Building Teams: The Art of Change

The Beer Test is not always to be relied upon when forming a team. (Beer Test: “after the interview, would I like to have a beer with this person?”). Fitting in, being likeable, charismatic, energetic… all of those good things, may in some cases make this the last person you should hire.

Having worked with many teams, and built many teams, from C-suite to hundreds and also thousands, I have found that in every case one thing is always true: as businesses grow, teams must change. The question to live in, throughout a company’s growth, is not, “how can this team survive intact”, but “what’s the next iteration of this team going to be?”.

If that sounds like ruthless human trafficking, be assured, it’s not. You’ll understand why by the bottom of the page.

The Beginnings

Let’s begin with startup teams. They tend to form by osmosis. School mates, the interested donator, the brains plus the business brawn… these combinations are great for creative conception and early nurturing of brilliance, but often run into trouble when success starts to bite. What’s needed? More of the same? Clearly not. This is where team-building becomes an art as much as a science.

Homogeneity is not helpful. Too many people who do the same things in the same way, however brilliantly, do not make for success. The “company man” is extinct, and quite right too. Today it’s about cultural add more than cultural fit. If you really want to grow, then seek out and invite in the ones who are going to bring a new ingredient.

This is not advocating disruption for disruption’s sake however. Harmony is still the goal, but enriching the mix requires diversity. More of the same will dilute. Adding difference — the nay sayer, the one who will win you round to their way of thinking — will enrich. An orchestra made up of more and more trumpets will get noisier, but will it really be making music?

Here’s the key: you’re looking for different points of view, but a shared set of values.

Put another way, a healthy team is one that frequently breaks out into violent agreement.

With MoneySuperMarket the business’s purpose was to help people save money. The common value we sought was altruism: people who wanted to help other people. Some hires were supremely commercial, others came from NGOs. Different experience, same fundamental values.

A Story of Growth

We can map out a general growth story for a team, say over an 8 year period:

Iteration 1:

A founder CEO and her small startup team. There’s pace, energy and the drive to get the business off the ground. Growth at any cost.

Iteration 2:

The job now is to professionalise the business. This may require a new CEO. Undoubtedly some new team members with specific experience and points of view.

Iteration 3:

Now it’s about iterative change as well as establishing firm maintenance principles. It could well be the same CEO, but the team will need to change. That may mean additions and / or substitutions.

The loyalty here is to the business. With that in place, the team is free to change in the way it needs to. Team change becomes a tool. Not so frequently as to be unsettling, but as adaptively and nimbly as possible. It requires honesty and yes, some hard decisions, but anything else is simply not serving the reason the business was set up in the first place.

Spending Early

What about budget? The question of over-hiring at an early stage is an interesting one. A company with a revenue of £2m, planning to get to £10m might make a big hire of a Sales Director from a £100m business. (That’s not unrealistic. It might be just the challenge a big hitter is looking for.) This will cost more, but the positive effect on a small business will be huge. Everyone will start to think bigger, based on this hire alone. An attitude of making-do, with nothing but modest hires early on, runs the risk of stifling ambition.

Finally there’s the question of role mobility. In a company like JCB, most people in the executive team have worked in almost every function. The HR Director could move across to run the engineering team for example. It may sound risky, but it works. It wouldn’t work for every business, mainly due to issues of complexity, but the benefits to the energy and freshness of the business can be immense.

Team building was never meant to be a linear process. When change is embraced and the greater cause is kept front and centre, it becomes a powerful tool to take a company to the places its founders always dreamed of.

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