Did you read Part 1 of this blog series? If not, catch-up here .
Building Strong Teams: Focus on Potential and Freedom to Fail
The Brigade Commander responsible for giving me the opportunity to lead soldiers in combat is Lieutenant General (retired) Stephen Lanza. He is one of my heroes. He based his decision on my potential, rather than my (non-existent) body of experience leading combat patrols. This required him to accept a level of risk as a leader since there was a very real possibility that I may not succeed. He accepted this risk and gave me the opportunity to fail: I could confront fear and be crushed by it, or turn it into action.
From my Brigade Commander I learned that it is not the opportunity to succeed, but rather the freedom to fail that enables rapid development – at both the individual and team level.
As I work with scale-up software companies as part of Insight Partners’ Onsite team, I see how this lesson can apply to a growth-stage organization to foster rapid development of people, teams, and technologies.
Hire and promote talent with a focus on potential.
Hiring managers must recruit talent that is high potential by focusing on the core attributes that are needed for job success. A few examples of core attributes include problem solving skills, agile thinking, ability to live with ambiguity, attention to detail, willingness to take feedback, ability to change, low ego, or team orientation. Look for a track record of winning and a willingness to take on tough challenges as a signal for candidates who will likely become star employees. Beware of focusing too much on specific domain experience if it truly isn’t required and trust that top performers will quickly build expertise on-the-job. You may have to invest in skill-specific training during the candidate’s ramp-up period, but this patience and initial investment will pay off in dividends as high-potential hires quickly become low-maintenance, high productivity employees.
Give leaders the opportunity to work outside of their comfort zones.
After hiring high potential employees, go out on a limb to give them new challenges and stretch assignments when the opportunities arise. At the individual level, when we work through fear, we unlock the internal resources necessary for taking on tough challenges, navigating the unknown, and solving complex problems in new, experimental ways. This is ultimately the greatest gift that a leader can give a high potential employee. While the risk of failure is high, the leader provides a supportive platform for the employee to take the risk. It is in these moments that fear is catalyzed into new skills and we find the capacity to confidently and successfully take on new roles and responsibilities, and progress in our careers. High potential employees who are given opportunities to confront fear will be more energized and motivated. They will give the extra mile knowing that their efforts are rewarded with increased responsibility and opportunities to continually grow. This requires leaders to confront their own fears and accept the risk that a team member may fail. This is essential. Beware of short-changing your team’s development by mitigating risk to the point that nobody has an opportunity to grow.
After six years of service and three deployments to Baghdad, I transitioned out of the military, earned an MBA at the University of Chicago and pursued a career in business as an operator and general manager. One of my first roles was the general manager of a $50M digital media product line in a growth-stage, private equity backed company. I had no track record of working in digital media and was still building my experience in business with only two years under my belt following my MBA program. However, the hiring leader, Jenna Sigman, now SVP at Insight Partners, saw potential and gave me the opportunity to run a business with P&L responsibility. She accepted the risk as a leader to take a chance on someone she saw as high potential. Just like my role as a combat platoon leader, this role provided me with the opportunity to rapidly grow and develop – this time as a leader in business.
Strong teams arise when people take risks together
The Army also showed me that it is also important to invest in high potential teams by giving them big goals and the opportunity to take on risk together. An opportunity to confront fear of failure while working towards a bold goal, allows the team to coalesce around a shared mission and build meaningful relationships; strong bonds are formed when people “fight in the trenches” alongside one another. These bonds ignite creativity and teamwork, and also inspire other teams through healthy competition. Teams are motivated knowing that the organization rewards goal attainment by doubling down on their potential.
In the next article, I’ll share a specific leadership model that is critical for leading units in combat, but also applies to building high-achieving teams at growth-stage companies.