Building Your Strongest Team: Five experts weigh in on what it takes to attract, retain and grow high-performing talent

Authentic Brand: Strong Teams - Building Your Strongest Team

No business leader sets out to build a losing team, and yet, many organizations suffer from low productivity, poor morale and high turn-over. The fact is, strong teams don’t happen by accident, nor as a product of good intentions. Building and maintaining a strong team takes vision, discipline, systems, consistency, and the willingness to make hard decisions that impact real people.

For leaders of fast-growing businesses, the challenges are amplified. It’s not easy to maintain culture and productivity while recruiting and integrating new talent on a regular basis. Thankfully, we can learn a lot from businesses who are getting it right in the areas of culture, talent development and teamwork.

Welcome to this edition of Authentic Brand’s “virtual panel” series: a Q&A exchange with five leaders in the Twin Cities talent community as we explore how to build strong teams.

This group of talent leaders have seen it all, and then some. Combined, they’ve invested more than 100 working years in the discipline of human resources: attracting, assessing, recruiting, coaching and developing top talent for businesses of all types, sizes and industries.

In this virtual panel, we capture their diverse perspectives on what it takes to build your strongest team. As you read their comments, you may start to recognize gaps in your own team or approach. Take heart! Not only do these experts provide great insight and advice, but many of them also offer services to help you address specific needs in your organization. I encourage you to reach out directly to any of our panelists. I know each of them personally, and I can confidently say they would be happy to hear from you.

Now, without further ado, allow me to introduce our esteemed panelists (subsequently referred to by first name in the conversation that follows):

Q1: In order to make strong hires, business leaders must first understand where they have gaps within their teams. What tools or strategies have you found to be effective in identifying those gaps?

(MARY) To determine gaps, you must first understand the strengths and skills you have on your team. You also need to understand what motivates your team members and what they are truly passionate about. Using full psychometric assessments and conducting one-on-one interviews will provide you the data you need to determine if you already have talent on the team who can be further developed or if you need to go outside. You also need a clear vision of your future and a roadmap to getting there. After identifying roles that will allow you to reach your goals, you must create an organizational or accountability chart to see where they fit into your overall picture. It is important to not only identify missing skills and experience but also behaviors and traits that will allow your new hires to be successful and to contribute in a much more strategic way.

(MIKE) Regardless of whether or not the company utilizes EOS, I like to use the philosophy/fundamentals of the EOS Accountability Chart for identifying gaps. The leader of each functional area (Sales/Marketing, Finance/Admin, Operations) should be taking full accountability for that function of the business. Through a series of questions with the owner and the leaders, we can often determine where the real accountability resides. If the functional leader isn’t/can’t take full accountability, then there is a gap. We will then utilize tools like OmniView Match 3.0 and/or our Culture Blueprint to determine the reason the accountability is lacking (lack of experience, poor attitude, core values mismatch etc…).

(LAURA) I’ve participated in several whiteboarding sessions where we’ve mapped out the org structure and done a brainstorming session on missing pieces in terms of roles/talent. I have seen success in partnering with EOS implementers to uncover these gaps as well. I think it’s particularly important that leaders also look at their strengths and weaknesses as individuals and seek to hire other personality types that will compliment them. A question I sometimes ask is: “(CEO Name), in a candid assessment of your strengths and weaknesses as a leader, what is a characteristic you absolutely cannot live without [in this hire] because it is going to shore up one of your gaps? Alternately, which characteristics are you able to compromise on because of your leadership strengths?”

(STEVE) I’ve adapted a framework that is intended for use with whole organization design to identify team-level capability gaps. You start by asking, “What does this team need to do better than the competition in order to win?” The resulting list of 5-6 team capabilities then can be broken down into people/process/technology capabilities that are required to succeed. From there you assess and identify gaps. The process is eye-opening, and it will help the organization focus its efforts on capabilities that really matter, which will help you target the right kind of talent for your team.

