The Fallacy of Authority

authoritySimply put, leadership is the ability to influence others.

Ironically, however, the ability to influence others, either in an organization or in the political arena, ultimately doesn’t depend on an individual’s title or position of authority. In fact, those in positions of “authority” often confuse their ability to inflict their will on others (where authorized by their position or title) as a “right” of leadership. This is frequently the case with new managers and those whose motivation for leadership is based on a desire for authority in the form of personal control and power.

These authoritarian relationships may command respect in a superficial sense, but are void of trust and respect. They are based solely on fear rather than empowerment and personal ownership, and offer no provision for alignment of ideas or ideals. In this self-centric mindset, the emphasis on success is internal. The success of both subordinate individuals and the team is viewed by the manager as being dependent upon his or her personal success. These managers tend to believe that in order to validate their own value to the organization they must make themselves essential to the success of the team.

I see this in teams that are largely dysfunctional when the leader is absent. Decisions cannot be made without the manager’s consent. Personal ownership and accountability is stifled and autonomy is restricted. There is little or no basis of trust in the competence and discretion of the team members. This type of manager hordes power, controls rather than leads, and lacks the self confidence to allow subordinates or the entire team to excel in his absence. They make the success of their team completely dependent upon their presence and participation.

I believe that just the opposite is true of superior leaders – that the true measure of success for a leader is not how necessary he is to the team, but in fact how unnecessary he is. This might sound radical or counter-intuitive, but if a leader has truly done his job, the people who work for him should be able to function autonomously for an extended period of time without the necessity of his direct supervision. They should all be aligned both individually and collectively with the organizational vision and goals. They should each have a strong sense of personal ownership and accountability, both to their leader and to each other. They should exhibit integrity and self-discipline. They should be enthusiastic and self-motivated. And finally, they should have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement. This is the very essence of a high performing team, and the best managers and strongest leaders, in effect, actually make themselves less and less integral as their teams become more and more self-sufficient.

The ability to influence others is a powerful and awesome responsibility. Effective, superior leadership, under which individual and team performance is developed and cultivated to its highest potential, requires uncommon, illusive, and perhaps innate personal qualities.  It requires confidence and vision with a strong sense of purpose.  It requires courage, discipline, and dedication to the development of others.  It requires authority without authoritarianism.  Superior leaders nurture cooperation instead of mandating compliance.  They build consensus and create a culture of alignment in which every member shares in the ownership and accountability.

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Professional Effectiveness or Personal Fortitude?

Chances are you’ve at some point known or worked with someone who has endured a significant personal crisis.  Perhaps it was a nasty divorce, a life-threatening personal or family illness, the loss of a spouse or child, or a similar life event that turned their world upside down.

I lost my father to a heart attack just weeks after I turned 17 years old and days before I started my senior year of high school.  I can still remember the numbness I felt as I went to school that fall, surrounded by friends whose lives were blissfully unchanged while my own was irreversibly altered.  But as difficult as it was, I persevered.  It could even be argued that it was easy for me to move forward simply because I still had my entire life before me.  But I doubt I considered that at the time.  No, I persevered because there was simply nothing else I could do.  I couldn’t reverse or change what had happened.  Like it or not, I could only adapt and move on.

As bystanders – family, friends, and co-workers, we admire the strength of those who have suffered tragedy and yet are somehow able to keep going.  Because we can only imagine their grief and anxiety, we marvel at their ability to continue doing the simplest of daily activities and can hardly understand how they’re able to keep coming to work or to class.  The fact is, like me at age 17, they do it because there is simply nothing else they can do.  They adapt and move on because there is no other option.  They have no choice.  Bills still have to be paid, mouths still have to be fed – the responsibilities of life don’t stop.

It’s human nature to sympathize with people in these situations, and there is nothing wrong with that.  But I think it’s easy to confuse sympathy with admiration, and there is an important distinction between the two.  At the risk of sounding coldhearted, to admire someone who continues to live and work after a tragedy is like admiring a sailor who swims after his boat sinks.  Do we admire him for not giving up and drowning?  Do we admire his courage?  Truth be told, most of us probably do; after all, we’re inspired by stories of perseverance and love to cheer for the underdog.   But again, what choice does he have?  He can swim and live or he can sink and die – not much of a choice.  It’s a simplistic comparison, but I think it relevant nonetheless.

