First Who Then What Team Right People

Do you have the right people on your team?

A few years ago I had the privilege of working closely with Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall.   Having the right people on the executive team is a subject he has researched deeply. It’s the whole basis of his work, captured in the maxim, “first who then what.”

It’s also a subject we are often asked to advise on by the leaders we work with.

The question is vital.  I see many organisations trying to achieve a significant performance improvement and culture shift – without really taking seriously the most important question of all, who is sitting around the table?

Team selection – applying the ‘first who then what’ principle – is arguably your most important job as the Chief Executive. At the top you’re not just selecting your team, you are creating the cultural blueprint of your organisation.

This is because what happens on your team, the tone you set and the behaviours you display, are magnified across the whole company.

I’m working with a newly appointed CEO. She inherited a team of 17 people. She knows they need to be fast, agile and responsive. But this team is too big, too unwieldy, too bogged down by consensus and other dysfunctional behaviours, so she must make changes.

(See our previous post on team size;  Is Your Team Small Enough?)

We spent time together talking about what kind of team she really wants.

She wants an executive that learns quickly from mistakes, bounces back from setbacks, where people argue and debate, not to improve their personal position but to find the best answers to support the cause.

She wants a team where people bring data, evidence, detail and logic to discussions but who are also fiercely passionate about the mission and believe in the work. She wants people on the team who enjoy the confidence and admiration of their peers and who have the respect of those they lead.

She realises now that whether they ever become this kind of team at all is a result of who is on the team in the first place.

‘First who then what’ is critical to her plans.

Patrick Lencioni has recently written about this subject.

His latest best-selling book The Ideal Team Player describes 3 essential human attributes for team membership. He asks if the people on your team, or those that you are about to employ, are humble, hungry and smart with people?

  • Put differently, do they think more of others than themselves and are they able to be vulnerable?
  • Are they eager to help? Do they love getting results and do they work hard?
  • Do they exercise good judgement with people and group dynamics, aware of the impact and effect of their words and actions?

Why team selection is so important is because people with these attributes are much more likely to create a true high performing team, which displays all the performance characteristics we wrote about last time.

In conclusion the qualities that people bring with them into your organisation and onto your team are essential and as a leader you should be selecting for these things as much as the person’s skillset and experience.

To help my client, the CEO, with her decisions, I have shared these attributes and the six characteristics Jim Collins describes for the ‘right people in key seats’ with her. It has benefitted her greatly.

Making changes will be uncomfortable, delicate and demanding. But to get the business onto a different path she knows it’s her most important task and it’s one that she has to tackle head on.

Please comment on the post below or send me a mail,  ( and I will send the ‘right people in key seats’ characteristics on to you.

Next time I will write about a subject I am very passionate about. Lions.

In a lion pride, team selection and membership is an essential part of their survival. It’s a life or death issue. Prides that thrive have powerful individuals and everyone benefits.

I will talk with Ian Thomas, author of Power of the Pride and he will share his deep wisdom from a lifetime spent watching lions and working with teams.

matches pass passion along leadership works top teams

Do you have a real team at the top?

Last time I promised to write about how to start to tap into the gold mine inside your organisation.

The first step is to build a real team at the top.

When your company’s executive team are not on the same page about what’s best for the whole organisation and they put their own interests, needs and functional areas before the priorities of the larger organisation there is a problem.

A bank executive told me recently, when there is no cohesion and unity at the top, the stage is set for interdepartmental rivalry, backbiting, confusion and infighting everywhere else. This behaviour he insists does not serve the overall best interests of the bank and neither does it help the customer.

The journey to a healthy organisation begins then with the Executive Team.

When your executives, the people with the greatest influence on behaviour in your organisation, start sharing information, support group decisions, dismantle the walls that once protected their turf and outlaw political games and hidden agendas, the message about how to behave is clear to everybody else.

How your leaders behave plays a vital role in ensuring that people don’t turn instead to cynicism, apathy and escapism.

Almost every employee has a deep need and desire for a cohesive and unified team at the top. They want to be inspired, to respect their leaders and to not have to take sides and fight unwinnable wars on issues that should have been resolved above them.

For many this deep need remains unmet and it’s a huge contributing factor to why large numbers of people are not emotionally engaged in their work.

At the initial offsite with the top team the first really difficult question we ask executives is, which team is your first team?

It’s not a trick question.

Which hat you wear as you sit around the Executive table is vital to how you show up and behave. Surprisingly, many Executives have not thought much about this.

For most it’s first their functional area or business unit – the team that they lead – that gets their main loyalty. This is where they are most comfortable. Where their knowledge and power base is.

