April 30, 2014

Building a Superstar team

"A" players hire "A" players
You may have heard this quote attributed to Steve Jobs, “‘A’ players hire ‘A’ players; ‘B’ players hire ‘C’ players”
In my career, I’ve found it to be consistently true. And, I’ve learned that it’s also rarely that simple.
Team makeup impacts everyone's performance
Any one person’s performance is, to some degree dependent on team composition: the diversity of skills, relevant experience, role clarity, work style preferences and personalities involved. And this means are times that “A” players find themselves within team dynamics that constrain them to performing at a “B” or “C” level. And this is frustrating to everyone involved
One way this can happen is if team leaders approach hiring as simply filling a role versus building a high performing team.
Superstars can lift everyone’s performance
Of course there are times when hiring superstar performers lift the productivity of the team. However, this rarely happens by accident. It requires active, engaged leadership (with help from their HR partner) to identify and articulate what the “right” A player would need to bring to the team.
Lou Adler shared his hiring philosophy that there are four kinds of work types: Thinkers, Builders, Improvers and Producers. And that while each type is necessary at all stages in a company’s life cycle, the balance shifts over time.  With companies needing more Thinkers and Builders at the outset and more Improvers and Producers as it matures.
Identify the hill to take or to take the hill?
Adler’s article reminded me of an interview early in my career where a startup CEO asked me, “do you prefer a) to be the one to identify the hill to take? or b) to be the one to take the hill?
At the time, I fumbled through my response because I thought it was a trick question. With time and experience on the other side of the hiring desk, I see it now for what it was. A genuine way of trying to get to know me in an interview setting.  
There isn’t a “right” answer to his question and my picking a) didn’t mean I couldn’t execute, nor did picking b) mean I wasn’t strategic. It’s simply an effective question designed to help him learn who I was, how I work and where I find my flow. This is critical information needed when assessing who to bring onto a team.
Team member diversity
Having different kinds of people on a team make it a stronger team. And that’s not just some management platitude, Harvard Business Review cited a study which confirmed when teams are diverse, more meaningful innovation occurs.
But successfully managing a diverse team can be harder on its leader. There is greater need for role clarity, communications and successful mediation of inevitable conflict. And I suspect this is may be why some managers struggle with the act of team planning and opt to forgo team diversity for homogeneity.

And by the way, if you’re interested, I prefer to “take the hill” :)

Related links:
Good leaders get out of their own heads

April 12, 2014

What's our Plan B?

“I love this idea! what’s our Plan B?”
Anyone who has worked with me has heard me use this phrase. I say it often. It only takes a few meetings to learn that having a Plan B is necessary in order to get an idea green lit, funded and resourced.
Don't get me wrong, I'm no "Debbie Downer". It's just that no matter how confident we are in the success of a program at the start, there is always the chance of execution error, miscalculations or just run-of-the-mill, unexplainable, under-performance. And it’s better to be cognizant of this potential at the start.
Projects are about engaging with risk, not avoiding them
An Econsultancy blog around recognizing the risk in project management says this:
Projects are about engaging with risks, not avoiding them. We engage with risk in order to achieve commensurate rewards. If we can eliminate all risks, then the project is probably trivial, the rewards inconsequential. Most of us want to work on projects that make a difference. So we have to deal with risk.
It goes on to confirm that the best time to think about risk is at the outset of the project. And to ensure the team is aware of the signs so that issues can be dealt with as they occur, not when too many of the dominoes have fallen.
2 more benefits of establishing a Plan B
In my experience there are additional benefits to teams who clarify their Plan B up front.
1. Clarity and transparency around the metrics
I’ve written about the many benefits of getting everyone singing off the same metric song sheet and it applies here too. The program team needs to be on the same page around the metrics that will trigger the decision to move to the established Plan B.
2. Fosters a risk tolerant culture
I want team members to bring me their move-the-needle ideas. And I want them feeling good about what the business learns from every test. Establishing a Plan B as part of their original idea removes much of the destructive “blame game” dynamics that could potentially come into play. 
Because the Plan B is part of the team's original idea, if/when a Plan B needs to be implemented, the program itself isn't a failure. And the focus can be on gaining learnings that can later be rolled into the next idea.
Planning for Plan B
Business-moving ideas will always involve some risk. Proactively planning a Plan B helps mitigate that risk. There is less hesitancy in calling issues out and putting the already-agreed-upon alternative plan into action. And it keeps the focus on learnings for the business vs. an innovation-crushing blame game or witch hunt.  

Happily, I have been fortunate to work in online businesses where technologies like A/B testing, content management systems (CMS) and marketing automation tools allow programs to be easily monitored and quickly adjusted to Plan B when it’s been needed.  

Tell me what you have learned about managing risk while fostering a risk tolerant culture?

April 2, 2014

The grass is always greener, Gwyneth

When I first heard about Gwyneth Paltrow’s remark that moms with “office jobs” have it easier than she does, I didn't have any reaction. Whatever, an actor with an opinion…

However, as the fervor grew around her comment and sarcastic responses were published, I felt compelled to bring a new perspective to the conversation: empathy from one working mom to another.
All moms are just doing their best
I believe every mom can also stipulate that being someone’s mom, anyone's mom is difficult - period, full stop. And just like the Anna Karenina quote about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way; there are the big and small stresses that are part of every mother’s experience which are unique to them. As outsiders, we just can’t know or fully understand it.
We romanticize what we want, but don’t have
Unless she's struggling with mental illness, it’s been my experience that all moms are all trying to do the right thing by their kid(s) all the time. This is true whether she manages the home, works 9-5, works 80+ hour a week 50 weeks a year or is a wildly successful movie star that has to be away on location for weeks at a time. Every mom is always, actively figuring it all out for her kids.

It's easy to demonize the "other" and assume the worst about them.  And it's especially tempting when the "other" has things in her life we have idealized or romanticized...like 24 hour nanny support, cooks and maid service or making millions in just a few weeks of hard work a year.

From what Gwyneth said, my suspicion is that she is, on some level, idealizing and romanticizing MY life.  My normal, routine, professional + wife + mother life with an almost 8 year old son.  One where I commute an hour to an office every day, take work home every night & weekend, and continually try to achieve that elusive work-life balance.

Of course, the day to day stress, drama and ups and downs in my life are things she can’t and doesn’t know. And that’s the point -- she’s romanticized the generic trappings of my "office job" life because it’s something she doesn't have in hers.
So let’s call a truce: one mom to another
Absolutely, she shouldn't have said what she said. She was having a little pity party about her life and said something insensitive. Maybe she was tired from working all day and was missing her children? I can relate to that.

Let's all remember that lesson from our mothers: the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.  No matter which side you are standing on.

So for whatever it's worth: Gwyneth - no harm, no foul.