The point I want to make is we have such a natural inclination to admire those who overcome tragedy, we often let it cloud the rest of our judgment about the individual.  Specifically, it’s easy to confuse what we perceive as personal fortitude with the reality of professional effectiveness.  Surely we’re inclined to assess the individual’s performance more generously in light of the adversity they’ve faced, and this is certainly the right thing to do temporarily while the person heals.  After all, no one can be expected to perform at full capacity either during or in the aftermath of a personal crisis.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m referring to the tendency to allow our permanent perception of the individual to be skewed due to whatever past tragedy they’ve endured – confusing their fortitude and resilience in moving on with their ongoing effectiveness in their job.

In short, personal fortitude is ultimately no substitute for, and is indeed in this context only marginally related to, good performance.  It’s not for me to say how long a person should be allowed to recover from a crisis.  That depends on the individual, situation, and circumstances.  However, regardless of whatever tragedy the individual has suffered in the past (or even presently endures), eventually his or her performance and professional effectiveness must be judged on its merit.  We can admire their strength and perseverance, but that alone is a poor substitution for meaningful achievement.

The Social Construct of Morality

Joining the ranks of religion and politics, morality has quietly become a minefield to be publicly avoided at all costs.  Discussion on the matter, let alone debate, is just not politically correct; someone is sure to be offended.  Others might disagree, but I assert that morality, once commonly guided by absolute principles broadly accepted by society, has gradually evolved to a matter of individual preference.  I personally believe that matters of preference are subject to compromise, while matters of principle should be firmly upheld.  The problems begin when my principles differ from yours.  While my intent here is not to impose my ideology, I do want to explore the cultural inconsistencies in the interpretation of right and wrong within our society.  To that end, I pose these questions as food for thought and comment:

Should the foundation of morality be based on an absolute – a definitively established set of ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, or should it be left to the interpretation of individuals or larger society groups?  Should these cultural standards be established or affirmed, recognizing that not everyone will be in agreement?  Do we let the majority decide, or do we default to the lowest common denominator within our culture – the individual?

I’m using the term ‘lowest common denominator’ in the context of contrasting two ends of the spectrum for judgment over what is and is not acceptable, i.e., morally right.  By that I am referring to an accepted societal viewpoint in which the wishes/rights of individuals have priority over those of a larger population.  I’m drilling down to the idea of ‘individual rights’ as the lowest level driver of moral authority, assuming ‘rights’ are interpreted in the strictest sense.  I’m also using the concept of right and wrong in the same context as morality, since by definition, morality is the principles of right and wrong in behavior.

The fact is, belief and value systems within our culture vary so greatly that there is an enormous gap between what most of us believe as individuals and the reality that exists within our society.  Despite what many would assert should be, I don’t think a consensus on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ truly exists in our culture because we simply cannot agree on the boundaries.  Sure, there are certain actions that are almost universally considered taboo, but the waters get murky when you start talking about simpler issues of right or wrong.  Subsequently, no one is satisfied.  We assess issues and behaviors, etc., based on our personal perspective, recognizing the influence that our experiences, beliefs, and shifting cultural views have on us.  Perhaps the most commonly accepted concession is that what is ‘right’ for one person or group may not be so for another.

As a society of like minded people (I’m talking in the broadest sense), we’ve traditionally made sweeping cultural decisions about what is considered right and wrong.  In the age of political correctness, those decisions are being challenged by those who believe the ‘one’ is just as important as the ‘many.’  Priority of designated ‘rights’ has shifted away from the absolute and/or cultural majority to individuals and small groups with interests that do not conform to traditional norms.  Current cultural pressure dictates that we are no longer supposed to judge right or wrong whenever there is the potential that an individual or group might take offense or in some way be repressed.

Some would argue that morality is and should be a social construct.  That concept is indeed at the heart of the questions I’m posing.  Since defining morality as a social construct implies that there are culturally established standards of right and wrong, how then should this morality be imposed upon society, when by doing so, it may in fact conflict with the principles and values of those in disagreement?

In a discussion on this subject several years ago, a friend of mine argued that cultures judge right and wrong at will while governments protect the rights of individuals.  I don’t entirely agree with this, although I think I understand what he was getting at.  Cultures do define and judge right and wrong, however, governments obviously do not always protect individual rights.  The legal imposition of morality is in constant flux and the monitoring and protection of affected ‘rights’ depends on a host of social and political factors, all of which vary by culture vis-à-vis country.  I would point out that even in the U.S., public perception of certain assumed rights is itself frequently a cultural misconception, based on popular assumption but with no specific legal basis.  Simply put, just because we think we deserve something doesn’t mean we’re legally entitled to it, and having a voice doesn’t always equate to having a vote.

