choose a selection relevant to your enterprise. I was tempted to choose all 25 as essential to my success but eventually ended up with a list of 12 or 14.

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Most individuals have personal strengths in about six to eight of these competencies so the trick is to choose team members so that the collective makes up the whole set. There will also be competencies (eg good decision making, coping with pressure) that you want everyone to have. By being systematic in this way, you can define a great team as well as the roles you want its different members to play. If you are in start-up, you have a blue-print for selecting new employees. If you already have a team, you can identify the gaps and either launch a training and development plan or decide to get the wrong people off the bus and select some new ones.

One mistake I made when designing my team, was to undervalue the competence of adaptability. I replaced some members of my team with new people who had already travelled in the direction I wanted to go but after a year, new and better business opportunities presented themselves. It is easy to imagine that you will only ever need to drive the bus along a particular route. However, frequently in business, you encounter the unexpected and you have to take a new turning. When I reached that point, two members of my team wanted to get off the bus because they were uncomfortable embarking on a journey that was different from the one they set out on.

Knowledge of how to define and measure and select systematically for competency in a team is one of the best assets a business leader can have. Most do not have the time to acquire and practise this knowledge but fortunately there are resources available to help. My own firm, for instance, makes available a comprehensive competency list similar to the one I found in that business article 20 years ago; the list is based on data and each competency in the list is carefully defined. Like me, you may find it revealing to choose the competencies your business needs for overall success and then identify the gaps.

In future blogs, I will be describing in more detail how to use a system like this and how to select and build a team of people who will keep your bus on the road and get you to your destination without veering off it.

Further reading on recruiting staff

Robert McHenry

Robert McHenry

Dr Robert McHenry is founder and executive chairman of OPP.

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