(ERIN) In my work, I use the Kolbe A Index™ to identify gaps on a team.  While other assessments measure someone’s personality, influence or behavior, Kolbe focuses on the concept of conation – defined as action derived from instinct.  Put simply, It is what our gut tells us to do when we take action. Without going deep into the nuances of the tool, I use a grid of 12 ways in which people naturally take action.  In order to see where the conative gaps on a team exist, I will take all team member results and plot them on a grid to see exactly where there is an imbalance of talent: both too much and too little.  If there is too much talent in one area, then the question becomes how to use the resources efficiently.

Q2: There’s a huge difference between healthy, high-performing teams, and dysfunctional, unproductive teams. Why are some teams stronger than others, and what dynamics or behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged to help build and maintain organizational health?

(STEVE) Dysfunction fills a leadership vacuum. How the team leader leads and manages will be the difference-maker. At the core is clarity. At a group level, the team’s purpose and intended contribution to the company mission are well defined and it has clear, measurable objectives that matter to the business. At an individual level, team members understand their purpose, contribution and behavioral expectations. Next there is accountability at a team and individual level. Visibility, scrutiny and consequences/rewards do wonders for shaping how people perform and behave. There are other factors like individual skills and fit, but if the team leader focuses her or his energy on putting this kind of structure and discipline in place, there is only room for performance and little air left for dysfunctional dynamics, which can be addressed quickly when they arise.

(MARY) Trust. A team that trusts one another and is willing to work through the challenges in an honest and respectful way is the definition of healthy. Trust requires vulnerability, and the choice to believe that each person within a team has the right motives and agenda. Trusting skill sets, strengths and end goals is key to creating a team that discusses areas for improvement, discrepancies and short falls. Healthy conflict and transparency are behaviors that help to build trust and create a team dynamic that celebrates successes and works together to solve problems. Team dynamics start at the top of an organization. If a leader is distrusting, or back-channeling thoughts and assessment of team members, the trust of a team is undermined. A leader who encourages transparency with financials, vision and gaps creates an environment of trust which is then trickled down into the organization.

(ERIN) I consider a team strong when they understand and leverage their differences. Differences can sometimes be a source of frustration – but, if we take the time to understand these differences, they can provide great insight into how to form a synergistic team. For example, you probably have that person on your team that needs all of the information; all of the details. Instead of getting frustrated when they look for more information, accept that this is part of how this person works and contributes – and figure out how to leverage these talents to the team’s advantage. Next time a question comes up that needs great amount of detail, this person is the go-to for the research.

(MIKE) In my experience, the biggest reason for dysfunctional teams is a misalignment of core values. If the team does not truly share core values, they will have differing agendas and will always struggle to row in the same direction. Once the company knows they have the right people on the boat, then clear and open communication becomes one of the biggest keys to success, but if the wrong people (wrong values) are on the boat, no amount of communication will fix the problem.

(LAURA) Personally, I think it all stems from the leader. Whether it’s a leader of a company, a leader of a team, or someone that becomes the de facto leader – at the end of the day people work for people. The saying, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” rings true with so many of the professionals I meet who are looking for new opportunities. The strongest teams that I’ve observed have leaders who are empathetic, flexible and collaborative. People enjoy working for leaders that are willing to roll up their sleeves and truly become part of the team. It’s also important to foster an environment of acceptance and inclusion, where diverse thinking it embraced. When you enjoy being around your colleagues, the work is more impactful. It’s fun to be part of an environment that embraces new ways of thinking and different perspectives.

Q3: Executive-level hires require deep investment and have significant impact on the business. What is the worst mistake a business can make in hiring a key executive role? What advice would you give to help them avoid this mistake?

(MIKE) Sometimes the worst thing that can happen when hiring an executive is that you are successful in filling the job!  No matter how you source (on your own, search firm etc…) candidates will always show up when you conduct a search for an executive. The only way to ensure you are hiring the very best executive is to have a thoughtful and thorough process in place for:

  1. Making sure the job profile is built correctly, so you are looking for the right characteristics;
  2. Sourcing appropriate candidates (not just ones who are available); and
  3. Appropriately screening and assessing executive candidates against the needed competencies, leadership abilities and core values.  