That same friend also asserted that “tyranny of the masses precludes justice and fairness” in the application of moral constructs imposed upon broader society.  Assuming that’s true, where then is the demarcation between social morality and individual rights?  How exactly should fairness be defined?  Given the imposition of social/cultural morality on the broader population, exactly how and where is the line drawn when a generally accepted social ‘good’ conflicts with the perceived rights of a smaller group within that population?

My point is our individual concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is founded entirely through our personal perspective, which is a product of our experiences, environment, religious beliefs, and cultural influences.  When does the determination of ‘right’ by the majority justify decisions that adversely impact the minority?  I think we’d all agree that it sometimes does.  Perhaps the bigger question is should it?  Is there in fact an absolute truth that supersedes an inconsistent socially constructed morality?

I think our society today frequently confuses its beliefs with its desires, or more accurately, we shape our beliefs to conveniently fit our desires.  More to the point, we allow our preferences to shape our principles instead of the other way around.  We also confuse our freedoms with rights.  As a result, everyone creates his or her own reality.  In my reality are my perceptions of right and wrong.  There are people who agree with (i.e., share) my perceptions, and people who do not.  Consequently, there are multiple social moralities on any given issue.

It’s unfortunate that we’ve been so programmed to embrace everyone else’s opinions and beliefs, we’ve compromised our own principles in the process.  I’m not suggesting that anyone should be intolerant or judgmental, but I think the terms are often used as a convenient weapon against those who philosophically disagree.  There is nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in, even when it’s not politically or socially correct.  In fact, I believe that by adhering to the rules of political correctness under the premise of ‘not offending anyone’, we’ve completely prostituted ourselves to a homogeneous culture where people are persecuted for defending a principle that conflicts with the preference of others.  There are many people who are not concerned by that, so maybe I’m being cynical.  I just have a hard time accepting that actions and behaviors should be justified based on whether they pass the ‘doesn’t harm anyone’ test.  Shouldn’t there be some better criteria for judging the morality of what we think and do?

We live in an age of anarchy – not political anarchy, but social and cultural anarchy.  Everyone is encouraged to ‘do their own thing’, whatever that thing may be – and it’s all supposed to be okay so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or infringe upon anyone else’s rights.  It’s an inconsistent premise at best and I don’t buy it.  When the boundaries of morality and ethics are deemed malleable and subject to individual interpretation, the concept of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ becomes driven by convenience and preference, lacking any principled bearing.

Actions, whether by individuals or societies, have repercussions.  Our decisions and behaviors, whether in public or in private, slowly shape the world in which we live, and ultimately influence who we are.  We create our own cultures, just as we create our own realities.  Whether you believe in a single authority or cultural evolution, there are many social moralities.  The trouble with that is, none are right, some are right, all are right.  It all depends on your perspective.

Parental Responsibility in Social Training

Have you ever witnessed children running wild in a restaurant or retail store while the parents, apparently oblivious to the chaos, completely disregard the effect this behavior has on everyone else around them?  Of course the child’s behavior is not really the issue is it?  After all, the actions of children are merely a reflection of the parent’s priorities and values.  Unruly, precocious, undisciplined children left to explore the world on their own terms are simply another symptom of a larger socio-cultural trend that inflicts many adults today – a warped sense of entitlement compounded by a general lack of personal responsibility.

As a parent myself, I simply don’t accept the notion of the overwrought mom or dad, out in public trying to enjoy a family meal or finishing up errands with kids that are overly tired or bored.  Children and their needs should always be the parents’ first priority, but this is often not the case.  The parent’s agenda far too often comes first – the dinner out, the gift to buy, the dress to try on – all the while with kids in tow.  I can’t tell you how many times my wife and I have left a cart full of groceries in the store because one of our toddlers was having a melt down, or how many meals one of us finished alone in a restaurant while the other waited in the car with one of our unruly monsters.  Our needs, our schedule, our time together – all came second to our kids.

