First Who Then What Team Right People

Who is sitting at your table?

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A few years ago I had the privilege of working closely with Jim Collins.

He researches great companies and he explains what separates them from mediocre ones.

A key differentiator he concludes is the Executive Team. First Who Then What is his organising principle … get the people right, he concludes, and go from there.

His point is that as the future gets harder to predict your only guarantee of success is who is on the team.

Given this, 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’re setting the standards for everyone else. You are creating the cultural blueprint for your organisation.

Who then is sitting around your table?

I recently starting consulting with a newly appointed CEO. She inherited an Executive Team of 14 people.

Her business has lots of competition. Their world is changing quickly.

She knows they need to be faster and more responsive to the market. But this team is too big, too unwieldy, too bogged down, so she must make changes.

(See our previous post;  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,
  • has a culture of healthy debate, so the team finds the best answers and makes good decisions.

She wants a team where people bring data and detail to discussions. People who bring passion, energy, and belief to their work.

Ultimately she wants a team that enjoys the confidence and admiration of peers and who have the respect of those they lead.

First who then what’ is critical to whether she will be successful or not.

Patrick Lencioni has recently written about this subject.

His latest book The Ideal Team Player describes 3 essential human qualities necessary for team membership.

The Ideal Team Player Pat suggests is humble, hungry, and smart with people. In other words …

  • They create space for others and easily share credit and praise.
  • They are eager to help. They love getting results and they have a tremendous work ethic.
  • They exercise good judgment with people. They are tuned into group dynamics and are aware of the impact and effect of their words and actions

People with these attributes (humble, hungry, and smart) are precious. They will build a team together that wins the admiration and respect of peers and direct reports.

For my client making changes to the team will be uncomfortable, delicate, and demanding. But the process is underway.

She knows that right now it is her most important task and one that she has to tackle head-on.

Our next step will be to convene the new team offsite and begin the process of building cohesion and clarity. But not before the team is properly formed and the right people are sitting around the table.

Please comment on the post below or mail me, ( and I will send you what Jim Collins regards as the key characteristics of the right people on the bus.

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

In a lion pride, team selection is an essential part of their survival. It’s a life or death issue.

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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