Team Evolution: – Tough, But Essential

Team Forming

I wrote a post recently about the need to survive first and foremost in entrepreneurial life. It’s the unseen battle. Working on team evolution as the business grows is another area which gets little attention. Because it’s tough. It takes a lot of work, in my view, it takes almost constant thought. Making changes to a team is unpalatable at times as well. An early stage or growth business will stumble if team evolution is not attended to.

With young businesses, there is no room for error. Large businesses can survive, they have a depth to the organisation that can carry underperforming people to some extent. The scale of the corporate function can paper over the cracks. In a small business, there is no place to hide. An underperformer affects performance and can be a drag on the broader team dynamic and if left, the whole culture.

The Growth Challenge Emerges

When a team comes together to build a business, it does so with enthusiasm and vigour. The founding team bonds in pursuit of the vision. Bonds to deal with setbacks and tensions that buffet the early stage venture. Sometimes members of the team find out early this isn’t for them. The romanticised view of startup life doesn’t materialise. The entrepreneur’s nirvana of personal autonomy doesn’t show up. Someone has to the lead and it’s not them. They find investors need answering to. There’s always someone to answer too. In phase one, the chaff falls away.

Now you have the core team and they start to press on. As the business grows, the team extends. Team evolution brings growing pains. Some poor hires get made and while some realise and leave of their own accord, some stay. They aren’t self-aware or accepting enough to understand it’s not for them. The survival gene for the team starts to show itself now. The businesses who will survive deal with it and move poor hires out. The businesses who will struggle don’t grasp the issue, they ignore it, hoping it will go away. Because it’s tough.

Reality and romanticism have to diverge at some stage. I find there’s still too much of the matey, fun, glamorous, “we’re all in this together” image surrounding startups. Sure, we would all prefer it to be that way. But the truth is not that way. You are responsible to your stakeholders. Investors, whether a business angel or friends and family, expect their money to be looked after. Employees need to be guided responsibly. You’re in the white water of delivering your proposition and finding it’s not as smooth as expected.

Team Evolution In Sport

Let me draw a parallel here, before moving to my advice. I don’t just follow business, I follow sport. I also have a great interest in the great coaches and managers in sport. Because business people can learn a lot from them.

Team Evolution photograph of Sir Alex Ferguson mentioned in this article as someone expert in team development. Holding Premiership trophy.

Sir Alex Ferguson led Manchester United to unprecedented success in his 25-year reign as manager. He built both a tight family culture, while at the same time a ruthless performance culture. Several times during the Ferguson era, he broke proven winning teams up. Even stars with huge contributions to date got sent on their way. In some instances, this was because they were pushing back on the culture or on the process. But Ferguson also had an uncanny talent for knowing when a team member was approaching the point of decline.

I was reading an article about Michael Carrick, a player under Ferguson and now a coach. This sentence from the piece stood out:

“Listening to Carrick is an exercise in being reminded of the essential tenets of the game: hard work, humility, persistence, no short cuts, just “relentlessness”, one of Carrick’s default descriptions of United under Ferguson.” The word “relentless” stood out for me.

Winners Evolve, Again and Again

Here’s Sir Alex on the subject:

“Three or four players got old at the same time. I had to remember that I was the manager of Manchester United, not their father and I had to go and tell them their time had come. Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Denis Irwin and Bryan Robson … it is very difficult to do. Some people might say it is ruthless but it is about loyalty to the club. I am their manager, employed by them, and it is up to me to make sure Manchester United remains the best team.”

My other example of a sports performance culture where team evolution is a key to success is Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots of the NFL. Again, an unprecedented winner. Team structure and playing strategies evolve and mutate, again and again, to confound opponents. Belichick is not known for flashy, high dollar signings. He builds his teams around players lower down the annual draft and castoffs from other teams. Each season several key players get let go. The good of the team trumps any false sense of loyalty. Then they win again. The system evolves and so team evolution matches it.

Growth Can Outstrip Talent

What does this mean for the young business? It means what got you here will almost certainly not get you to the next level. Of course, the inspirational founder can lead for many years. Examples such as Nike’s Phil Knight. But some founders overstay their welcome. The dynamic and sometimes chaotic early culture needs to mature to maximise the potential. Some self-aware leaders know when to stand aside and let an operator take over. Sadly, some don’t.

Further down the organisation chart, talent which has been key to date can become less effective. I have experienced organisational growth in speed or scale which has rendered formerly star talent pedestrian. Organisations can’t face the reality of dealing with this at times. If it’s addressed then it can benefit all, but if left then business underperformance and undue stress for struggling people can result.

Let’s remember that capable people don’t tend to become incompetent overnight. The capability of a manager is a relatively fixed dimension; skills can be worked on, but the intrinsic potential will remain the same. The needs of an organisation can outstrip that capability. In those cases, there are two outcomes. The manager recognises it and is happy to work in a lower level role in the growing organisation. Not all talent improves in line with organisational growth. Or, the manager doesn’t see it and believes they still have the capability to contribute at this higher level.

The Difficult Decision

Sometimes the difficult decision needs making in order for team development to reflect strategic direction or growth. These conversations get quite often sidestepped or left for too long. Because we are human and our tendency is not to have these difficult conversations. Leaving them can let an organisation drift off track and can cause stress for the person too. At a conscious or unconscious level, a manager may know they are beyond their capacity. Or the second outcome, where a manager does not see the issue and guide their function in the wrong direction. This could be through a lack of self-awareness or hubris.

Tools For Team Evolution

An organisation is like an organism, changing and responding to internal and external forces. It never stays the same. Your business is either moving forward or it is regressing. It’s never in standing on the same spot. I would imagine that a large number of the early team will develop and grow with the business. You will recruit new talent from outside to meet the growth challenges and strategic adjustments. All good, that’s as it should be.

The facet often ignored is team development; capability development. It’s good practice to look at the talent and capability in the organisation once or twice a year. In the context of not only today, but the next three years. I use a simple nine-box matrix to map talent. This helps to clarify who forms the solid professional centre that a business needs. It also highlights the high performers and allows for their talent to be best used. You can see who is struggling and try to understand sources and possible solutions. Will training resolve this? Are they at the edge of their capability and would a different role help them flourish? Is it a case of poor cultural fit?

I’m sure many of us have used this type of tool to great effect. The one thing this matrix doesn’t do is capture the direction of the business, rather it’s a moment in time. The important practice is to consider your talent in the context of a future version of the business. What’s good now might not work as you move into new areas.

Team Evolution, It Applies To All

You can see that it’s not easy for anyone at any level to make the tough decisions when it comes to team evolution. Most of us are comfortable to tell someone they’re moving onwards or upwards. But it’s never a great experience for any party to partake in the tougher conversations. But it’s an executive’s duty to have the conversations.

More important is to develop the right balance of hard talent assessment; have strong insight into people and their performance; and then to analyse it in the context of the strategic direction of the business.

A final note. I lead a decent small to medium growth business and have done for a while. I’m very conscious that the process applies to me too. Am I developing along with the business? Do I work to develop myself; do I ask the tough questions of myself and do I have my support network challenge me? Am I indeed the right person to take the business forward? My job is to make the business the best it can be. If I’m not the right executive, the same standards apply.

If we are to be good leaders we have to set the same standards for ourselves. We have to apply the same processes. Ask yourself are you the right leader as the team evolves?



Also published on Medium.

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