I also don’t accept the parental ‘philosophy’ of untethered social training, in which children are allowed to explore the world around them with minimal restraint or direction, the justification for which is to encourage creativity and individual expression.  Seriously, give me a break!  I see parents every single day who evidently subscribe to this theory, either by design or through the abdication of their parental responsibility to provide guidance and leadership.  Truthfully, I think many parents today are simply too lazy or too consumed with their own personal desires to provide meaningful parental leadership to their own children.  Instead of owning up to the tough role of parent, they instead try to be ‘friends’ with their kids.  Children need their parents to be role models who hold them accountable for their actions, not ‘friends’ who condone destructive behavior and shield them from the consequences of their actions.

Children are naturally inquisitive, energetic, and reckless. They are also inherently kind, honest, sensitive, and generous. However, they are unfortunately also a product of their environment. Values such as respect for others, self-discipline, and good old fashioned manners must be instilled and practiced, starting at home. A child’s behavior is a direct and unequivocal reflection of the parent’s behavior and values. Children are taught, or perhaps more accurately, allowed to learn and practice disruptive, disrespectful, and inappropriate behavior.

The mere fact that some parents feel that ‘everywhere’ is a training ground for social interaction, as if that somehow defers the parent’s role, neglects one of the core responsibilities that parents have for raising their children.  Training for social interaction begins and ends at home and should define the boundaries for what is acceptable when out in public.  The “everywhere” argument implies that the world shares responsibility for training children. I disagree.

Many adults, particularly young adults in their 20s and 30s appear to believe that the world about them exists solely for their comfort, convenience, and satisfaction. Perhaps this is the result of a couple of generations of economic prosperity, but this particular demographic seems to feel that they are owed something – abject servility in restaurants and stores, instant gratification and satisfaction, and freedom from personal responsibility and accountability. For the most part, they’ve not experienced serious difficulty in their lifetime – no cold war nuclear threat, no painful economic hardship, and very little in the way of any significant personal sacrifice. They’ve never spent hours in line for gas on odd days of the month, or worried about a mandatory draft. They’ve been too busy enjoying the American dream, getting what they want when they want, and along the way have become morally complacent, materialistic, and hopelessly entitled.

I don’t know for sure exactly how this mindset became part of our culture. Maybe it was instilled by the parents of my own generation. Maybe it was the environment in which this latest generation grew up. Regardless, it is no wonder that so many of today’s children mirror those attitudes. It’s been bred into them. Children today reflect the same sense of entitlement that they see their parents demanding in their own interactions.  If a child breaks something, it’s the store’s fault for having it accessible. If the parents can’t “control” them, they excuse the behavior by saying the children are “uncontrollable” rather than accept responsibility for the fact that they are failing their children in this aspect of their development. Parents insist their kids have the “right” to run and play in public, to make as much noise as they want, to learn social interaction everywhere they go and regardless of the consequences for others around them.

So don’t blame the kids running between the tables in the restaurant or rolling on the floor in the retail store; they’re just children who learn from and emulate their parents.  It is the parents who are at fault.  It is the parents who should be asked to leave when children are behaving in a way that is disrespectful or inappropriate for their immediate environment.  Better yet, the parents should exercise good judgment and remove their children without having to be asked.

Social training should only take place in public places that are conducive to age (or maturity) specific interaction. This, of course, depends on the behavioral capacity of the child. Children who have been adequately taught appropriate behavior at home and who demonstrate appropriate behavior when out in public may well be able to handle a more sensitive adult environment.  In any case, there should be no carte blanche for public social training.  Unfortunately, the burden of discretion falls upon the parents, who themselves too often need remedial social training.

Five Fundamental Principles of Service Excellence

To say that customer service is virtually non-existent today would be a comical understatement.  It seems everywhere we turn the quality of service we receive is inconsistent at best, from the waiters and sales people who ignore us to business managers who view us as interruptions.  I believe the root of the problem is not so much one of employee indifference; this is merely a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.  The real problem is a systematic failure on the part of companies and their managers to see beyond the transaction, make decisions based on intellect verses emotion, and empower their employees to be an advocate for the customer rather than ‘defender’ of the company.

