What is the right approach to leadership, team building and performance?

Earlier in my career I worked in a ‘meritocracy’. That was the aspired organisational aim — that the cream would rise to the top and poor performance and ability would not be tolerated. We would then have a competitive advantage through talent. The top performers were the organisational stars and the focus of our development and investment. They were also the focus of most of our attention. The organisation was focused on creating teams full of high performers and moving on the lower performers. ‘Rank and yank’ — where every employee is assessed relative to others and the poorer performers expected to exit — was almost fully in play. We explicitly measured to what extent we were shedding low performers.

As the narrative on leadership shifted over the following years, organisations began to reflect on what I'd refer to as ‘performance in the aggregate’. In another words, what is the total output of the team and what impact do people have on others. We started talking about the impact of toxic high performers, people who delivered outlier results but also impacted negatively on others. The ‘Moneyball approach’ — which focused on a cost effectiveness/value-driven assessment of talent — captured people’s imagination. Was the secret not about collecting high performers but in finding the right blend of people to achieve amazing things together? If a top performer makes everyone else work ten percent worse, then surely, tough as it may be, they should be the ones to move on.

Purple squirrels, ninjas and rock stars

Then we entered the era of purple squirrels (impossibly rare talent), ninjas and rock stars. Tech companies scrabbling over each other to offer perks to attract the very best developers. Bean bags, frozen eggs, free meals, table football and equity. Agile teams driven by a desire to be the best at what they did. In the words of the wonderful character Gavin Belson from the satire Silicon Valley ‘I don't want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do’. Once again talent beat out teams and the fallout was the combative and testosterone fuelled narrative of the ‘war for talent’ coming to the fore again — this time playing out even more aggressively in terms of reward in certain sectors — with amazing rewards for some whilst others being treated as utterly disposable. Pay to get the best to stay and then pay settlement agreements to make any issues they caused go away.

Rounded approach to team building needed

My hope is that the pendulum will stop swinging soon and we will adopt a less binary approach to team building — appreciating the value that people bring in a more rounded way. I'm writing this in advance of the World Cup semi-final and whilst I think the lessons business can take from sport can often be lazy and unhelpful, there is little doubt that this tournament has put different approaches into stark relief. Argentina, unable to deliver at the absolute top level due to its desire to build everything around one star player, Lionel Messi, while England is flourishing due to the emphasis on the team as a unit. This doesn't lift and drop perfectly into organisations — but a more rounded view on talent seems to help. Having high performers in teams doesn't guarantee high performance.

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