How to build a great team

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A great team is based on great people -- but the key is to define "great" correctly, especially where your small business is concerned.

I worked in a manufacturing plant where productivity was, as it should have been, all-important. As you would expect, we constantly worked to improve efficiency, reduce waste, and reduce downtime.

Then one supervisor decided team performance could be predicted and improved by quantifying the attributes of a great operator. He felt that if we determined those attributes, measured candidates against those attributes, and hired the people who best fit, we could build great teams.

The problem was that great operators possess a broad array of attributes. When we brainstormed attributes we filled up 12 easel pad sheets with lists of key skills and attributes.

Many attributes, like "self starter," and "team player," were hard to quantify. So we looked for attributes that could be quantified. One quantifiable attribute was mechanical aptitude. A number of tests were available that evaluated and measured mechanical knowledge. And intuitively that approach made sense: Machine operators run machines so mechanical knowledge must be important.

So off that supervisor went, and eventually he created a team of mechanical aptitude superstars.

Yet somehow one of my teams, all of whom had relatively poor mechanical aptitude (as measured by our tests), outperformed his team on a consistent basis.

Why? Because he was faced with too many variables, he decided to focus on mechanical aptitude -- an attribute he could measure.

And he missed the point. Our equipment rarely broke down. Skilled machinists could arrive to help if we did break down. Hustle, teamwork, drive, and work ethic could not be measured -- at least not ahead of time -- and those qualities were much more important than mechanical aptitude.

That's a common hiring mistake. Here are some tips to avoid making that mistake so you build great teams:

Decide the key attribute employees must possess. If you could only pick one attribute, what would you choose as the most important skill or quality a great employee needs in order to succeed in the position? Possibly that key attribute is attitude, or interpersonal skills, or teamwork, or a specific skill set -- whatever it is, your individual employees must possess that attribute. Accept no substitutes.

Decide the (less than) key attribute employees cannot possess. This one is easy; just complete this sentence about a theoretical employee: "I don't care how great he is, I don't want him on my team because ________." The way you complete the sentence indicates your hiring deal-breaker. Often this attribute will be related to a lack of interpersonal skills, or work ethic, or ego. Determine your can't-have attribute and make sure it stays off your team.

Decide what creates a critical mass. You may not be able to build a team where every member possesses your key attribute. In our case, a line crew was made up of six operators, so we had room for one operator who wasn't as efficient but was a great leader. The other operators helped bridge his efficiency gap and collectively the team benefited from his leadership skills. The team probably could not have afforded two people like him, but one was okay. Decide how many individuals you must have in your business or on a particular team who possess your key attribute. (If you can find and hire more, by all means do.)

Decide how to put together the pieces. Determining your critical mass allows you to build a team of employees with complementary skills. Once your critical mass is in place you can add a great team player that is technically weak, or a loner who is an outstanding problem solver, or a person with no experience but great hustle and drive.

Never fall prey to the assumption the only important attributes are the attributes 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 qualities that are hard to measure up front but show up where it matters most -- in the results.

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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.