How to Build an A Team

a team

Build an A Team

Those who aspire to be successful quickly realize that individual performance isn’t usually enough. Only a team of committed individuals can accomplish great things. So a leader’s job turns to finding, selecting, and cultivating an amazing team.

If you wonder whether you are performing at your best, look at your team. My philosophy has always been that, if they are growing, your company will follow.



One way to tell whether you are growing is to look at where your team falls on the S curve. Based on Whitney Johnson’s proprietary research around disruption, every organization is a collection of individual S – or learning – curves. You build high performing team by optimizing these individual curves, including yours. In her book, Build an A-Team, you will learn how to manage people all along the S-curve and what to do when they reach the top of the curve. As employees are allowed, even required, to surf their individual S-curve waves, disrupting themselves, you will not only be less vulnerable to disruption, you’ll also be a boss people want to work for.



After the release of your last book, Disrupt Yourself, you traveled and met the leaders of many organizations. As you spoke with them, what surprised you most?

Many people feel stuck, like a genie corked in a lamp; if somebody (usually their boss) would just pull that cork, they could make magic. They say, “I’m ready to disrupt myself. How can I persuade my boss to let me?” Or, “How can I get my team to disrupt themselves? How can I get my boss on board with that?” In Build an A Team I answer these questions and address the fact that, in most cases, fear of failure is the cork. We may be the cork in the bottle—our own, and our employees’.



Be the Boss People Love to Work For

What makes a boss “the kind people love to work for”?

Envisioning the workplace as a school, a laboratory for experimentation, and encouraging employees to learn on the job—with the freedom to fail that experimentation requires. The mind and skill-expanding opportunity motivates great engagement more than money or accolades. A boss who isn’t governed or governing by deadlines and quarterly reports, fearful of capsizing the boat and therefore messaging, “I like you right where you are—stay right where you are.” Instead, she not only allows but encourages, and sometimes even requires, subordinates to periodically disrupt themselves. The management culture and process I’m talking about can be described as Learn, Leap, Repeat. This type of boss not only increases productivity; they also become a talent magnet – a person people want to work with and for.

Think about John Calipari, head coach of the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball team. He’s famous for his recruiting, year after year acquiring top players to replace the outgoing team members, many of them “one and dones.” This means they attend only the single required year of college before declaring for the NBA draft. Despite the short tenure of many athletes in this program, Kentucky is a national title contender virtually every season. To consistently attract talent at this level requires a powerful reputation for successful talent-development. Recruits anticipate that the single season played at Kentucky will maximize their abilities and showcase their skills in such a way that they will realize their objective of an NBA career.” Calipari positions his program as essentially a talent development and disruption springboard for such players. Successful business leaders prioritize talent-development as a recruitment tool in the same way top athletic coaches do.

Calipari’s success also demands expert coaching of the players who stay for successive seasons, terrific basketball players who nonetheless develop more slowly and/or will never rise to quite the level of stardom achieved by Kentucky’s very best. But if the development of these program-stabilizing players wasn’t attended to, Kentucky would struggle and ultimately fail to retain the preeminent winning reputation essential to keeping the top collegiate—and professional—basketball prospects revolving through its doors. Calipari is a “boss” that athletes want to work for because he facilitates their development and celebrates their success, no matter how long their tenure.



How can leaders use the S curve, which is normally used to discuss product innovation, as a tool to help develop employees?BuildAnATeam

The S curve is a model developed by E.M. Rogers to help predict the unpredictable. When a product is introduced, the S-curve tells us growth will be slow, until a tipping point is reached at 10-15% penetration of a market. Hyper-growth follows on the sleek, steep back of the S, eventually reaching saturation when about 90% market share is achieved. There’s nowhere to go, so growth tapers off, even declines. While applying the S curve model to investing, I had the insight that it could also apply to how people learn: at the low end of the curve is the initial excitement (discomfort) of the unknown. At the high end of the S curve is the confidence (and ultimate dullness) of mastery. On the middle, steep back of the curve magic is made: employees are learning quickly and are most highly engaged and happiest.



How do managers need to manage differently depending on where their employees fall on the S Curve?

Every person is on an S-curve—a personal learning/engagement/performance curve. You included. Your organization is a collection of S-curves. An A Team emerges when we optimize our collection of S-curves. Ideally, we want about 70% of our people in the sweet spot of rapid growth and high engagement and 15% at the low and high ends respectively. We need inexperienced low-enders to put fresh eyes on the enterprise and share what they see even as we share with them our vision for the company, the team, and them—and guide them in building their internal network. Employees in the sweet spot need stretch assignments to lengthen the curve. Natural constraints may have dissolved, so we may need to consciously impose constraints of time, money, buy-in or expertise. Don’t forget to appreciate them. Don’t ignore them just because they aren’t problem children. The 15% at the high end need to know something new is coming—soon they will be on a learning adventure again; in the meantime, they’re critically needed to set the pace (like a pace car), mentor, and share their repository of institutional memory with those lower on the curve.


What do most leaders miss when thinking about building a high-performance organization?

They miss the truth that the fundamental unit of disruption is the individual. If the company is going to be innovative and disruptive, individual people have to be in a situation that fosters innovation. They have to be able to take risks, knowing that failure won’t be fatal. The death of an idea isn’t terminal. We are often too cautious; we don’t give high potentials real stretch assignments, fearful that they will fail and therefore we will fail. But if we put people in demanding situations they will be creative. They will be learning, engaged and productive. When they reach the top of a learning curve and can disrupt themselves, high performers will continue to be high performing. As these individuals build doors for themselves, they build doors for their organization.



Use Constraints to Drive Performance

Constraints. You talk about them in various ways throughout the book. What have you learned about constraints and how they drive performance?

We need them–desperately. Movement, progression, and propulsion all require friction. Businesses struggle when they don’t have constraints. How many really big, legacy businesses are we seeing suffer “death by success?” The environment is disrupting around them but they’re fat and happy and not thinking about change. Constraints force resourcefulness; people get creative in a resource-poor environment. They develop the resources within themselves. Think Stephen Spielberg and the making of Jaws. Spielberg was a fledgling director, over-budget and behind schedule. His mechanical shark wouldn’t work as he’d envisioned. Constraints. The film was going to put an end to his brief career. So he innovated on the fly; changed his approach—literally. He filmed from the shark’s perspective, backed up by the now iconic music that creeps out almost everyone, and the near-disaster became a career-making creation instead.



Encourage Disruption

Whitney Johnson

How do leaders best encourage employees to disrupt themselves?  

Make disruption safe. Make it a human resources strategy. It sounds strange to make disruption routine, but that’s what I’m talking about. A leader of several hundred people told me, after reading Build an A-Team, that the script for a conversation that turns personal disruption from a theory into action is one of the most important sections in the book. It helped him to feel like he could try this; he could make it succeed



Here it is, from Build an A Team: Stacey Petrey, senior executive compensation consultant at wealth management firm Solenture, suggests the following script: ‘I can take direction ‘XYZ.’ There is an 80 percent probability it will work, but there are risks. It is also a stretch assignment for ‘so and so.’ Win or lose, it’s the right risk to take from a business and people development perspective. My team and I will give it our all to succeed, but if we don’t, will you back us? Will you support the team and me through this risk?’ Most senior leaders forget to frame expectations. ‘Be honest about the risks,’ says Petrey, ‘but also emphasize people development that results from smart risk-taking.’ Any C-suite executive who is serious about growing their business will sign on.”

For more information, see Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve.






Build an A-Team




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