Skip to main content

Who’s made the first team? Selecting the right people

“whenever feasible pick your team on character, not skills. You can teach skills; you can’t teach character”

Sir Ranulph Fiennes


I hear congratulations are in order…you made it, you’ve been chosen to lead the business – great news. After all the hard work over the past umpteen years you’re now at the helm – well done.

The even better news is that the board have agreed that you can build your own team; after a few rocky years under your predecessor they are keen to wipe the slate clean and appoint a new CEO…better still, you can have your pick of the people who will work for you.

If that sounds good, you’re right, but this is where the tough part begins: how do you choose the people you are going to work very closely with on a daily basis…not so easy.

Where to begin?

I would advise that you begin by avoiding the temptation to hire people similar to yourself. This happens all too often and is usually detrimental to an organisation. Leaders with big egos tend to go looking for younger versions of themselves. As vanity projects go, this has the potential to be a very successful tactic, but it lacks substance, would cause internal friction and will not deliver the robust organisation you seek. For the record, I am not suggesting that you should go looking for your diametric opposite; that too would cause a degree of friction, and once again deliver little or no resilience within the organisation. The final health warning is as straight forward as the first 2: don’t just go looking for individuals with impressive personalities. Yes, there needs to be a ‘chemical’ fit in any team, but if a chemical fit is all you are after, then be prepared to lead an organisation as wobbly as the two mentioned previously in this paragraph.

Experience tells me that in the same way you would deal with any other problem, the start point is understanding your situation and what you (and your organisation) are being asked to do. By doing this your are more likely to get off on the right foot, i.e. you’ll be looking for people who are ‘right’ for the environment and the task at hand. By developing a thorough understanding of your world and what you are required to do (presumably by the board), then you stand a far greater chance of being successful. It will also allow you to think more freely about the type of individuals that you are after. Throughly understanding where you are and where you want to be you will release you from the temptation to merely recruit people who have experience in the sector and just bring a good address book to the business.

This may seem radical, but the right people for your organisation may have no experience of your world; don’t be put off by this, you’re looking for something beyond skill, as Sir Ranulph Fiennes puts it, “you can teach skills; you can’t teach character”.

What am I looking for?

Only you can answer that question, as only you have the detailed knowledge of your world coupled with knowing what the board wants you to achieve. However, lets take the idea of character a little further, it might shed some light on the question.

Character is defined as: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
There is definitely something in the word individual, after all it is individuals that you are after. Indeed as Martin Luther King said:

“I look forward to the day when all Americans are judged solely by the content of their character”

The big question here is what constitutes character? Character has both positive and negative connotations:

“cold showers early in the morning we seen as character building for all of the boys”

“he was a bit of a suspicious looking character”

Well, the team you select is going to be yours, so what constitutes character is clearly your call. If I were in your shoes I would want to have a series of qualities that form the characteristics you are seeking. Perhaps some of the qualities or characteristics might be common to all whilst other attributes my be so specific that they are only found in very few people.

Common to all

The bedrock of all the organisations I have had the pleasure of leading has been trust. I would not hire someone I did not believe to be trustworthy. Trust is a frame of mind; trustworthy people deliver, go the extra mile and put the interests of others (and therefore the team) before themselves. This is not just the kind of trust that means people do not put their hands in the till (although that is clearly useful!), it is the sort of trust that ensures you can rely on that individual to do what they say they are going to and when they say they are going do it.

I would like all members of my team to demonstrate resilience, both professionally and emotionally. My team needs to be able to take the knocks. A new team will be delivering new ideas and doubtless a high degree of change, to which there will be some resistance. Therefore a team that is sufficiently robust to take rejection and the odd knock-back is more likely to demonstrate perseverance, which works hand-in-glove with resilience. These characteristics are likely to give you a distinct advantage in any situation.

Resilient people who posses the will to persevere are extremely useful, however to be truly invaluable they need a large dollop of empathy. Those who are able to empathise know when to change their approach in order to get where they need to be. Empathisers are less likely to keep running into an obstacle, as they would have managed to avoid the obstacle long before encountering it.

Enthusiasm, high energy and a degree of compulsiveness, are also very useful. These characteristics allow people to go the extra mile or 2; they ensure that they will go the extra distance willingly, focussing on the mission and a deep desire to succeed.

Some niche characteristics

I talked in detail about charisma when I looked at ‘the James Bond effect’ (insert link), so I won’t dwell on it. However, against a backdrop of selecting your team, you would be wise to ensure that you do not have too many people who might be described as charismatic. The problem with people who possess that attribute is that they might just up-stage you. Deliberately or not, this has the power to undermine you. Having said that, a charismatic team member appropriately managed and invested in would absolutely pay dividends, but it will need thinking about.

I would also tread carefully when selecting individuals who demonstrate high levels of intuition. A couple of intuitive thinkers in any team will be highly beneficial , but too many will encourage procrastination which in turn will lead to paralysis – no good for anyone. Whilst I am not suggesting that you have the monopoly on wisdom, on the contrary you should develop free thought and advocate creativity, but too many ‘intuitives’ will reduce the organisation’s momentum as it sinks under the weight of the next idea borne of ‘gut-feeling’ and ‘instinct’.

So maybe 10-15% of your team might demonstrate charisma and intuition. Your call, but as with many things, less, is more.

The work I do with Talent Identification in the Football Association, has confirmed for me that selecting a team is about a blend of skills and characteristics and only the leader of that team has sufficient knowledge to do it in a given space and team. Like no other world, football suffers from the effects of enormous egos. I would always advocate parking one’s ego in any situation, wether as leader or follower. Egos get in the way. Perhaps Leicester City’s performance in the Premier League is the embodiment of team selection done ‘right’ without the restrictions placed on it by ego. We will never know Ranieri’s secret, and there is a good chance that he doesn’t have one, however something worked…let’s see what happens now there are a few more household names in the dressing room.

Forgive the buzzword but…

To get the right people in place you will need to consider your options (here comes the buzzword) holistically. You may have some of your preferred team members at your fingertips already. You may know them well, thus making the task easier. You may, however, be selecting a team from scratch; putting together a bunch of strangers. That is a different task. The only way to put together a team of strangers that will have a fighting chance of success is consider what you are being asked to. It is this focus on the task that will allow you to select and identify that attributes that you are after for mission success. Simply going after a skill set will not do that. There is every possibility that there will be 100 qualified individuals for each position your seeking to fill, but being qualified does not make them ‘right’.

Focus on the mission, look for the right characters and anything is surmountable.

“leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy”

General H Norman Schwarzkopf

leadership, management

Leave a Reply