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How to find (and keep) the team that will drive your business growth

Category: Business Development

I have met some amazing individuals over my 20+ years of leadership and management, but I’ve also moved a fair number of people on to pastures new because I believed it would be “better for them and better for us!”.  Having read all kinds of management books and lived through more rounds of corporate and SME change than I care to recall, I’ve also drawn some fundamental conclusions about what it is that makes a team that can really drive progress and achievement in business.

Some of it is as simple as “leadership capacity”, so I’ve never felt a manager can effectively cope with more than 5, possibly 6, direct reports.  Some of it is driven by too many months (or years) of giving people the benefit of the doubt, only to conclude that what you thought on day one was right all along.  But most of it is driven by my belief that if you can set the team up right in the first place – the right people doing the right jobs – it will operate without mollycoddling, will walk over hot coals for you, will go far more than the extra mile and will keep its faith even in the darkest hour.  The five lessons that follow are a synopsis of 20+ years of learning – how to find (and keep) the team that will drive your business growth.


LESSON 1: Always align roles to goals

So what does this mean?

At its very simplest this means that you have to “start with the answer”.  What are you trying to achieve?  This is generally most easily done by understanding your P&L numbers and specifically by understanding the granular build-up of your financial business plan.

I kicked off my senior-level career in sales leadership roles, but quickly accumulated operational leadership responsibilities too (mainly because the operational leaders in place could not keep up with the pace of growth that our sales teams were delivering).  For sales, aligning roles to goals is pretty straightforward.  At a macro level, you should hear yourself saying: “we want to grow revenue from product line X by Y% this year”, but very quickly you should be translating this to a micro level, so “this means we need to sell around 104 of these things this year, so 2 a week…… we need someone who’s going to do that reliably and consistently.”  This may seem simplistic, but having a grand strategy means nothing if you haven’t got someone closing deals, “putting the ball in the back of the net” this week, next week and every week!

If you start with a line-by-line analysis of your P&L sales lines (and the gross profit attached to each one) you’ll quickly spot your gaps and your weaknesses and you can build your sales team around this – where you expect lines to grow, stay steady or decline.  There is no point messing around with this type of role alignment.  Make sure you have the right people in the right jobs, otherwise forget it!

On the operational side, the structure should similarly marry up to the ratios in the P&L.  “What do I need to deliver this?  What do I need to deliver that?”.  It’s critical to think here about staff utilisation, knowledge pools and always to start with the roles you need, not the personalities you already have.

All job descriptions should be simple and direct – again concentrate on matching the content of the roles to the impact they will have on your P&L.  So talk in the language of accountabilities and responsibilities and don’t give people too much to worry about.  The cleaner you can get your delineation of roles the better.  The sum of all your roles should be an organisational framework that delivers your financial business plan!

From a leadership and management perspective you need to ensure that you have the right structure and temperaments in your management team to make sure your “do-ers” do and that they deliver their personal accountabilities.  You need your best people to drive your toughest, most important initiatives.  Otherwise these growth streams won’t happen.

For years I have used a “5 Areas of Focus” model to drive both company and individual achievement.  Simple relevant goals, short and medium term milestones and a framework for regular review and development.  You can flex the focus areas as you move along the journey but a consistent management method takes people with you time and time again – see Lesson 5 for more on this.

Lesson 2 gives a very straightforward way to help you straighten your thinking on what to do with your current team.  Ultimately you must only have people in your team who are aligned to your overriding goals:  if you have people who don’t really serve a purpose, people who aren’t up to the job or people who don’t believe in what you are trying to achieve, then you need to “refresh” the team.

Most of this should all be obvious but it’s amazing how often teams are not fit for purpose.  This doesn’t mean an immediate night of the long knives, but it does mean some frank assessment of whether you have the right players for the next step in your journey.  Only if you align the roles to your goals will you deliver your vision.


LESSON 2: Understanding talent – a balanced approach to managing the people you have and building the team you need.

Around 15 years ago I came across a Jack Welch (the transformational boss of the GE empire) model that has come to underpin my whole approach to working with, developing and managing individuals.

It is amazingly simple, but also amazingly powerful and generally your gut instinct about someone is right straight away.

This is very telling as, if you challenge yourself hard, it drives a school of thought that says “I can see the future here, so the sooner that I do something about it the better”.   Peter Drucker, the internationally acclaimed management consultant, famously said “the best way to predict the future is to create it” and for the proactive amongst us this means that when our team looks wrong the sooner we take action the better.

The Welch model also has a side-benefit for the individual as, in reality, everyone should be able to look in the mirror in the cold light of day and identify where they are on the model and where they could (or couldn’t) get to.  As an individual, if you know in your heart of hearts that you don’t fit (and won’t fit) in your current workplace then do yourself a favour and find a place that makes you happy.

So this is how the Welch model works – and specifically how leaders and managers need to work with it.

