Was this an employee problem or an employer problem?

A restaurant in my neighborhood opens at 5:00 p.m.for dinner. Recently, when I arrived around 5:15, I was the only customer. I seated myself in a booth. The waitpersons were huddled together, talking and laughing. They didn’t even know I was there. I decided to wait silently until one of them noticed me. I waited 10 minutes.

In another recent incident, I took my grandson to an outdoor pool at a local country club. Kids were swimming; parents were sunbathing. I noticed that the young lifeguards were all huddled around one lifeguard station, laughing and “hanging out,” as teenagers are prone to do. The problem was, they weren’t doing their job, which was to diligently watch for swimmers in distress.   

In both instances, I was initially upset at the employees. They were derelict in their duties. Their job was to serve customers but instead, they were focused on each other.

Upon further reflection, I realized that fundamentally, this was not an employee problem, it was a managerial problem. Why hadn’t supervisors properly trained these employees? Why weren’t managers monitoring real-time performance and correcting deviations from standards? 

Leaders/managers, that’s part of your job. 

One reason why I love to spend time on a cruise ship is that the employees are well managed. Every employee is attentive, works hard, on-time, and serves with a good attitude. Performance standards are set and enforced. (I heard that on one cruise, when a waiter insulted a passenger, at the next ports-of-call he was put off the ship and sent home.) 

When reasonable expectations are clearly set and fairly enforced, employees feel valued, secure, and productive. And customers are satisfied.

I also embrace the value of individual initiative and effort. In the previous scenarios (inattentive waiters, distracted lifeguards) each employee could have, and should have, broken off from the pack and done the right thing. (Those individuals are rare; look for them and value them.) But ultimately, the well-being of an organization is determined by the leader. 

Leaders/managers, that’s part of your job. 

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Leaders, your most important job is to build and manage a great team — part 2 of 3 – choose great team members

Last week I wrote that a leader’s most important job is choosing great team members. It’s the sine qua non of leadership. 

This week let’s think about how to choose great team members.

1.  A leader should be involved in compiling her team.

A leader should have the authority and responsibility to choose her team members. Sometimes a leader inherits a team, in which case she has to work with what she’s given. But when possible, the leader should have significant input into the process. 

Some leaders, for various reasons, are just not good at selecting team members. These leaders must rely on the help of others or they will make serious and long-lasting personnel mistakes. 

I’m good at selecting team members but I always create a search committee to help me because “all of us are smarter than one of us.”

So, when choosing team members, ask others to help, but be fully involved in the process. 

2. Carefully choose your team members. 

There’s an old adage from the garment industry: Measure twice; cut once. Before a seamstress cuts an expensive bolt of cloth he measures multiple times because once the cut is made it cannot be changed. Choosing your team is equally important. (Although, unlike cutting cloth, you can make changes to your team; but those changes usually bear a huge emotional and sometimes financial cost.)

Carefully selecting team members in a small organization is particularly important because there is no “bench”; every team member must contribute.

3. Choose leaders or potential leaders. 

If you want your organization to just function smoothly, choose followers. But if you want your organization to grow and prosper, recruit leaders. 

Every organization is restricted by its leadership quotient (the number of leaders in the organization and how competent they are). The higher your leadership quotient, the better. So always try to choose leaders to serve on your team, not just followers.

4. Avoid the diminishing-expertise syndrome.

Surround yourself with people who are better than you are.

This suggestion is not for the insecure and paranoid; it takes a lot of emotional fortitude and self-confidence to recruit and empower people who are smarter, more competent, more edgy, and more connected than you are. But if you don’t, you and your organization will suffer from the diminishing-expertise syndrome. This disorder can be illustrated by considering a matryoshka doll. 

A favorite toy among Russian children, the matryoshka doll is a series of wooden dolls, inside of each other, that get progressively smaller and smaller. Open up the largest doll and you’ll find a smaller, identical doll. Open up that doll and there is yet a smaller one. There may be as many as 15 dolls inside the largest one.

The application to team building is obvious. If the person at the top of the organization hires someone who is “smaller” than he is, and then that person recruits someone who is “smaller” than him and this selection criteria continues to cascade down through the entire organization, it will weaken your organization. 

Another lesson to learn from these dolls is to observe that all the dolls are identical. If a leader is insecure or uninformed he may only select team members who “look like” himself, which will eventually limit the effectiveness of the team.   

So when recruiting team members, select people who are “bigger” than you and those who are different than you are. Choose the best and the brightest to serve on your team and your organization will prosper.

You may wonder, “But won’t that make me look bad?” No, it will make you look like a competent leader. Remember, leaders get work done through other people. Also, surrounding yourself with top-flight people will motivate you to continue to grow and become better yourself.

Warren Bennis says, “Great teams are headed by people confident enough to recruit people better than themselves.” 