If you are not equipped to do all three of these exceptionally well, it is possible to make the TERRIBLE hire (one you fire very quickly), but more likely you’ll end up making the “OK hire”. This hire is actually worse than the terrible hire, because by the time you realize this person is not right, they’ve done real damage to your culture and/or your reputation and you’re forced to spend a great deal of time and money unwinding the damage. If you are not equipped to do this on your own, hire a search firm to help. However, don’t assume all search firms have great processes in place. Make sure you understand their process completely and feel comfortable they will not be taking any shortcuts in any of the steps above.

(MARY) The worst mistake in hiring an executive is making a singular decision. The impact of an executive hire goes well beyond the financials of the company. It affects the team dynamic, the culture and the future of the organization. To avoid making the wrong hire, start by creating a profile and a benchmark of desired behaviors and traits: those that will define success for current state, as well as future state. This allows for alignment with the recruitment process and an objective selection process. It’s essential to gain buy-in from the leadership team by listening to their input on what they see as critical to the future success of the organization. An executive hire is not the magic bullet to turning around your organization or seeing exponential growth. Business acumen is important, but it’s also critical to understand how the executive will leverage the current skills on the team and be a leader of people.

(ERIN) Duplicating talents is a common mistake. I have seen the adage of “people hire people like themselves” come true time and time again. When the team isn’t getting the results they want (or are working way too hard to get there), it is usually a sign that they have duplicated talents. In order to help a team avoid this mistake, I would ask them to consider conative implications when hiring. In addition to just thinking about the role, what other talents are missing from a leadership team? Do you need another person that will research the details? Create the systems? Have the innovative idea? Many business leaders are asking these questions on a subconscious level but I would encourage them to bring these types of questions into the conversation at the launch of hiring.

(LAURA) Don’t have too many cooks in the [hiring] kitchen. It is important to solicit feedback from members of the executive team, board of directors and others, but at the end of the day their needs to be someone who owns the hiring decision. Trying to please too many others leads to poor hiring decisions.

(STEVE) The biggest mistake a business can make is over-focusing on results at the expense of values alignment and cultural considerations. If the business wants to preserve the culture and get better results with an outside recruit, then the candidate needs to be able to adapt and not be rejected by the organization. My advice would be to get clear on your organization’s core values, understand what successful leadership looks like (or should look like) in your organization’s culture, and then be sure your recruiting process has mechanisms to evaluate candidates against these standards. These mechanisms should include assessments and a structured, iterative interview process that is designed around the standards.

Q4: What are the primary benefits of working with a recruiter, and what advice would you give a business leader to make that recruiting relationship most effective?

(LAURA) Many of today’s recruiters are specialized in a particular vertical or industry and can provide insights into the health of the market, key players that might be open to a proactive conversation, and other marketing intelligence that a company may not otherwise be able to gain on their own. A good recruiter spends an extraordinary amount of time getting to know their client so they can be a brand ambassador for that company, spreading their story to the market. This is especially helpful for businesses who may not have an established employer brand / reputation. My strongest advice is to choose someone that best represents your brand: someone that you trust, someone that will own it for you. Once you’ve found that person or firm, be generous with your time. The more information and people you can introduce them to, the more time that saves you on the backend, helping you bypass candidates who aren’t right for your company. Any recruiter can read a job description and send you resumes. A recruiting partner goes deep and probes further into the needs of the business, well beyond a job description.

(MARY) Working with a recruiter allows you to turn over your most critical search to experts in finding and engaging top talent. While there is power in networking and word of mouth, a recruiter can find a spectrum of talent that offers the skills and experience your business needs, while also assessing for culture and personality fit: how this person will assimilate into your team. Using a recruiter will no doubt decrease the amount of time a leader has to spend on making the right hiring decision and will increase the odds of success. Selecting the right recruitment firm is key. Choose one who specializes in your industry or expertise and who treats the engagement as a true partnership.  

