How to Manage a Team of All-Stars

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Michael Mankins for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Great leaders act as a force multiplier on the force multiplier of all-star teams.

So what does it take to unleash this productive power in your organization? Our research and experience highlights at least five actions:

1. Track star talent. Creative and ingenious people are rare. In fact, our research suggests that fewer than one in seven employees is a star in most organizations. It is impossible to effectively team, deploy and lead these individuals unless you know who they are, where they are currently deployed, and how able they may be to play new and different roles. Unfortunately, most HR systems fail to provide leaders with this vital information. They may identify stars, but fail to track where they are deployed. They may track deployment, but miss opportunities to better allocate them to new roles and teams. Finally, the approach companies use to identify A-players – i.e., some combination of “high performance” and “high potential” – are typically so subjective that they fail to reliably separate a company’s star employees from those who are merely good enough.

The best-performing companies treat difference-making talent as a scarce resource. They track it carefully and make sure that it is consistently put to its highest-value and best use.

2. Assemble all-star teams. Most companies seek to form balanced teams, teams comprised of subject matter experts, or teams based on who happens to be available. This is true for routine work as well as mission-critical initiatives. This balanced approach may seem fair, even admirable, but it fails to capitalize on the force multiplier associated with all-star teams and great bosses. In short, most teams are assembled in ways that virtually ensures average performance.

The best performing companies are nine times as likely as the rest to assemble all-star teams when confronted with a mission-critical initiative. When the US Government located Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, it didn’t assemble a “balanced team” of soldiers to take him out. It sent its very best team of Navy SEALs. Likewise, when something vitally important needs to get done in business, the best companies assemble all-star teams to complete the mission.

3. Target mission-critical initiatives. Not all efforts are equally important. Some issues must be addressed quickly and effectively, in order to sustain or extend a company’s strategic position. Many companies are reluctant to call out these efforts as higher priority – fearing that individuals who are not working on them may feel slighted. But the cost associated with treating every effort equally is that mission-critical efforts get shortchanged for resources.

The best companies have systematic processes for identifying their highest value-at-stake and most urgent issues. As a result, these issues receive special attention. They get more time from senior management. They get the very best teams to ensure that they are tackled effectively.

4. Remove obstacles to effective teaming. Organizations frequently create obstacles to effective teaming. For example, many companies have compensation systems that disproportionately reward individual performance, even for team-based achievements. They may have stacked-ranking systems that force a bell-curve distribution of performance across all members of a team – ensuring that only a few receive a favorable performance evaluation. These systems create a “market mechanism” that actively discourages A-players from teaming with other A-players, or risk having their pay docked. Many companies – namely Microsoft, GE, Amazon and others – have discontinued the use of stacked ranking.

The best companies recognize that great work is most often done by teams, not individuals. Accordingly, these companies weigh team performance as much as (or more than) individual performance in determining compensation, professional development, or career advancement. As a result, these organizations capitalize on the full force multiplier created by extraordinary teams.

5. Manage team member egos. Perhaps the biggest factor limiting the deployment of all-star teams is the belief that “egos will get in the way of team effectiveness.” While there are certainly situations where this is true, the best companies don’t give up on forming all-star teams. Instead, these companies find ways to manage team member egos.

The primary vehicle for managing individual egos is to make team success essential for individual success. When the so-called “Dream Team” took home the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992, the egos of NBA all-star team members were kept in check by the fact that no one team member could take home the gold unless the entire team was successful. This allowed bitter rivals to compete together victoriously as a team. Similar mechanisms can be put in place in the business world to keep team member egos in check.

Extraordinary teams offer the potential for exceptional productivity and performance. Sadly, most companies fail to realize this potential. They treat the teaming of scarce star talent as an afterthought – or follow outmoded practices for assembling teams. The best companies take a far more disciplined and rigorous approach – particularly with respect to teaming their very best talent. They aren’t afraid to assemble all-star teams to tackle mission-critical initiatives. And they reward team performance commensurately.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Michael Mankins is a partner in Bain & Company’s San Francisco office and a leader in the firm’s Organization practice. He is a coauthor of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).

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