How does an organisation create a strong, high-performing team when they aren’t in a position to recruit the Alphas in the working world? Simple: concentrate your efforts on the team you’ve got and lead them as best you can.
Investors in People CEO, Paul Devoy spent some time reflecting on the recent Make Work Better conference and his session with headliner Steven Bartlett on recruiting the right people for success.
Collaborative behaviour, a sense of purpose, and giving people autonomy are all traits everyone from successful businesses to football managers to chicken farmers can employ to see your B- and C-players fulfil their potential.
Only hire A-players is the advice of Steven Barlett in his excellent new book, 33 Laws for Business and Life. While I agree with almost everything he says in that book, on this one point, I disagree. We discussed it when Steven was the headline speaker at our Make Work Better conference last week. It’s my view that only focussing on elite recruitment is not a luxury the majority of organisations have at their disposal. It can also cause unintended, negative consequences and you’re actually much better off improving the team you’ve got.
It’s why those of you who were there would’ve seen me counter Steven’s advice with a little anecdote about Super Chickens. Super Chickens? Yes. Let me explain.
Super Chickens: the A-players of the hen world
I should start this by saying that Steven was a great headline speaker for our conference. He has fantastic insights from his own business success and, more importantly, he’s a really decent guy. He had a business meeting scheduled after our conference and delegated it to one of his team to make sure he had time for engaging with the audience afterwards. I’ve never seen so many selfies in one go and he was kind and generous with his time with everyone he met. But back to the Super Chickens…
In his book, Steven says: “Every CEO and founder will be judged simply on their ability to 1. hire the best individuals and 2. bind them with a culture that gets the best out of them.”
He also quotes another hugely successful entrepreneur, Steve Jobs:
“I found that when you get enough A-players together, when you go through the incredible work to find five of these A-players, they really like working with each other because they’ve never had a chance to do that before and they don’t want to work with B and C players. And so it becomes self-policing, and they only want to hire more A-players. And so you build up these pockets of A-players and it propagates. And that’s what the Mac team was like. They were all A-players.
Only hiring A-players might be all well and good for Steven Bartlett or Steve Jobs who have people queueing out the door desperate to work for them. But what about those working in more ordinary organisations? Can’t B- and C-players ever be great? Here’s where you might take some comfort from the story of the Super Chickens experiment.
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Back in the 1990s, scientists designed an experiment to improve the egg laying productivity of chickens.
They split them into two groups and each group lived together in a pen. The first group, the control, were all average egg producing hens, left to reproduce for six generations on their own. The second group were the so called ‘Super Chickens’ from each generation – the hens which produced the greatest number of eggs – put together in a pen where it was believed they would go on to win the egg-laying race.
Things didn’t go as expected though. At the end of the experiment, while the control group were plump, well feathered, healthy and producing more eggs than they had at the beginning of the experiment, the ‘Super Chickens’ had killed each other. There were, in fact, only three survivors, the rest had pecked each other to death.
The scientist’s conclusion was it wasn’t any genetic trait that had made these hens better egg producers, it was their behaviour: the Super Chickens were only super because they were more aggressive; they hoarded resources and caused the health of other chickens to suffer. Selecting only these aggressive chickens is what led to the demise of their group.
An extreme example of how allowing in only ‘the best’ can go wrong? Maybe. Before we went on stage, Steven and I had a chat about our shared passion, football – he being a big Man Utd fan and me being a lifelong Falkirk fan (and, no, he hadn’t heard of Falkirk either). Football is actually a pretty good metaphor for the Super Chicken effect.
In the early 2000s, Real Madrid implemented what became known as the galácticos or ‘superstar’ strategy. Their management believed if they only bought superstar players they would progressively become a world-class team. After some initial success, the club’s performance went downhill. One of the main reasons behind this is thought to be that the club wasn’t interested in paying high wages for defensive talent; they prioritised attacking players who would score goals. It led to an imbalance in the team and a decline in performance. Fast forward to today and you can see (sorry, Steven) Manchester United have also adopted this strategy and, similarly, aren’t doing as well as you’d think they should be.
Collective effort: how the Bs and Cs of this world can outperform the A-players
Contrast this with Brighton and Hove Albion F.C. They don’t have star players but when you look at their overall results on a relatively small budget, they are pound for pound outperforming the likes of Manchester United. They’ve brought people in and developed them into great players, bound by a collective philosophy.
What’s really interesting is some have been sold on to some really big clubs and then not performed well there. It shows how important the collective – the team – can be to success; Bs and Cs working together in a collaborative way can develop a long-term strategy which sees them outperform the Super Chickens.
Now, bear with me on the football analogies a bit longer. Steven Bartlett, like me, thinks Sir Alex Ferguson is the best football manager of all time – and, in my case, this is partly because he played centre forward for Falkirk between 1969 and 1973. Steven even refers to him in his book, where he says it was Sir Alex’s creation of a strong, united culture within the club which was key to its success. And to be fair to Steven, he also strongly emphasises the importance of culture. For Alex Ferguson, no player was more important than the club and they all had to embody the “United way.” Great leadership, a strong vision and a culture which focusses on the overall performance of the team, not the individual – I think there is something there that many employers can learn from.
So, if you want to create a strong, high-performing team, what do you do? My advice would be don’t worry about recruiting in the Alphas, concentrate your efforts on leading the team you’ve got as best you can. You want to pull together people with the right skills, of course, but you can also train people to have the right skills, just as you can – and should – nurture collaborative behaviour and best practice.
I believe intrinsic motivation comes from a sense of purpose. It comes from getting people in roles that align with their strengths and allow them to perform at their best, and it comes from giving people autonomy. Bring that together under some good leadership, with well trained and supported managers and you’ll create the environment where everyone, including the B- and C-players can fulfil their potential.
Just remember those control chickens – happy, plump and, without the Alphas stealing their food and getting all the glory, producing the most eggs they ever had.
P.S – I am severely allergic to eggs.