Do you collect things? Have a deep enthusiasm for a certain pastime and memorabilia from that pursuit has gathered around you over the years? For serious collectors, finding that next rare or sought-after addition to your trove can be inspiring and habit-forming. Just as important as that next addition, great collectors would tell us, is deciding what will remain in our assemblage. Very skilled collectors take this discernment to the next level and transcend just gathering stuff by becoming curators. Like a gardener pruning for the best spring bloom, curators are often practitioners of addition by subtraction. For paintings and sculpture, vintage automobiles or simple stamps, curating a collection means everything that gets included must earn a spot and everything that stays in must do the same.
As leaders, when we build teams, this skill of curation is no less important. How do we decide which talents to add to our teams? How will certain professionals bring something new to our group? How can we grow the individuals on our teams to be more capable tomorrow than today while also making the difficult choice to let someone from our group go on to their next assignment and perhaps benefit someone else’s collection? We are not line-managers, bosses, department heads or senior executives. We are curators of talent and the strength of our teams will be a direct reflection of how well we make choices to refine, grow and strengthen those in our charge.
Head And Heart Are Not Mutually Exclusive
We’ve heard all manner of phrases and quotes about what it means to hire for attitude not skillset. The truth, as we all know, is that both matter. I have had incredibly willing and enthusiastic leaders working for me and their lack of skill or capability seriously inhibited their success. Conversely, the most competent people in the world can debilitate a team or culture if their attitude is abrasive. Each of us has conducted interviews during which we try to get a sense of a professional’s ability, experience, learning agility and so on. I would submit that many of these aspects are table stakes. Capability can variously be tested and verified. Verification of attitude is often a reference call away. More elusive is our assurance that the professional we seek to add to our collection of talent can think and feel simultaneously. What do I mean?
I want leaders on my team who understand not just what to do next but also realize how that action will be felt by those downrange from it. As valid as business dynamic questions like, ‘How will our numbers change?’ or ‘How will our strategy be impacted?’ are, equally important are questions like, ‘How will my team respond to this change?’ and ‘What fears, concerns, skill gaps does this leader in my group have which I need to address before we do this ?’.
Decisions, action plans and growth strategies don’t get executed in a vacuum, people must enable them and people are impacted (positively and negatively) by them. When I act on curating my teams, I want to know I have leaders who can execute, solve, grow and fix while also recognizing that humans are emotional beings and their hearts matter as much as their heads. Why, you ask?
Leadership Is Influence
Even in very command and control kinds of work cultures, the most effective teams are made up of professionals who willingly choose to follow their leaders. While it may be possible to get things done simply by directing your team to do X or Y or Z, it is much more effective for our team members to choose to take on our next challenge independently, even enthusiastically. How do we inspire this willingness? Much of the responsibility for creating this kind of culture lies with us, as I have discussed in previous writings. But, once we have done so, it is imperative that we have curated a team full of the kind of leaders who care about our mission. These leaders must have the emotional intelligence which enables them to care about where we are going as well as understand what happens if we don’t get there.
Euphemisms like ‘carrot and stick’, when used to discuss how we motivate teams, are insulting and inadequate. The sorts of professionals I want to select for my collection have their heads aligned to seek personal reward for their work and recognize outcomes if they do not perform, while also having their hearts tuned to a larger purpose. The way in which their personal motivations align with our purpose is the key I need to understand as their leader. It is through this personal motivation that I can influence them. Simon Sinek would call it the ‘why’. For us as leaders of people, these motivations are the accelerator in the high performance car which is our team member. We can use our understanding of how to drive motivation as a way to push the pedal and achieve new speeds with this vehicle. Understanding how to unlock a person’s ‘why’, their motivation, is far more beneficial (and complex) then just dangling a carrot or waving a stick. Leadership isn’t binary and when you are curating your team, you should not choose people who are.
Curating Means ‘Killing Our Darlings’
William Goldman is and will always be my favorite writer of all time. As a novelist and non-fiction writer, he was incredibly skilled and varied in his work. As a multiple Oscar-winning screenwriter, he was the single largest source of inspiration for me with films like “Princess Bride”, “All The President’s Men”, “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” and so many more. When he died in late 2018, I mourned his passing by thinking back on his life of work.
In his brilliant book “Adventures In The Screen Trade”, Goldman discusses all manner of lessons and guidance for writers and professionals of all types. As a veteran of the rough and tumble movie industry, Goldman discusses the need to sometimes ‘kill his darlings’ when it came to his scripts. In practical terms, this phrase came to mean that Goldman was pragmatic enough to realize that not everything he wrote would work in every film. There were studio heads, directors, stars, budgets and other forces which each ultimately had a hand in determining what would make it into the final film we all saw on our movie screens. Goldman knew that even his favorite scenes, characters or ideas - his darlings - sometimes had to be sacrificed for the benefit of the whole film. That’s a difficult, and wise, choice for any creative. But that’s why William Goldman was a curator, not just a collector. Addition by subtraction.
When we build teams, we sometimes need to ask ourselves if we have ‘darlings’ and address them. To be clear, I am not saying ‘fire anyone who doesn’t fit’. But, we have to be at least as pragmatic as a Hollywood writer and realize we aren’t just writing a script - or in our case, assembling a team. We are working for a larger purpose. The success of our company, the smooth completion of an acquisition, the achievement of our year end targets. We need to constantly challenge ourselves to ensure that everyone on our team is adding to the achievement of these goals, and if not, ask what should change? Perhaps the painting is lovely but would it work more effectively in another section of the gallery? Maybe this favorite sculpture used to fit among our other work but now it’s time to offer it up to another museum and try something else in its place?
Curating and addressing our darlings doesn’t mean we don’t still love those people or recognize their beauty or skills. But we are assembling a collection of talents that enables us to continue to perform and that means always remaining open to change, upgrade, alteration or editing. It also means we aren’t curating our team just for today…
We Are Building A Team For Tomorrow
If you ponder the individuals and collective strength of your current team, you can likely list aspects for which the team is perfectly suited regarding today’s challenges and maybe an area or two where you have some gaps. How about the challenges of next quarter or next year? When you discussed the expansion, market share growth plan or new territory openings in your last board meeting, did you ask if today’s team is ready for where you’ll be in the next one, two and five years? Maybe it’s time to curate.
Human resource and training professionals have loads of wonderful tools and programs for assessing the skills, personalities and capabilities of professionals. Maybe you’ve employed some of these methods like Myers Briggs’ Type Indicator or countless similar assessment systems. Take a look at where your team is strong and where it may need new skills. Are they ready for where your company or group will be in one or two years? Can you get them ready? Do you need to add to your collection and infuse it with new attributes? Do you need to make room for some fresh perspective by providing an opportunity for one of your players to serve another team?
By appreciating strengths while also being honest about opportunities, it is possible to bond with our team members as individuals, heralding their contributions and abilities while, simultaneously, seeking to enhance our teams incrementally over time through talent curation. Maintaining this balance will ensure our organizations are ready for challenges we will face in the years ahead.