President-elect Barack Obama will soon be the leader of the most powerful government in the free world. But right now, he’s facing the challenge of any new boss in the regular old world. His biggest job—with enormous implications—is assembling the right team.
And just like other new bosses, Obama will soon discover how wrong that process can go, and how easily. Long-time allies plead their cases. Powerful forces block certain candidates. Time pressure mounts. And then, one day, you look up and discover that your inner circle is not the A team you dreamed of, but an all-round compromise.
What then is a leader to do in order to build the best team? Or rather, since the team-building process is so fraught with pitfalls, what shouldn’t a leader do when a dream team is in the making?
Mistake No. 1: Automatically reward loyalists.
Oh, how tempting payback can be. No matter how long you’ve worked for the top job, once you get it you’re invariably overwhelmed by the impulse to endorse your own early endorsers.
We know of a new CEO, for instance, who appointed his long-time human resources chief as president of the company’s digital division. His gratitude for her support in the years leading up to his appointment simply outweighed the somewhat problematic fact that she had limited experience with technology.
What a short cut to mediocrity, if not outright disaster—not because all loyalists are hacks, but because too often loyalty doesn’t make a candidate the best person for a job. Enormous brainpower, prodigious energy and the ability to motivate do. Without those qualities, loyalists will forever remain B players in A jobs, and that’s a huge problem for a simple reason: B players tend to hire other B players or, worse, C players, setting off an organizational chain reaction of underperformance.
Mistake No. 2: Hire people who need the work or lust (even surreptitiously) after the prestige of being on your team.
There’s almost nothing more appealing than a job candidate who looks you in the eye and tells you how passionately he wants to be your partner. “How perfect,” you think. “A person who shares the vision.”
And well the candidate might. But there’s a real danger here if the candidate has other motives as well, such as advancing a seriously stalled career or resurrecting a damaged one. Such individuals are like the so-called “independent” directors—often ethics and finance professors—that so many boards rushed to install in the wake of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
They collect directorship fees like knick-knacks, and still they’re the least likely advisers to deliver hard or contrary messages. Why bite the hand that feeds you?
Obama actually deserves kudos for avoiding this common misstep with his first appointment: Representative Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff. Emanuel has been criticized as a partisan Democrat. But he’s as smart, energized and outspoken as they come, and more importantly, he will be able to disagree with his new boss without an ounce of fear. Multiple high-paying, high-prestige jobs await him in the real world.
Mistake No. 3: Focus your attention on crisis hires.
Almost every new leader inherits a burning problem, and naturally, the tendency is to fixate on finding the right team member to put it out. That has to be done. But a new boss must also rapidly attend to the leadership positions that address his overarching and long-term priorities. Remember, every hire you make sends a message—and that happens to be, “Here’s how much I care.”
Right now, the media is obsessing over Obama’s selection of treasury secretary. But imagine how the conversation would change with the announcement of a brilliant, hard-hitting energy chief. Such a decision would speak far louder than any policy speech, just as it does when a business leader picks a widely respected manager to push forward a key strategic initiative. In business, as in government, the leader’s personnel selection is the ultimate message.
Along with facing the daunting challenge of assembling the right team, Obama is like other new leaders in another way. Now that he’s boss, even his most trusted and spirited advisers will want to please him.
Sycophancy is an ugly word, but it happens to the best of people, and leaders often can’t help but be lulled into the game themselves.
In the months ahead, Obama’s larger task will be to combat such a dynamic by demanding debate, celebrating dissenters and holding up freethinkers as role models. That’s hard. But leaders must fight to make it happen, and they can—provided they have the right people around them to begin with.
©2008/BY NYT SYNDICATE
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