5. Choose people who excel at both hard and soft skills. 

Hard skills determine competency. If you’re hiring a computer programmer, make sure she’s a good programmer. If you’re hiring an organist, make sure he plays well. Usually, past performance is a good predictor of future performance so investigate the candidate’s previous work, and if possible, observe him in action. 

If you’re hiring for a leadership position, look for these six hard skills: craft vision, develop a team, be a change agent, execute well, communicate well, and develop leaders. 

Soft skills determine how well a person interacts with other people. A computer programmer may be good at programming but have a toxic effect on the work environment. A brilliant organist may fail at his job because he can’t get along with people. 

Soft skills include: be a lifelong-learner, have good character, be emotionally intelligent, be authentic, have good people skills, and be able to inspire others.

Choose team members who are both competent (hard skills) and kind (soft skills). Both are necessary. You don’t want a competent jerk or a kind incompetent.

 Here are some other characteristics to look for when recruiting team members. 

6. Build a well-balanced team.

Here are three characteristics of a well-balanced team.


We may be prone to choose people who are similar to us, but a team will be stronger if it is diverse. Pursue diversity in age, gifts, personality, gender, ethnicity, and background. Look for unanimity regarding values, beliefs, and culture. 

You must not only compile a diverse team, you must allow the diversity to express itself. Gary Heil says, “Recruiting a diverse workforce and then encouraging employees to act as a homogeneous group, where the tendency to agree interferes with critical thinking, is not success. It is merely a waste of human talent.”  

Complementary talents

Stephen Covey says, “A good team is a complementary team where people’s strengths are made productive and their weaknesses made irrelevant by the strengths of others.” A football team is best comprised of athletes with different but complementary talents; you wouldn’t want a team full of place kickers. 

All key positions filled

When building a team, stay with it until all key positions are filled. When he was manager of the Chicago Cubs, Charlie Grimm reportedly received a phone call from one of his scouts. “Charlie,” the scout said, “I’ve landed the greatest young pitcher in the land! He struck out every man who came to bat. Twenty-seven in a row. Nobody even hit a foul until the ninth inning. The pitcher is right here with me. What shall I do?” Charlie replied, “Sign up the guy who got the foul. We’re looking for hitters.” 

 7. Consider cultural issues when choosing team members. 

Every organization has its own unique culture—the sum of its values, beliefs, and norms of behavior. Culture runs deep; it’s like the current of a wide and deep river—it may be unseen but it is powerful and difficult to change. It’s not quite as fundamental as DNA (which cannot be changed) but it is very primal.

If you are satisfied with the culture of your organization, recruit leaders that will fit in and reinforce the culture. Mike Miles says, “You want to work with people who you will enjoy working with, and that part of the process is art and personal, not scientific or book-learned.”

If you want to change the culture of your organization, recruit leaders that exemplify the new culture you aspire to produce. But be prepared to swim upstream; culture is difficult to change. The new team members will likely face extreme and consistent resistance and you must defend and protect them.  

Building a great team takes time and tenacity. Because of turnover, it may be a never-ending job. But it is one of the most important tasks a leader does. Don’t take it lightly; the success of your organization depends on it.  

Two weeks from now we’ll think about how to develop and work with team members. 

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Leaders, your most important job is to build and manage a great team — part 1 of 3 – understand the importance of building a great team

First who, then what. Jim Collins

Twenty years ago I interviewed a friend who started and now manages a large company. He has 200 employees in the U.S. and about 15,000 in China. He designs and manufactures those obnoxious inflatables that you see in people’s yards on holidays – Santas at Christmas, scarecrows at Halloween.

Even today, I remember part of our conversation.

When I asked him his secret to building a successful business he immediately answered: “Hire the right people and take care of them.” I thought there must be more to it, so I asked him the same question in a different way. But his answer remained the same: Hire the right people and take care of them.

In my 40-year professional career, I’ve never managed a large organization or a sizable division,  but I’ve led small organizations and I’ve read extensively in the area of leadership. I embrace the same conclusion as my friend: The most important element of leadership is to hire the right people and take care of them.

Carefully read what these notable leaders say about the importance of choosing good team members.

  • “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare. If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” Patrick Lencioni
  • “How you select people is more important than how you manage them once they’re on the job. If you start with the right people, you won’t have problems later on. If you hire the wrong people, for whatever reason, you’re in serious trouble and all the revolutionary management techniques in the world won’t bail you out.” Red Auerbach, longtime Boston Celtics president
  • “A leader’s most important decisions fall into two categories: big bets on people and big bets on strategy. The people decisions are arguably more important because they heavily influence the strategy decisions.” David Nadler
  • “Given the many things that businesses can’t control (the economy, competitors) you’d think that companies would pay careful attention to the one thing they can control—the quality of their people, especially those in the leadership pool.” Larry Bossidy

Choose great team members. When you played sandlot baseball as a kid and you were able to choose your teammates, if you picked the best players you won. If you didn’t, you lost. The same goes for adult games; pick the best team members and your organization will prosper.

