Fit your strategy to your people, not the other way round

Hiring only A-players is not the route to straightforward success that you might think.

Cheryl Calverley
Cheryl Calverley

Here is some advice I’ve been given in my career. 

"Hire ‘A-players’."

"Hire brilliant people and they can do anything." 

"Use every opportunity to upgrade the quality of your team." 

"You need your team competing with each other." 

Granted, I've had a career that has trotted through some pretty aggressive places, from the brutal competition of Unilever versus Procter & Gamble to the "every minute counts" drive of private equity to the yawning precipice opening up in front of older brands such as the AA. 

And for a long time, I obediently followed the advice. I sought out, pretty indiscriminately, high-performing people with incredible track records on the principle that "smart people will simply work things out". I gave little thought to balancing personalities, ambitions, capabilities. 

And you know what? Time after time, I came a cropper. I struggled to get teams working as an effective unit. I struggled to retain people. I spent more time surfing friction, smoothing feathers and inventing "development opportunities" for people than actually making stuff. 

It was bloody expensive. And we suffered "magpie syndrome", as these incredibly smart people rapidly got bored and sought to shake things up, moving at a much faster pace than our poor, bemused consumers. 

So a few years ago, I decided the advice was wrong. I decided to change my approach to teams. Rather than seeking multiskilled "A-players" with high ambitions, I began to look instead for a diverse range of capability, ambition and motivation, and to build a team around a combination of personalities, approaches and needs. And to seek to understand the team’s strengths, and gaps, and use this to drive the strategy. 

I know this is topsy-turvy. I know you should fit your people to your strategy. But, sometimes, if you have a great mix of people, who work well together and know your business, you’re as well to fit your strategy to your people. 

Changing people is much more damaging to a business’ progress than I think anyone realises. Everything stalls while people are unsettled, then further stalls while a new team needs to embed. Knowledge is lost, mistakes get made and the whole thing is hugely expensive. I reckon every change of team takes a year of progress out of a business – not something to be done lightly.

Amazingly, I found that if instead you fit your strategy to the strength of your team, things get executed. Like, really damn well. And if things get executed, they can actually drive sales, as opposed to looking great on a PowerPoint chart. 

What’s more, if people get to execute stuff, and see the impact it has on sales, they stay, and they feel fulfilled, and they work even harder, because they actually enjoy it. And then we all get to have a bit more fun – including, hopefully, the consumers on the receiving end of the work.

I used to see my team as a set of players, like a football team. Now, I see them as a toolkit and what we make is dictated by the tools in the box. A full toolkit is complementary and means you can build anything you like, but even with half a kit there are lots of things you can do brilliantly and better than anyone else.

Now I don’t look for "brilliant people who can turn their hand to anything"; I look for "the tools I need to make my set complete and the plans I can build best with the tools I have".

Cheryl Calverley is chief marketing officer at Eve Sleep and a member of Campaign’s Power 100

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