How to Avoid a Hiring Mistake That Could Ruin Your Team

Last Updated Jun 29, 2011 4:18 PM EDT

What makes a great team? Great people, right?


Sure, as long as you define "great" correctly -- a definition many business owners and managers often get wrong.

I worked in a manufacturing plant where productivity was, as it should have been, king. We spent lots of time trying to improve efficiency, reduce waste, reduce downtime... typical improvement initiatives.

Then a manager decided team performance could be predicted and improved by quantifying the attributes of a great operator. Determine the attributes, measure candidates against those attributes, and voila! you can build a great team.

The problem was, great operators possess a dizzying array of attributes. During a brainstorming session he filled up twelve easel pad sheets with key skills and attributes.

Many, like "self starter," and "team player," were hard to quantify. So he looked for attributes that could be quantified. One was mechanical aptitude. Plenty of tests evaluate and measure mechanical knowledge. And intuitively it made sense: Machine operators run machines so mechanical knowledge must be important. Off he went, eventually creating a team filled with mechanical aptitude superstars.

Yet my team -- all with limited mechanical aptitude (I think mine was the worst) -- outran them. By a wide margin.

What went wrong? Faced with too many variables, many intangible, he picked an attribute he could put a number on: Mechanical aptitude.

Never mind our equipment failed less than 4% of the time. Never mind we had machinists seconds away if we needed help. Mechanical aptitude could be measured in a way hustle, teamwork, drive, and work ethic could not -- even though those qualities were much more important than mechanical aptitude. So he went with mechanical aptitude because it was something he could "know" instead of other qualities more difficult to assess.

Simple mistake? Sure. Common one, too.

Here's how you can avoid it. To build great teams:

  1. Decide what individual attribute you can't live without. Forget about "well-rounded" employees for a moment. If you could only pick one attribute, what would you choose as the most important skill or quality a great employee needs to have to succeed in the position? Maybe it's attitude, or interpersonal skills, or teamwork, or a specific skill set... whatever it is, that attribute is the basis for your individual employees and for your team. (Training can fill in the gaps.)
  2. Decide what individual attribute you can't live with. Complete this sentence about a theoretical employee: "I don't care how great he is, I wouldn't want him on my team because he ________." Most likely this attribute relates to interpersonal (lack of) skills, or work ethic, or ego. Identify your no-go attribute and make sure it stays off your team.
  3. Determine your critical mass. You may not be able to build a team where every member possesses your most important attribute. In our case a crew was made up of six operators. We had room for one operator who wasn't quite as fast but was a great leader. Together we bridged the speed gap and collectively benefited from his leadership skills. Could we have afforded two of "him"? Probably not. Decide how many individuals who possess your most important attribute will be "enough": If you get more, great -- if not you'll still be okay.
  4. Then put your puzzle together. Knowing your critical mass frees you up to build a team with complementary skills. You can take on a great team player who is technically weaker, a loner who is an outstanding problem solver, or someone with limited experience who possesses incredible hustle and drive.
Never fall prey to the assumption the only individual attributes that matter are ones that can be measured. In some cases, when individual contributors work alone and largely outside the scope of a team, quantifiable skills may be all-important.

But where teams are concerned, success is almost always the result of the intangible qualities found on easel pad sheets, not on numbers.

Focus only on numbers -- especially on the wrong numbers -- and you build teams that on paper should perform well but in practice never quite do.

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Photo courtesy flickr user familymwr, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.