Yet in a healthy organisation – there needs to be a clear Team Number One.

This is a small group of people – the Executives – who have the total interests of the business at heart and who are guided by one overarching leadership question, “How do we unlock and release the future full potential of the whole business”.

This means they are also completely dedicated to stopping the turf wars, ambiguity and every other barrier and bad behaviour that gets in the way of survival, growth and winning in the market.

They know that the stakes are high.

They know that the competition is organised and that every ounce of human creativity and intellect has to be focused outward and not wasted on internal struggles and needless empire building.

An executive I worked with – a very straight and direct man – used to challenge his team by asking; “do you want to be Executives or do you want to be Branch Managers?”

A stinging question, not intended to demean the latter but to remind his Executives of their main purpose … to build a real team at the top.

A Team Number One, that positions the whole business to meet customer needs and to set the example for getting people to submerge their egos and co-ordinate seamlessly. This team works tirelessly to make sure they don’t squander more human capability and goodwill than they actually use.

This is the first step to building your healthy organisation.

Next time we will write about the actual characteristics your Executive Team needs.

In the meantime please visit our Resources Page and download “Do We Work Well Together?” Ten questions that will make you think deeply about your team and what you look like to the people around you.

As always we love hearing from you.

Please comment below. We’ve just received fresh copies of Patrick Lencioni’s best-selling book, The Advantage and will give away three copies to people who comment.


Is your team in need of clarity?

We recently worked with an executive team that was working very hard but not seeing the results.

Perhaps you are part of a team like this? You are dedicated, work long hours, are constantly online, perhaps even take conference calls at 2.00 am, but your company is just not seeing the results.

What is missing is clarity.

Clarity means knowing what to focus on to get results. Clarity drives consistent behaviour and it eliminates unnecessary activity. Without true clarity you end up having too many priorities (which really mean none at all) and your behavioural standards are unclear.


This leads to confusion about what is most important and how to behave. Instead of the concentration of effort on a few things done really well that everyone supports, precious resources are scattered and diluted on too many things.

That’s exactly what was happening with the team I was working with. Some regions were doing better than others but overall when you added it all together, the sum of the parts was disappointing.

Effort was not being rewarded with results and it was taking a toll on them.

The confidence and energy in the team was low. What hurt the most was that good people were leaving for the competition and they felt powerless to stop it.

The real problem was they were working hard but not together. They did not have clarity on what was most important for the organisation. Each person had their own version of the goal but they were not the same. Due to these different goals the harder they worked the more they moved apart.

The pressure was on. “I need to get everyone rowing in the same direction” the CEO told me.

To do this we first needed every executive to see that their number one priority was to act in the best interests of the whole organisation. Their 1st team was the executive team and not the functional or regional teams they were leading back in operations. So often in the team at the top we see a lack of understanding on this important concept.

Individuals think that if their department is winning they are achieving their goals, but unless the business as a whole is victorious no one can be.

This was very hard for some. They had so much invested and they kept putting the hat back on of the team they were leading. What they lacked was the clarity around the bigger picture – the business’s single purpose and how they should contribute to it.

To find this clarity the team set about answering the six critical clarity questions.

These are the questions that get everyone at the top on the same page, focusing on the main goal and purpose of the business. They also ensure that each person’s effort is assisting the main cause and that the resources of the company are being properly channeled.

Through this process the team was now asking the right ultimate question – ‘how do we as executives unlock the full potential of the whole organisation?’ The moment this happened the energy of the team went up.

One of the six questions asks – ‘what is most important right now?’ What is the team’s single most important priority in the next 6-12 months? This question creates the focus and concentration of resources that leads to a breakthrough in performance.

For this team they felt that they had lost their ability and belief to close really big deals. This was a major contributor to their disappointing results and everyone believed passionately that this was their collective number one priority.

Within a few hours we had written up the main goal and identified five key activities that everyone was involved in to achieve the goal.

The excitement in the room was tangible. The rallying cry of the team had been set and the momentum and tone of the team had shifted materially. They couldn’t wait to get back to their teams and communicate the outcome, anxious now to get the whole organisation committed to the main cause.

So will the team turn the tide on its results?

It’s very early to tell. The task ahead of them is demanding. But everyone on the team is now in the same boat, rowing together. Now they have a fighting chance. They have even had their first big win and the belief is coming back.

Do you want to start this process with your own team?

Please add your thoughts and comment on the article in the space below and we will send you a copy of the six essential clarity questions.


Mastering Conflict

This was no ordinary executive team.

Their meetings were lively and interesting. Controversial topics were tackled head on and team members voiced their opinions even if this meant disagreeing with each other.

