The Practitioner’s Notebook: Finding Great Strategy Team Members



In helping a firm on a new strategy project, one of the challenges that quickly emerges is finding a great group of internal participants to work on the project.  This is an example of the Right Team portion of the triad we have discussed that must be in place for authentic growth work to happen – the other two being Right Project and Right Plan.  Experience tells us that unless all three elements are present, we’ll consume resources without a good outcome.

Whether you are doing work in collaboration with a new team or have just been given that great new role leading one of the new initiatives in your firm, you first need to go to work assembling a team to fulfill the objectives.  This can be daunting, especially when you are working in a new domain with unknown players.

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The first part of this work is to think through what the character of the team is that you need to build.  I always take time to reflect and break down the objectives.  A good first order estimate is to assess the objective in four zones:

  1. How much visionary thinking is required (directional changes, agility, lateral thinking)
  2. How much action and execution is required (decision clarity, stack ranking, runway level tactics)
  3. How much process work needs to be completed (consideration of existing systems, the building and scalability of new ones)
  4. How much “glue” will be required to hold the team together (high emotional intelligence, keeping the team focused on the big picture, not allowing personal agendas to dominate)

Here’s an example: for a strategic project we are looking at groups of five with an approximate balance of 60% vision, 20% execution, 10% process and 10% glue.  In the sessions, what you would experience is strong dialogue, with the visionary thinkers prompting each other, the execution people keeping the team grounded and the process individual helping to attach them to the bigger picture.  The “glue” person would keep the team coherent and attached to the larger agenda.

A common issue with strategic work is to overpopulate the group with “vision” people, which results in a very lively discussion, but very low implemented output.

It is very common for people to be strong in one of the four categories listed above – perhaps two – but rare is the individual who is good at all of them.  By decomposing the work, you can come up with a much better team mix.

The second part of the team to think through is subject matter expertise.  Here, it’s good to look for “T” people who have depth in a relevant area, but also know how to work with others from outside their function.  We use this lateral expertise in more than a technical sense, as people who have a track record of successfully initiating things inside the firm have also displayed a valuable skill set of initiating, influencing and executing with their peers in other areas.

Third, having done these two steps: how then do you quickly find the team members you need?  Once you have done your homework, it all begins with a conversation with a handful of key people you’re working with.  A couple of good questions for your main contacts are:

  • Who would they put on their team?
  • Who led the last big program in their firm?
  • Where did the idea come from?

Primed with this information, it’s time to make some phone calls to schedule some coffee meetings with prospective team members.  Even for those who lean towards introversion, this is an exciting part of the journey.  Here are some great fire starter questions:

  • Tell me about your current role.
  • What are the challenges in your business unit of function?
  • When was the last time you had a role in starting or leading a change?
  • How did it get started? What was your role in supporting it?

When you are having these discussions, what you are really doing is finding out how people think about themselves and the world they live in.  You are looking for people who have a positive view of their space and their role in improving it.  You are also looking for a track record of engaging the status quo and moving it to a new and better place.  Lastly, you are looking for someone who sees clearly the complex pressures of their business, and can see the way forward in simple and compelling ways.

There are a couple of things to watch out for as well.  You want to be aware of the brilliant individual contributor who simply cannot work on a team and has very low communication skills.  They of course can be a resource, however, it is unfair to ask them to be part of a high functioning team.  The second area to watch for is those who lack the ability to suspend judgment and allow a couple of viewpoints to be considered.

Fourth, having completed your work in developing a good pool of candidates, it is time to revisit items one and two and short list your ideal team.  Ideal team members are always busy doing other great work, so know in advance that some “horse trading” will need to be done with the management team to get a good working group.  

It’s really important that “A” list initiatives have “A” list talent, so don’t compromise here, but also understand that the core business needs to run as well.

These four steps will lead you to a well architected strategy team that can get results and position you for success when the strategy work is done and you need to transition to an implementation team. (which, by the way, resets the process back to step one with a new mission).

My strategic growth work has taken me to 22 countries and included a dozen unique business models.  If you have a growth challenge you’d like to discuss, please give me a call at 847-651-1014.

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