What Marvel’s Avengers Teach us About Leading Great Teams

© Marvel Entertainment, LLC


By now, many of you have probably seen the Avengers movie that came out a few years back, which was based on the 1963 Marvel Comics series about a group of superheroes teaming up to defeat evil — Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America among them. I have fond memories of going to the drugstore to buy some of those issues and was especially fascinated by Iron Man and the idea of a suit that could make a man fly — the beginning of my lifelong fascination with both aviation and engineering.

If you have been reading this blog, you know my predisposition in looking for the top ten percent team members — the ones that truly make an organization run. The way Steve Jobs put it: if you were going to a new planet to start your company over, and you could only take 100 people, who would they be? Those are the people you want on your team — your Avengers.

The reason the Avengers story is such a fascinating one for business leaders, is because it’s about a group of exceptional people using their extraordinary skills to achieve a common goal.

Power alone isn’t enough. No matter how many superheroes you assemble, their powers are worthless to you if they’re not the right ones for the task or if your heroes are at odds with one another. Great teams need smart leaders.

Choosing your Avengers: Strategy

Which superpowers will we need? When you’ve got a project in mind —  a villain to defeat or an innocent to save, you need to decide which skills and strengths are the most important. You may need the vision that Iron Man brings with his ability to fly at 30,000 feet and as an operator that can drive things to completion. You may not need Thor’s hammer, but you may well need a financial modelling ninja, who can keep track of the business case and make sure it stays together.

Superheroes only function well in their areas of strength. While Captain America has amazing feats of endurance, he is human and needs to avoid bullets just like the rest of us. In working on a breakthrough project, be aware that your visionaries are rarely persistent enough to drive the details and certainly not the ones to lay the process tracks.  The reverse is also true — assigning a super-detailed processor to the task of strategy usually results in burnout and stress.  Building a team with talented people means that you have big egos to manage as well.

Understand the context of the coming battle. Each of our superhero comic books takes place at a specific point in history with its own challenges.  In fact, there is rich study of how history plays into the comics.  Do you understand the fabric of the place, time and space in which your project will play out?  Will it be fought out on store shelves, on the Internet or with a procurement process?  What resources do you have?  Items here include funding, management support, competition, urgency and positive and negative sides of the outcomes.

Gearing up for action: Motivation

Know your fellow superheroes.This is much more than reading LinkedIn profiles, it means reading between their lines. Which achievements did they choose to list?  When did they experience the growth and pivotal events that elevated them to to be a decision maker and leader? What are some potential weaknesses? What is their hometown, sports team affiliation or charitable cause?  This will allow you to put yourself in their shoes and create analogies that resonate with them. For example, if you have a team member who was a swimmer in college, and you need them to push through the last 10% of the project, they understand what it means to “reach for the wall.”

Superheroes are people, too. What’s important outside of business hours: family, friends, some key event or achievement? What do they do when they’re not out saving the world?  Are your team members raising a family, completing a degree or perhaps volunteering their time at a worthy not for profit?  All work and no play makes for very dull superheroes.  Sharing these completely human moments builds team cohesion in a big way.

Develop a good plot. Paint a detailed scenario and give it a solid title or aim. In the heat of the battle it is easy for team members to easily begin to develop sub-agendas and having a focusing sentence and analogy keeps things on track.  To give you an example from my background, when I was doing work in the area of connected vehicle safety, one of the stickier metaphors we used was that we were making “cars that can’t crash.” We had a tongue-in-cheek concept sketched out of two crash dummies lamenting the day that they were put out of a job by advanced vehicular safety systems.

Saving the day: Execution

Engage your audience. Every good comic book helps its readers become invested in the story by sharing bits and pieces of back channel planning and strategy.  Suspense builds when the reader has background of which the central characters are unaware. Outline those insights that will allow your stakeholders to commit fully to the outcome. Let them know you have thought deeply about the plan, and you are looking for them to contribute to it and that you need their best to succeed.

What happens when the flying suit runs out of power? No battle plan survives the first shot, and no business plan can anticipate all that will need to be done to execute it.  This is where heroes are made, and their expertise challenged, expanded and grown. This is where your leadership will be tested, as well. Can you pivot and rapidly replan?  Hold the line even though it’s tough?  Capitalize on advantage when it presents itself?

Who is the villain and what role does our team play? A good comic discloses the villain’s super powers layer by layer. It takes a strong villain to have a great story, and how the business team leader frames the challenge is important.  In my earlier example of vehicle safety, the villain is death. Improve the system, cut fatalities and we all win.

Help team members pair strengths and weaknesses. Captain America does not have x-ray vision and deflect bullets, but he can use his shield in amazing ways. If you have an amazing statistician on your team, don’t send them to do an interview on a hostile customer. Team complementary skills together.

Bring the party to you. Do what you can to make sure the work comes into the team in a way that allows them to use home-field advantage — the environment where their superpowers are the strongest.  Remember the man-behind-Iron-Man, Tony Stark’s workshop?  If you have an amazing R&D facility, use it as the context for your project — they call them war rooms for a reason.  Bring in customers, competitive products, journalists and anyone else who can help them. Give the team the air cover it needs to do its work — be the buffer and give the management briefings and do other overhead related tasks.

After victory: Reflect

Regroup before planning the sequel. Resolving well is an overlooked phase. Many times in business we start the next big project before we reflect on the outcome of the one we just finished.  One of the powerful ways to build culture it to have what the military calls an “after action review.”  Capture the learning — what did we anticipate well?  What surprised us?  What process or tools would we change up for the next time.  Who did a great job and deserves a timely reward?  Who needs some more development work before the next battle?

Do these things well, and you’ll be on your way to having your own superhero adventure.  I’d love to hear about your own superhero reflections.  Please send me a tweet @scottpropp or drop me an email.

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