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.

4 replies
    DALE HILLARY says:


  2. David Viljoen
    David Viljoen says:

    I totally agree that the composition of a team is very important and the specific way to identify the team members as you mentioned in this article is crucial to the success of the team to deliver what is required from them. I don’t have a better way of just saying that you need “fit for purpose” team members that complement each other skills and capabilities. This will make each team member even more willing to give it all to the success of the team. The challenge we in bigger organisations have is that we do not always have the level of team players we need. Therefore we have to get commitment and hard work by contracting staff into teams. As most of us experienced it is difficult to do team specific contracting when the team members comes from various departments in the organisation. Some guidance or examples of where this is working in other organisations will help a lot.

  3. Clive Hawkins
    Clive Hawkins says:

    Great article and agree with what both Dale and David have said…it is critical that the team consists of people who compliment one another and will “go to war” with one another…one of the tough and challenging tasks is that the leader of the group must be able to “mould” all the individuals into one unit …

  4. Graham Vercueil
    Graham Vercueil says:

    Great article and the value of ‘the right people on the bu’s is so clear. I think that the managers who manage operations on the ground are as key as those above them and often a critical layer to prevent a bleed in standards. These operational managers, in my experience, are often the ones who are not squeezed off the bus when they don’t perform. Most familiar with the product, closest to the coal-face and indispensable to the managers above them, they are often kept in place far too long.


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