The Italian historian, thinker and writer, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) said with great prescience:
“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him”.
What was said in the 15th century has absolute resonance today in business. The success of any business and, by default its leader, is not so much the quality of the leader as such but the calibre of the people around him/her.
Perhaps the most significant task of any leader is that of building a team which can operate both independently and collectively in the pursuit of success and at the same time ensuring that the prima donna syndrome is suborned to the greater good of the team and the business.
In my all time favourite book on management, The Puritan Gift by Kenneth and Will Hopper, the authors list some of the ethics that drew the original Puritan immigrants to the new world.
Among others such as a belief in the advantages of technology (remember that this was in the 17th century) they called for the suborning of the needs of the individual into the greater good of the community.
It can take time and effort to find people who can work individually and will equally add to the effectiveness of the team.
I recall one of the members of my Vistage CEO peer group hiring three different Finance Directors in a single year until he found the right one. It was very expensive, painful and frustrating but well worth the effort. The final choice was exactly what had been needed and spurred the business on to bigger and greater things.
I have in the past mentioned my old friend, Lee Thayer, another, deep and brilliant thinker who used to say that everyone hired into the business needed to be a virtuoso and a free spirit. Easy to say but very difficult to achieve.
Lee suggested that the first line in everyone’s role description should read:
“My primary task is to make this business the best in the industry by any measure”
What a wonderful objective for anyone.
With a really competent team at the top of the business new leaders are created and that in itself is invaluable in the complex matter of succession. The leader needs to concentrate on those matters that are important and not urgent so that the team will take responsibility for all of the day-to-day events that are deemed urgent and important.
The leader has to take time out to think about the business, often a solitary task, so the team not only has to keep the business operating but also has to make sure that there is two way communication with the leader.
It takes time to develop the understanding of the importance of this way of working. It demands a high level of trust in both directions between the leader and the team. The results can be dramatic.
Another of my Vistage members changed his job and went to a company which, bravely, hired exceptionally high quality people and then found a slot for them in the organisation.
It worked very well with one proviso. As each of the people hired was remarkable in some respect they tended to prefer to work individually and not in a team. That is fine if you are looking for high performing individuals but not so good for team building.
It is interesting to read recently that the universities are beginning to look at group activities, unusually in an environment which has historically been devoted to development of the individual. They have realised that the team ethic is more productive overall than can be achieved by a single person and are now spending time and effort in its development.
Remember: “No-one is a smart as all of us”.
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