Build a great team, not a mediocre one

Build a great team, not a mediocre one

People are not fungible. This is something I learned very early on in my IT career. Everyone has a unique background and experience, with different strengths and weaknesses. We are not created equal and we've all faced different challenges.

To help build a successful project team you need to follow a few simple guidelines:

" Always hire attitude over aptitude.

" Great outcomes are delivered by great teams, not mediocre players.

" Past achievements are a good indicator of future performance.

Attitude is king: Passion, enthusiasm, optimism -- these are attitudinal characteristics which fuel success. I can't recall one successful project or initiative in my 33 year career where these attributes were absent from the team. Gaps in knowledge can easily be filled; attitude deficiencies can paralyse projects and, in extreme cases, guarantee their failure.

Build a great team purposely: Be opportunistic with exceptional people. If you were the coach of a sports team wouldn't you want the best possible calibre of player on your side to maximize your chances of success? And if a highly rated player, with a track record for delivering wins, was suddenly available on the market wouldn't you seriously look to secure them for your team if you could afford them?

Of course you would. The aim of the game after all is to maximize your chances of winning and reduce the risk of failure by providing the strongest and most capable team possible. The same applies to projects. The right people make a difference.

In fact, I've previously hired someone exceptional, even though there was no specific role, simply because they were available and too good an opportunity to pass up. Once brought into the organization, the individual repeatedly delivered as advertised and the company was the better for the hire.

Reflect on past successes: Just as a rear view mirror shows us where we've been, so too a person's past achievements are a good reflection and predictor of their capabilities to deliver into the future. When recruiting, more weight should be given to specific examples where the candidate has delivered against all odds rather than the length of time spent in certain roles. If you were going into battle, would your preference be for a leader straight from military academy or a veteran soldier who had survived numerous heavy clashes and retained battle scars along with experience?

Unfortunately, when markets become candidate rich (as has been the case in recent times), companies suddenly disregard this approach and instead see this as an opportunity to treat people as a commodity who can be bargained down.

All markets cycle and the employment market is no different.

Recently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (according to press articles) has mandated the exclusion of candidates without degrees from prestigious universities from being recruited into the company.

This seems a somewhat disadvantageous and silly path for Yahoo to go down. As someone who remembers the halcyon days of Yahoo when it was the dominant search engine on the Web (pre Google) this is also quite sad. On the surface, the intent appears to be in line with bringing the "best of the best" into Yahoo. But the point of contention is how "best" is being measured here.

Performing outstandingly at university could perhaps mean an increased likelihood the person will be a productive and successful hire. But this no more guarantees success than the passing of a driving test assures people will become good and competent drivers. It just means they know stuff, but this doesn't necessarily translate into they can therefore do stuff.

More importantly, the converse is not true -- because a person has not been university educated doesn't mean they can't become exceptional innovators and leaders.

To exemplify the silliness of Yahoo's hiring policy, there is a huge list of world-changing historical figures who wouldn't be allowed to work for Yahoo including: Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Ford, Ingvar Kamprad (IKEA), Jay Van Andel (Amway), Michael Dell, Steven Spielberg, Larry Ellison (Oracle), Richard Branson, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein.

Ironically, there is also Jerry Yang who co-founded Yahoo after dropping out of a PhD program.

Innovation and success is created and generated by attitude, not just know-how.

Another by-product of a candidate rich job market is the great depth of experience which is readily available. I've always been quite bemused (and personally frustrated) with hearing feedback along the lines an applicant for a position has too much experience, or the challenge of a particular role falls below the level of their proficiency and therefore they are overqualified and may become bored. It never makes sense someone could have "too much" experience (which, at its core, reduces risk and increases the likelihood of success).

You would never hear a passenger complain about getting onto a plane because they felt the pilot had too much flying experience, or a patient refusing to allow a surgeon to perform a life-critical operation on them as the surgeon was considered too skilled. Quite the opposite. In project parlance, this unwarranted rejection of an overly experienced applicant translates into not being willing to embrace someone who can help elevate and improve the quality of delivery across the team. In effect, it demonstrates a preference for mediocrity over excellence.

All project delivery involves managing risk. But one area where quality (and therefore reduced risk) should not be compromised whenever possible is to ensure the best team possible is assembled to deliver the project.

Its not just in IT where what one person brings to the table can make such a huge difference to the successful outcome. The music world is full of examples.

When Queen lost its inimitable and dynamic lead singer Freddie Mercury in 1991, the band never managed to find a successful replacement. Similarly, when Michael Hutchence died suddenly at the peak of the band's success, INXS never found a lead singer who could emulate the same "x" factor.

History is littered with one-off, unique individuals who changed the landscape with their bespoke contributions and being different. Lincoln, Churchill, Socrates, Florence Nightingale, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mother Teresa -- all historical change makers whose influence still resonates today.

And, were it not for Apple reimporting Steve Jobs back in 1996, who knows if that company would have made it back from the brink of bankruptcy and gone on to become the largest corporation in the world.

If you are resourcing a critical project which is complex and with a high likelihood of failure, you will increase your chances of success by selecting team players who have faced similar situations with enthusiasm.

If you are required to "think different" in order to produce success, acting the same as everyone else won't get you where you need to go. It will just produce the same outcomes as everyone else.

What makes a great swimmer is not how long they've been in the pool, but how many laps they have done whilst in it.

Geoff Lazberger is a former CIO for three separate corporations across Investment Banking, Property Development and Hospitality. Email comments and feedback to

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