What “Top Tenners” Can do in 10 Days

Getting the Call

I was on my normal early morning commute when my cell phone rang; it was the leader of an advanced technology task force for the government of a large Midwestern state. I had been collaborating with this team on securing a multi-million dollar national grant for their region. The promise of our work was equipping vehicles with radios to allow them to communicate with other cars and intersection equipment to greatly improve safety – a driver would receive a warning of a red light incursion, for example.

I expected him to ask some routine questions about the project, so I was surprised when he asked: “We have an opportunity for a live demonstration of our technology to all the significant C-level state and federal stakeholders. We would like you to provide a rolling demo, as well as transportation for them from the hotel to the meeting site. Can you commit your organization to having the demo on the ground and ready?”

We had a rough idea of what we were trying to do, but no one was close technologically. The complexity of fielding this type of demonstration request would usually have resulted in a program schedule spanning months, not days, and I knew there would be many hills to climb – and walls to break through – to get it done. I queried my customer on the phone about what on-the-ground support we could expect, and once I was comfortable that there was mutual resource commitment for what he was asking me to shoulder, I said, “yes.”

Top Tenners

Two years prior to this customer’s call, I’d presented the business case to the senior leadership team and had been given a substantial budget, along with a mandate to a team of eight with the budget to match. One perk of my long tenure within the organization was being able to tap the people I called “top tenners” for the team. Top tenners were those who made my list of difference-makers: top performers from all walks of the organization including research, field team leaders, program managers and financial problem solvers. These were the people who, if you ever need to start a new venture, are on the top of your mind. Your dream team.

I wound up with a tight-knit group of about a dozen top tenners. Our team had done amazing work in building up the hardware and software for an on-campus demo of the technology that had worked well for senior management review, but the logistics of going on the road and adding more functionality in this short time frame was daunting.

What we did have, however, were all the elements that make a great team:

  • Clear objectives
  • Talent that was deep in specialty and wide in our ability to work together
  • Egos checked at the door

The team hit the ground running, and the time went by in a flash of 10, 18-hour days. Issues were identified and overcome. We rented vehicles and outfitted them with the prototype technology. No Internet access? We put up Internet access points in hotel windows. Glitchy software? We used our team halfway around the globe to improve it on what was our third shift. Not enough people? We hired summer interns to drive the vehicles and began to practice, practice, practice. The video that we would be using in the demo showed up at the last minute due to final edits.

The day came, the state’s governor and staff arrived, and the technology ran flawlessly. The most amusing moment was when the security team met with me in a walkthrough and was emphatic that she would not be riding in the demonstration vehicle. To her team’s surprise, this leader listened to our briefing and stated clearly “lets go for a ride.” I still recall the black suburban chasing her around the driving course. Success. Then we all slept for three days straight.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins showed us that it was important to get the right people “on the bus” to have a great company. Great teams are highly agile and adaptive, and when called on to do the heavy lifting, they don’t blink – they dig in and get it done.

  • Is there enough support and mutual trust on your team, that if you got that call, you could say yes?
  • Do you know who the “top tenners” are in your world?
  • Are you taking on big enough challenges to get the best from them?

I’d love to hear about your experiences in forming and leading high performance teams. Please shoot me an email or connect with me on Twitter.

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