Next week we’ll think about how to choose good team members.

Three weeks from now I’ll write about how to develop your team members.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Enjoy the benefits of hospitality

In one of his letters, George Washington wrote that he and Martha had not had dinner at home alone for twenty years. Every night for twenty years—7,300 days in a row—they had guests and visiting dignitaries to entertain. (from: A. J. Jacobs, My Life as an Experiment, page 15)

Granted, this anecdote is rather extreme. If I insisted on entertaining this frequently, I would live as a single adult.

But, I think Mary and I (and probably you, too) go to the other extreme: we don’t extend hospitality enough. 

There’s a Spanish word that expresses the joy and benefit of hospitality—sobremesa—the time spent around the table after lunch or dinner, talking to the people you shared the meal with; time to digest and savor both food and friendship.

There is something profoundly satisfying about sharing a meal with other people. Eating together is one of the oldest and most fundamental unifying human experiences. It can simultaneously fulfill physical, emotional, and relational needs.

It will help establish and deepen friendships

If I share my food with you it’s either because I love you a lot, or because it fell on the floor and I don’t want it. (That’s a joke.) Truly, I can’t think of another setting that’s better for solidifying friendships than gathering to eat. It slows down our pace, narrows our space, focuses our attention, and creates a relaxing ambience—all of which are beneficial for deepening friendships.

It’s good for business

Since humans first walked the earth, we’ve known that sharing a meal can be good for business. For instance, a recent study revealed that it doesn’t take much to get a doctor to prescribe a brand-name medication—just a free meal. The study found that U.S. doctors who received a single free meal from a drug company were more likely to prescribe the drug than doctors who received no such meals. Meals paid for by drug companies cost less than $20 on average [Even Cheap Meals Influence Doctors’ Drug Prescriptions, Study Suggests, Peter Loftus, WSJ, June 20, 2016].

I’ve never understood why some organizations are so stingy with the amount of funds allocated for business meals. I once worked with a group of six senior executives at a $75 million-a-year business. They were frustrated that the CEO, in order to save money, eliminated their budget for business meals, which saved the company a whopping $24k a year. I suspect that poor decision cost the company ten times as much in lost revenue.

It engenders good will

Treat someone to a $15 lunch and they’ll be your friend forever. Well, that’s an exaggeration; but it is true that even a small amount of money and time will generate a lot of relational capital.

A weekly family meal can become a wonderful family tradition

I enjoy watching the sitcom, Bluebloods (on CBS). It follows the lives of three generations of New York City police officers. In every episode, there’s a scene showing their weekly, Sunday afternoon family meal in which they gather around the dinner table to talk, argue, laugh, and pass the potatoes. Every family would benefit from this tradition. [Note to my family: Are you reading this post?]

I double-dog-dare you: initiate and host meals and enjoy the sobremesa.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Getting into another person’s mind

Several years ago I attended a concert at the Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas. About 80 audience members stood in a circle around the musicians. A baritone soloist and six disparate instruments performed Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies. Completed in 1969 it is one of the most distinctive and disturbing musical compositions of the twentieth century. The eight songs document the imagined events from King George III’s famous and well-documented descent into insanity.  

It’s a disconcerting 30-minute composition. Hard to listen to. The vocal soloist sings, shrieks, yells, and gesticulates. The instruments play chaotically. There are few melodic figures and no formal structure. 

After the concert, the audience was invited to a reception. I struck up a conversation with a fellow audience member. Midway through the conversation she asked me, “What did you think of the Davies’ composition?” My response: “I didn’t like it at all. It was too esoteric; it was hard to listen to; musically it made no sense.” She calmly and gently responded: “Don’t you realize, the music was portraying the mind of an insane person. It represented how a mad person thinks.”

I’ll never forget her gentle rebuke; it was both instructive and challenging. I think of it often. 

One of the hardest things to do in life is to “get into another person’s mind” and think and feel as he or she does. We live in our own minds 24/7 so it’s hard to imagine how other people experience the world. 

  • When I board a plane my mind is peaceful. What is it like to be afraid of flying?
  • What goes on in the mind of someone who suffers from bipolar disorder?
  • How does a special needs person view the world?
  • Being Stoic by nature and choice, I find it hard to imagine how an emotionally robust person interacts with the world.

Let’s experiment with this concept. Think of someone you know well and try to mentally enter into his world; try to think and feel as he might. Consider their fears, insecurities, blind spots, emotional imbalances, hurts, personal history, family of origin issues, hopes, and dreams. What does he think and feel when he enters a new social environment?

While it’s hard for us to imagine what life is like experienced through another person’s mind, we should try. Otherwise, we’ll not truly understand other people and our empathy will be misinformed or lacking. 

Here’s a video of a performance of Davies’ work. I’ll give a wooden nickel to anyone who can watch the entire video.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.