Most people, if they are at all engaged in their job, want to do well.  Likewise, all companies want to be successful, and understand the value and necessity of happy customers.  So, where is the disconnect?  I believe it’s with the middle and lower level leadership.  It’s not much of a stretch to conclude that employee attitudes toward customers are a reflection of the culture created by management within the store, restaurant, or department.  I suppose there are a myriad of reasons, everything ranging from indifference and ignorance to a misguided notion of protecting the financial bottom line.  Just last week my wife asked to speak with the general manager of our dealership over a mechanical problem with our year old car that the staff was unwilling to rectify.  His response after listening to her complaint was to accuse her of being confrontational.  It is no wonder his staff was so unhelpful.

Leaders at every level bear the responsibility for maintaining a culture of service excellence, communicating expectations, and monitoring performance.  This requires personal interaction, not only with employees, but also with the customers.  Leaders can’t lead from behind a desk or though emails.  They have to get out of their offices, spend time along side their employees and participate in constant face to face interaction.  This is why you see managers in finer restaurants stop by your table to ask if everything was okay.  They understand the value of personal attention to their staff, customers, and business.  Philip K. Wrighley, chairman of the world’s largest chewing gum company, famously relayed the following story: “I went into our New York office one day and they asked who was calling. I told them it didn’t make a bit of difference. It might be a guy wanting to buy some gum – and that’s all that mattered.”

Below I’ve attempted to summarize service excellence in five fundamental principles.  Perhaps I’ve oversimplified it, but I don’t think so.  In fact, isn’t that the point?  Superior customer service really isn’t all that complicated or expensive.  Everyone should try it.

  1. Customer service is never an ‘exception’ or an ‘accommodation’
    These two words should be removed from our vocabulary.  Meeting (not to mention exceeding) a customer’s expectations should be a matter of principle.  Make decisions with enthusiasm, not reluctance, demonstrating a spirit of genuine appreciation instead of concession.
  2. Delighting a customer is a personal opportunity to be the ‘hero’
    Be the customer’s advocate in every interaction.  Customers should see us as their personal partner, not simply a representative of the company, and certainly never an adversary.  It is our job to get to ‘yes’.  Regardless of the situation, every satisfied customer reflects a personal success, and every disappointed customer reflects a personal failure.
  3. Customer service does not cost money, it earns future business
    We get far too wrapped up in our perceived sense of what is ‘right’ or ‘just’ when making service related decisions.  Any costs incurred in delighting a customer are literally insignificant compared to the goodwill and future business we gain.  Whether or not we feel they deserve it is irrelevant.  Customer service is not a battle to be won or lost, nor is it an affront to our integrity.  Better to give in to 10 thieves than to lose one legitimate customer.
  4. The solution is always more memorable than the problem
    Problems are going to occur – products will break, deadlines will be missed, mistakes will be made.  It is how well we anticipate and resolve our customers’ problems that influences their perception of our company and their decision to give us their future business.  Never leave a customer with an unresolved problem; always initiate a solution.
  5. The customer doesn’t have to ‘be’ right for us to ‘make it right’
    It’s as simple as this… no matter who is at fault, no matter what it costs, no matter what it takes – make it right for the customer.