There was very little fake harmony that characterizes the dynamics of so many teams.

People voiced their opinions even if it caused disagreement as long as it was productive. All of this happened inside of their meetings. There was no corridor talk about each other to third parties.

Loyalty to the absent was one of their most sacred rules.

This made them different.

In working with them I was struck by how consistently important and difficult issues were discussed. In contrast, many other teams prefer to talk about everything and anything else other than what is really going on.

The team was passionate and unguarded in these discussions and no one held back, even it meant expressing an unpopular view.

The result was that the team solved real problems quickly and executives seldom had to go back to their team’s empty handed. A decision or action on critical issues had always been made.

Bottlenecks disappeared and issues were resolved.

But it also had another effect.

Politics was minimized and the rest of the organisation could see it. This set the tone for the next layer of leaders and their teams which directed the focus of the business to where it should be – externally, into winning the hearts and minds of customers.

This team was simply obsessed with making the best decisions for the organisation.

They didn’t always make the right ones, because like all of us they did not have perfect foresight and information – but the best interests of the business were what drove them. The bigger picture was that their entire market place was changing. Their environment was volatile and competitors and technologies were threatening and disruptive.

They were fixated with not becoming complacent and allowing hubris to creep into their ranks.

A few members of the team, who were used to a more sheltered and conflict-averse environment, found it difficult. They really struggled at first. Even as mature executives this was tough for them.

But the leader of the business was clear.

His view was that if members of the team are not making one another uncomfortable at times and if they’re never pushing one another outside of their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it is extremely likely that they’re not making the best decisions for the organisation.

This set the tone and he was unapologetic about it.

Admittedly it was not perfect.

Sometimes he pushed too hard and it felt personal. But he was transparent with his intentions – it was all about making the best decisions for the organisation’s success. At the same time he also worked very hard to build the team.

The team was held to a high standard and more was expected.

Fortunately people realised that being on this team was a crucial point of growth in their careers. As demanding as it was they saw the value and grasped the opportunity to improve in areas where they needed to.

One person told me it was like starting to exercise again after a long period of inactivity.

My journey with this team has been a highlight of my own career. As of today their environment is still volatile and very competitive. It probably will always be that way. The disruption and change is continuing unabated.

But I’ll put my money on them making it.

I bet they will continue to figure out a way to solve problems faster than their competitors, because they have done what few teams ever do, they have mastered conflict.

We love hearing your comments. Tell us why you think mastering conflict is so essential on a team and what happens if you don’t. We will send everyone who comments a copy of Patrick Lencioni’s fantastic article – The Trouble with Teamwork
Bees-Team-Trust LeadershipWorks

Is there trust on your team?

A few years ago I found myself working with an executive team where the levels of trust were incredibly low.

The lack of it was thick in the air, like pea soup. Team members were guarded and defensive. Time and energy was wasted on self-protection and I noticed how each person carefully managed their words and actions.

People hid their mistakes and weaknesses from each other, no one ever dared ask for help. Team members avoided spending time together and everyone dreaded meetings. Predictably these were time consuming and ineffective.

Instead of showing boldness the team was hesitant and tentative. Conflicts and grudges simmered beneath the surface, hidden by a thin veneer of fake harmony. The effects seeped into the business. Soon more people became infected and silos began to form as turf wars flared.

The organisation was crying out for leadership but this team was unable to provide it. The company’s best people – the ones they could least afford to lose – began to leave.

Lack of trust is the most severe dysfunction a team can have. Without trust and the willingness to be open about weaknesses, failure and even fears, productive work and growth becomes impossible.

Success is difficult on teams where people distrust each other.

The source of trust is vulnerability.

Recently we surveyed senior teams across South Africa. We used a standard survey of 38 questions measuring the five vital behaviours a cohesive team should consistently demonstrate, namely trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and results.

Our research showed that teams who were willing to be vulnerable with each other built trust the fastest.

Being vulnerable means people admit mistakes and weaknesses, they ask for help, they take risks in offering feedback and assistance, they offer and accept apologies without hesitation and they accept questions and input about their areas of responsibility.

They tap into each others skills and experiences and focus time and creativity on important issues not politics and sideshows.

Critically, these team members spend very little time protecting themselves and undermining each other and instead direct their energy and resourcefulness to the work and goals of the team.

What happened to the team?

Well they are not perfect – no team ever is – but they are much better.

The leader came to see that she played a vital role in building trust.

She acted bravely.

She risked making herself vulnerable with no guarantee that others would respond in kind.

She was authentic.

She acknowledged where she had made mistakes and apologized. She was sincere and the team responded to this.