(STEVE) The benefits of working with a recruiter depend on what you are looking for and what you buy, which aren’t always the same thing. To that end, my first piece of advice is to get clear on what you’re hiring for: capacity or capability or both? The recruiting industry is in the midst of a transformation. Like many people-related business activities, technology is disrupting what used to be a high-touch, one-on-one process in which well-connected industry veterans traded on insider knowledge and rolodex size. Technology is bringing jobs and talent together without the middleman, so the value proposition of the modern recruiter is changing.

You can still benefit from a good recruiter’s specialized knowledge: who the talent is and where they are. You can also benefit from someone bringing an extra set of hands to run the recruitment sales and marketing machine. Price points can vary widely based on what services a recruiter provides, so businesses will benefit from knowing what they need and then paying accordingly.

(ERIN) Recruiting is an acquired skill – a real blend of art and science, balancing relational intuition and network savvy. While business leaders may be experts in their respective industry, a recruiter can bring their talent experience to the table to help business leaders elevate their hiring strategy. My advice to business leaders is to start with a clear vision of what attributes will make your team stronger, and then engage a recruiting partner who can help you cast a wider net into a highly targeted pool of candidates.

(MIKE) In small and mid-sized companies, job descriptions are not cut and dried. Great employees often have to wear multiple hats and be willing to do just about anything to help move the company forward. A great recruiter should not only be able to recruit to a given list of skills/competencies, but should be able to assist the company in building the right profile for the job in the first place. The recruiter should be able to understand and apply the overall business goals to that profile, so ultimately the hire will help move the company forward, not just fill a seat.

A great recruiter should also take accountability for the whole hiring process, not just putting resumes in front of you and letting you figure out the rest. They should assist in building an interviewing process, manage candidates through the process, help you negotiate compensation and ultimately get the very best person on board. Too many recruiters think their job ends when you start interviewing the candidates they’ve presented.

Q5: If I am an executive in a growing business, what is one step that I can take today that will help build a foundation for strong hires and team health in the future?

(ERIN) The best thing you can do is be true to your instinctive self; building a complementary team that will let you thrive. If you only hire people like yourself, you will be competing for certain conative roles on a team and figuring out how to make the resources efficient vs. creating an environment where you can truly thrive. Hire people that are different than you to see true synergy in action.

(MIKE) Don’t just pay lip service to core values. Make sure you understand what core values truly drive you and the business, and objectively evaluate your current team for fit around those values. If you have misalignment, make the necessary changes. When you have a team well aligned around your core values, recruiting and hiring become much easier. Your current employees are much more likely to refer good people and candidates on the outside start to see you as a great place to work. Big companies spend lots of time and money building an “employer brand” via media campaigns, job fairs etc… but for smaller companies, grass roots reputation building is the only thing that’s practical, and it all starts with core values alignment.

(STEVE) It starts with vision – getting clear on what kind of business you envision for the future. Within that vision, get specific about the values, beliefs and principles that will shape who you are and how you run your business. Involve your team in doing the work of defining these things, because being involved in the act of creation builds alignment, commitment and internalization. With this as a foundation, your team can establish standards for employees and new hires that will guide performance management and talent selection processes into the future.

(MARY) The one step you can do today is to make the people plan a priority. Be proactive in your people planning and don’t wait until someone leaves or you are under the gun to hire. This will compromise the process and will cause you to react too quickly. From investing in your talent, to choosing the right partners to work with – make your people your priority. Strong hires and team health stem from an intentional choice to place value on your people strategy, which directly affects your business strategy. Make a point to understand the strengths on your team, the gaps in skill or in business acumen, and the overall team dynamics. From there, your people plan sets the stage for both growth and change: identifying critical positions and helping your top performers find development opportunities and new challenges. Team health requires trust, a cohesive and communicated plan, and the right people around the table.


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Jennifer Zick

Founder and Lead Consultant at Authentic Brand
Jennifer Zick is the Founder and CEO of Authentic Brand, a Minneapolis-based marketing consultancy that helps growing businesses gain marketing traction through fractional marketing leadership and messaging strategy.
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