12 Rules for Success: A Father’s Advice to his Kids

father-and-child

  1. Don’t despair in failure
    Be strengthened in your resolve to succeed.  Failure is temporary.  Rather than being discouraged, learn to leverage failure as an instrument for learning and an opportunity for strengthened resolve.  Remember, every hurdle cleared is one less obstacle between you and your objective.  Should you stumble and fall, fall forward.
  2. Never give up
    Be a relentless tormentor of your objectives.  Be both patient and persistent, focusing on the objectives, not the obstacles.  If you believe in your course, persevere to the end, even in the face of great adversity or overwhelming odds.  Never give up.
  3. Never compromise your principles
    It takes courage to draw a line in the sand, to stand up for what you believe.  Your principles should be absolute, upheld with unwavering conviction.  Personal preferences, on the other hand, warrant flexibility.  Know the difference between the two – when to be firm, and when to be flexible.
  4. Own your mistakes
    Admit your mistakes, embrace them, and learn from them.  Don’t hide them and never ever deflect responsibility to someone else.  The future has an uncanny way of revenging past deception.  Take ownership and live with the consequences.
  5. Challenge convention; question assumptions
    Question what everyone else takes for granted or assumes to be true.  Ambiguity and change is unsettling.  Consistency is comfortable and people often become unwittingly trapped by complacency or conjecture.  Acceptnothing without confirmation or validation and challenge others who do.  Remember the old saying; sacred cows make the best burgers.
  6. Show integrity in the smallest of things
    Integrity is the resolve to do the right thing even when no one else will know you’ve done it.  It’s returning a shopping cart to the cart return, turning in the sunglasses you found, leaving your name and number on the car you accidentally bumped.  Integrity is rooted in the foundation of character.  It’s not rewarded by recognition, but sustained by a personal conviction of right and wrong.
  7. Lead from the front
    …from over your shoulder and within arms reach.  You have to touch the people you lead; walk among them and share in their burdens and triumphs.  Lead face to face – not from an office, not through memorandums or phone calls or email. Show, don’t tell, and don’t ask anyone to do what you are unwilling to do yourself.
  8. Establish a sphere of influence
    Everyone needs advocates, people resolute in their support while unequivocal in their candor.  Surround yourself with an inner circle of trusted friends and family who will champion your cause while providing honest, constructive feedback and advice.  Learn to leverage their strengths to counterbalance your weaknesses.
  9. Learn to ask questions
    Rather than trying to learn all the answers, it’s far more important to learn what questions to ask.  Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being once observed, “The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything.”  The ability to ask intelligent, relevant, and insightful questions is supremely valuable and uncommonly rare.  One final thought… know the distinction between asking for information and asking for affirmation.
  10. Pick your battles carefully
    Life is not fair; injustice sometimes prevails.  Still, not every conflict warrants a fight.  Like it or not, our world is complicated by political influences, and it’s easy to win a battle and still lose the war.  Consider what is to be gained and lost, and keep your eye on the larger objective.
  11. Master the language
    It might sound old-school in the age of texting, tweeting, and social networking, but a mastery of language communicates as much credibility and commands as much respect as a pedigree diploma, perhaps more.  Language skills in our society have become appallingly poor.  By contrast, a broad vocabulary brandished with flawless spelling, punctuation, and grammar is an incredibly powerful asset.
  12. If you speak, speak thoughtfully with purpose, confidence, and authority; otherwise, be silent
    Don’t speak simply to be heard.  Have something relevant to say.  “Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” – Robert Frost

Building and Sustaining High Performing Sales Teams

Portrait of a High Performing Team
Almost everyone who works with others wants either to be a member of a high performing team, or to lead a high performing team.  In fact, I bet 9 out of every 10 managers I’ve ever spoken with have claimed their teams were high performing.  Yet, when asked about the performance of individual team members, these same managers invariably cite a litany of “typical” shortcomings.

While I hesitate to question the self proclaimed assessment of another manager’s team without seeing them in action for myself, I have to wonder how they came to their conclusion.  How can a high performing team be comprised of individuals with performance issues?  Can the diversity of performance strengths and capabilities within a team actually make the overall team stronger, despite certain individual weaknesses?  And how is it that these managers don’t ask themselves these same questions?

To be sure, individuals with performance problems are not high performers.  That is not to say that an employee must be perfect; indeed, everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  There is a distinction, however, between weaknesses and performance problems.  Strengths and weaknesses between team members are like pieces of a puzzle.  All the pieces must fit together to complete the picture.    In the strongest teams, members should complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, assembling a team in which there is diversity of strengths should be a priority.

There’s no single recipe for building a high performing team.  The variables are simply too great.  On the other hand, there are clearly common attributes that successful teams manifest, and at the same time behavioral patterns that destroy a team’s effectiveness and their capacity for achievement.

So, what does a high performing team look like?  It’s really quite simple.  While individual strengths may vary, high performing teams exhibit many (hopefully most) of the same qualities of highly effective, influential team leaders.  At the highest level…

  • They complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • They exhibit integrity and self discipline, both individually and collectively.
  • They have a balanced sense of selflessness (teamwork) and drive for personal achievement.
  • They are responsible and accountable – to their leader and each other.
  • They are enthusiastic and self-motivated.
  • They are individually and collectively aligned with the company’s vision.

Of course there are many other skills and traits that high performing teams must possess and demonstrate – effective communication, mutual trust, respect, etc., and of course they must work harmoniously together to achieve the task at hand.  Skills, however, can be taught, habits formed, and behaviors modified, while character and cultural fit are individual factors that are deeply ingrained.

High Performing Teams Begin with High Performing Individuals
Diversity, complementing strengths and skills, and achievement oriented members are all considerations when building or adding to an existing high performing team.  From a practical standpoint, assembling a high performance team begins with a thoughtful and well developed hiring process.  Recruiting often focuses on matching experience to a job specification. This is important where technical qualifications are concerned, but it will not necessarily identify people with high performance traits.  High performers are almost always high performers – wherever they work.