Her willingness to be vulnerable allowed for new discussions to take place. It also gave her the right and the confidence to ask others to do the same. This set the scene for a genuine shift within the team and a marked improvement in the leadership they provided for the rest of the organisation.

We would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences on why it’s important to build trust on a team. The first five responses on our blog will receive a free copy of Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Please leave your comment below.


Building High Performance Business Teams – Patrick Lencioni Interview

Patrick Lencioni is a best-selling author, speaker and consultant. He has worked with thousands of senior executives in organisations ranging from Fortune 500 corporations and professional sports teams to universities and nonprofits.

He is the author of the international best sellers The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage, which are weekly fixtures on international bestseller lists; his books have sold over three million copies.


Turbulence, Leadership and Greatness

Jim Collins hardly needs an introduction. He is a student and teacher of enduring great companies – how they grow, how they attain superior performance, and how good companies can become great companies.

He has authored and co-authored some of the worlds’ best selling books on leadership. Built to LastGood to GreatHow the Mighty Fall and Great by Choice is standard reading for leaders looking to gain a competitive advantage. Grant Ashfield caught up with him to discuss his work and to find out how to lead and pursue greatness in turbulent times.

The Advantage Small-Effective-Teams LeadershipWorks Patrick Lencioni

Is your team small enough?

Is your team larger than 10 people? If so it is too big.

An ideal team size is between 3 and 10 members. This is true for all teams but especially for Executive Teams. When teams are larger than 10 members, meetings become less effective, time is wasted seeking consensus and the necessary conflict and spirited discussion required to generate real clarity is hard to have – all leading to important decisions failing to be made and windows of opportunity closing.

An Executive Team we worked with found it very difficult to make the hard decisions about team size and membership. At one point there were between 15 and 18 people on the top team.

The CEO thought that including everyone was a great developmental opportunity and it would improve morale amongst his leaders. He also thought it would help with communication, increase buy-in and speed up execution from the next layer of leaders. The result was the exact opposite.

Meeting times doubled.

There were just so many opinions to be heard and considered that team meetings became protracted and laborious. Members quickly became disillusioned with the ineffective meetings and team structure.

Then they fell into the consensus trap.

With the large group size making firm decisions became almost impossible and instead of getting buy-in, members started checking out. Soon team members only paid attention in meetings when a topic relating to their business area was being discussed. The rest of the time it was screens up and masks on.

Frustration grew.

This CEO feared conflict – deep down he wanted to be liked, especially by the people he was leading and he hardly ever forced clarity or closure on issues. He preferred to take the popular route and so deadlocks were never broken for fear of upsetting people. A fear of conflict was also one of the main reasons why this company’s team size issue had never been resolved. He simply did not want to alienate or disappoint people around him and so uncomfortable decisions were never made.

On a smaller team people are expected to weigh in and contribute … there are no places to hide. Issues can really be discussed. Now the lively debate and conflict that’s essential to gaining commitment can occur without worrying about its effect on the perceptions of others (we will talk about healthy conflict in August’s blog post). You can make sure that all points of view are thoroughly aired but also that decisions get made without being bogged down by consensus.

In the end, this turned out to be a great learning experience for the CEO. Ironically trying to be inclusive, at the wrong time, coupled with the need to be popular ultimately hurt the credibility of his leadership team and his organisation’s ability to produce results. He discovered that the next layer of leaders were looking for the Executive Team to lead, which meant having the difficult conversations at the top before communicating to the wider business. They needed the top team to clarify their thinking first before coming to them.

This did not mean they didn’t want to be consulted, but they did not expect to do the thinking for the Executives or get entangled in issues and dynamics that the top team had been unable or unwilling to resolve for themselves.

In the end his biggest lesson was that team size and membership is a critical issue for the productivity of the entire business as a whole.

Reducing the size of a team can be difficult. But how much is it worth to your company to be able to make important decisions quickly, to not miss out on important opportunities and to get unqualified commitment from your Executive Team members when communicating and executing those decisions?

Are you willing to do what it takes to optimize the size of your team? We would love to hear from you if this is something you are working on or have stories to share. Leave us a comment below or send us an email to

Next month we will deal with the issue of trust, why it’s such a vital ingredient and how to build it on a team.

Advantage Model: Successful Environment

Your biggest responsibility is to create an environment of success.

Your most important responsibility as an executive is to create an environment of success inside your business.  We call this organisational health and it is so valuable that mastering it should neither be delayed nor delegated.

There are four simple but demanding steps to get your organisation healthy. We say they are disciplines because although common sense, they don’t come naturally. To master they require courage, patience and perseverance.

Discipline 1 | Build a Cohesive Leadership Team 

Your first step is to get your leaders, starting with the top team, to behave in a functional, cohesive way. If your leaders are behaving in dysfunctional ways that dysfunction will cascade into your organisation and prevent organisational health. At the heart of building the team are five behaviours to master – trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and results. If your team at the top sets the example in these five behaviours you set a new standard for the entire business.
Discipline 2 | Create Organisational Clarity

The second step is to ensure your leaders are aligned on the direction and purpose of your organisation as a whole. There are six simple but deceptively difficult questions, from why the organisation exists to what is most important right now, that you need to answer. It is surprising always how much confusion there is. Executives are often not on the same page and send conflicting messages into the business or only really care about the areas they lead and manage.

Discipline 3 | Over-Communicate Clarity

This step ensures that people one, two or three levels below the top team have complete clarity about what they should do to make the organisation successful. As a leader you are patiently and consistently repeating yourself as to what is true and important. People need time to process and absorb but they also need to see that you really believe in what you are communicating and are going to stay the course.

Discipline 4 | Reinforce Clarity

Finally you must ensure that any process in your organisation that involves people, from hiring and firing to performance management and decision-making, is designed in a way to intentionally support and emphasise the uniqueness of the organisation.

There is one other activity that really matters, and that is meetings. By making a few simple changes to the way meetings happen, your organisation will be successful in sustaining all the gains made in the four disciplines above.

Turning an unhealthy company into a healthy one not only creates a distinctive competitive advantage and improved bottom line, but it also makes a genuine difference in the lives of the people who work in your business and those they serve.

To get started download The Table Group’s Organisational Health Survey from our resource centre and use the statements as a starting point to reflect on the health of your organisation.

Competitive Advantage: What sets your company apart?

What sets your company apart?

All the competitive advantages we’ve been pursuing during our careers are gone. That’s right. Advantages such as strategy, technology, finance and marketing are gone.

These disciplines have not disappeared. They are all alive and well in most organisations. And that’s good, because they’re important. But as genuine differentiators that set one company apart from another, they are no longer anything close to what they once were.

That’s because virtually every organisation, of any size, has access to the best thinking and practices around strategy, technology and related topics. Companies use the same consultants, they go to the same conferences and business schools and managers leave one business for another taking their ideas with them.

Information and knowledge is all around us and it’s become almost impossible to sustain an advantage based only intellectual ideas. It is no longer just the best idea and smartest people that set a company on a winning course.

There is one remaining, untapped competitive advantage out there, and it’s more important than all the others ever were. It is simple, reliable and virtually free. It’s called organisational health. A healthy organisation has all but eliminated politics and confusion from its environment. As a result, productivity and morale soar and good people almost never leave.

None of this is touchy-feely or soft. It is as tangible and practical as anything else a business does, and even more important. Healthy organisations can actually execute on their strategies because they create high performance environments that tap into every bit of talent, resourcefulness and intelligence available to it.

The truth is that the smartest organisation in the world, even the one that has mastered strategy, finance, marketing and technology, will eventually stumble and fall behind if it is unhealthy.

So if all this is true then why haven’t more companies embraced and reaped the benefits of organisational health? Patrick Lencioni, author of The Advantage and global expert on organisational health, thinks there are 3 reasons for this.

Firstly, it’s hard. It requires real work and discipline over a period of time, and it must be maintained. Secondly, it is not overly sophisticated. Leaders who have been trained for years in an essentially intellectual approach to their roles have a bias for sophistication and find the practical simplicity of it disarming. Moreover, in spite of its power and impact on almost every part of the business, it is hard to measure in a precise and accurate way.

But the biggest reason he suggests that organisational health remains untapped is that it requires courage. Leaders must be willing to confront themselves, their peers, and the dysfunction within their organisation with an uncommon level of honesty and persistence. They must be prepared to walk straight into uncomfortable situations and address issues that prevent them from realising the potential that eludes them.

Can a healthy organisation fail? Yes. But it almost never happens. When dysfunction, politics and ambiguity are reduced to a minimum, people are empowered to design products, serve customers, solve problems and help one another in ways that unhealthy organisations can only dream about. Healthy organisations recover from setbacks, attract the best people, repel the others, and create opportunities that they couldn’t have expected.

At the end of the day employees are happier and much more engaged, the bottom line is stronger, and executives are at peace because they know they’ve fulfilled their most important responsibility of all: creating an environment of success.

How does an organisation become healthy? Next month we will write about the 4 essential disciplines for an organisation to master to become healthy.

Competitive Advantage: What sets your company apart?