Who are your high performers?  According to a McKinsey & Company report on “The War for Talent,” top performing employees make a 50% to 100% greater contribution to organizations than do their less capable peers.[1] So ask yourself this, if you had to start from scratch, would you re-hire all the employees you currently have? If not, why?  If you could select from just 10% of your existing work force, who would you choose and why?

In my experience, the highest performing sales professionals demonstrate the following characteristics…

  • Achievement Oriented – Money shouldn’t be the goal, only a way of keeping score
  • Perpetually Optimistic – Doesn’t concede defeat, doesn’t accept no as an answer
  • Selling is a Lifestyle – A way of life, not just a job – they never stop selling
  • Understand Customer Motivation – People buy on emotion and excitement, not logic and reason
  • Walk in the Customers’ Shoes – Sensitive to customer’s needs vs. their own (understands difference between ability to buy and desire to buy – validates the customer’s desire)
  • Leverages the Strengths of Others – Those around them

Strategic Hiring Decisions
Research on hiring decisions reveals that people tend to hire applicants with whom they share the strongest personal connection, i.e. those with similar outlooks, mannerisms, personalities, and ideas.  Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Kanter calls this phenomenon “homosocial reproduction.”[2] While this may be just fine in some cases, the implication is obvious in others.  As Stanford Professor Robert Sutton indelicately puts it, “…assholes will breed like rabbits.”[3]

That’s an extreme (albeit accurate) example, but practically speaking, everyone including the most effective managers has areas of weakness.  While we certainly don’t want to compound weaknesses, the inverse is also true.  To use the puzzle metaphor again, whitewashing over weaknesses by cloning strengths is like trying to put together a puzzle in which all the pieces are the same size and shape.  The strongest teams are comprised of diverse personalities with complementary skills, and they use this to their advantage.  Reduce the risk of poorly influenced hiring decisions by having several managers interview a candidate and collectively participate in the decision process.

A Framework for Success
There’s a saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”  A comprehensive plan helps hiring managers at each decision point by giving focus and structure to the process. With the following four-step plan, not only will you have the highest probability of making good hiring decisions, you’ll also establish a framework of success for ongoing team development.

1. Recruiting and Hiring for Excellence
Leading a high performance sales team naturally begins with the people that you hire.  You simply cannot afford to settle for the best “available” applicant, you have to find the right person for the job and team.  In building a high performing team, whether staff or management, qualification criteria should be closely examined before you ever run an employment ad or interview an applicant.  Managers tend to focus heavily on education, job experience, and presence.  These are all important, but also look closely at temperament, interpersonal skills, and character.  Hire for fit within the team.  You can always train for skill (you will probably have to anyway), but trying to train for cultural fit is an uphill battle.

2. Cultivating Success

Regardless of individual successes, a sales team is only as strong as its weakest performer.  A successful high performing team depends on each member pulling his or her weight, contributing to and complementing the team, leveraging its strengths and adding value through individual performance.  Cultivating team success involves addressing deficiencies, identifying and overcoming obstacles, and gradually redefining the very meaning of success in an existing sales environment.  This may involve rooting out underperformers, holding them to a higher level of accountability, and removing them if they are unable to meet established standards.

3. Maintaining Performance Standards
Aggressive and inclusive performance development is a key component to managing and leading high performing teams.  An integral part of the performance management process, regular coaching, feedback, and performance assessment measured against peer comparison benchmarks provide exceptionally flexible and meaningful tools for quantifying and qualifying employee performance.  In situations where progressive discipline is warranted, a consistent approach using readily available performance criteria ensures a fair and actionable case for warnings and dismissal.

4. Nurturing a High Performance Culture
I previously discussed in detail creating and nurturing a Culture of Alignment.  Developing a high performing sales culture requires a considerable investment in time, but it’s not rocket science.  You have to realize, however, that any such move to alter the culture of your store and team must be carefully planned and executed.  It will not happen overnight.  In fact, it might take a few years.  But the investment is well worth the effort.


[1] Fishman, Charles. The War for Talent. Fast Company, 2007

[2] Kanter, Rosabeth. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books, 1977

[3] Sutton, Robert. The No Asshole Rule. New York: Business Plus, 2007