There are 4 types of people:

  • A’s – these people totally get your vision, habits and culture and are consistently delivering what you are asking of them.
  • B’s – these people fundamentally don’t buy into what you are about (vision, culture, etc.) but are delivering what you are asking of them.
  • C’s – these people totally get your vision, habits and culture but not delivering what you are asking for them. (for sales guys this usually means they are getting nowhere near their targets).
  • D’s – these people don’t buy into what you are about (vision, culture, etc.) and, worse still, are not delivering what you are asking for them.

I love this model because there really are no other categories (other than A,B,C and D) that you can put people in, usually there is no ambiguity, usually what you see today is what it will always be and usually if you see it, they see it.

The obvious massive bnefit of the model is that assessing people against it allows you to adjust the actions and style you use to manage individuals.

The over-arching goal is simple:  all you want is a team full of A’s.  Where you have A’s already, your number one job is to keep them A’s (and even more importantly to keep them in your team.  Period!)  Retention planning, early warning assessment (so spot it if your A’s are drifting towards C or B) and doing everything you can to motivate, appreciate and stretch these people has to be core to the situational leadership you adopt here.

The absolute simplest group is the D’s: tough, but true, these people need to move on as quickly as possible – for your good and their good, just build plan to make it happen, treat people with respect and let them follow a different path.

The two hardest groups are the B’s and the C’s.  In reality, “today” – at the start of your business transformation – you probably really need your B’s to help you deliver.  So don’t thrust things down their throats that they are never going to buy into as it will probably be counter-productive.  Learn to understand how to get the best out of your B’s (the odd one will become an A) and, meanwhile, concentrate your efforts on building your A’s.  Ultimately your B’s will need to go and ultimately they will probably agree, but very careful management is needed and making these people feel valued, respected and appreciated is a critical tactic that you must employ.

The C’s are often the toughest group with whom to face reality: they are great people, say all the right things, have a passion but when, push comes to shove, don’t deliver.  Here, you need to act fast.  The temptation is to give the benefit of doubt, again and again but, really, if something isn’t happening after 3 to 6 months it’s unlikely to ever happen without a significant strategic change.  Welch’s advice:  “let your C’s go and buy into someone else’s vision”.  An interesting variance on this is to keep these passionate people, but to find a different type of role for them.  This can get you an A quickly, but be careful with this as in many cases it’s “once a C, always a C”.

For the individual looking in the mirror this type of analysis can be tough medicine to take, but in many ways it is a very straightforward way for each and every one of us to assess whether those hours and hours we spend at work each week are being spent in the right place.

Back in the 1980’s I remember a poll in a first year secondary school maths class asking “what is your favourite TV programme?”  The answer from virtually everyone was “The A-Team” which for some reason I’d never seen.  I started watching it and straight away loved it too.  To this day I still hear the theme tune in my head when I get the feeling that I am building a great team.  So, never forget that it is all about getting a team full of A’s and when you reach this point you can definitely say: “I love it when a plan comes together”!*


* if that quotation makes no sense to you, you’re either too young, too old or have never seen The A-Team – and it is worth a Google of “I love it when a plan comes together!”


LESSON 3:  Get the right people in the right places – things don’t get done if people don’t do them!

Have you ever been in a social or work situation where you are with a group of people, but then someone new enters the circle and everything changes; the mood, the pace, the atmosphere?

These are special people who see things that others don’t, who have the confidence and presence to ‘own the room’.  Transformational power that can turn “ordinary” into “extra-ordinary”.

It’s these people that we think of when we talk about “firestarters” and, in reality, a business without firestarters is a business that is going to stand still!

It’s a misconception to think that firestarters have to be senior or highly experienced.  Some of my best personal recruitment “wins” have come from putting firestarters into junior and mainly administrative roles.  The key is to think deeply about where in your business you need to see impact, where you need to see change and put a firestarter in there!

Again, that old mantra of “things don’t get done if people don’t do them” rings true.  Once you can decide where a proactive firestarter could make a material difference this is exactly where you should put them.  A few key people in a few key places drives optimisation and energy in your business like you wouldn’t believe.  When I got my first ever promotion into a managerial position I asked my new boss why she had given me the job: her answer “I wanted a firestarter”.  This is something that has stuck with me ever since and a recruitment principle that I have used again and again.

Another slightly overused expression “it’s all about attitude, not aptitude” really does sum a lot of this up.  Remember your A’s, B’s, C’s and D’s from the Welch model in Lesson 2.  An old sales manager friend of mine always used to say “people tend to hire on skills/experience and fire on attitude”.  This is generally true.

For a firestarter, the things you want to see are the, all-important, attitude, “fire in the belly”, resilience, energy, tenacity, likeability and professionalism.  These need to trump everything else.  They’ll probably be queue of people who could go through the motions of doing a job, but you don’t want someone keeping a chair warm in your business, you want people who make you think “Wow!, this person is going to make things happen!”

If you are underwhelmed at recruitment stage then don’t hire – you’ll regret it later.  Lesson 4 talks in detail about how the golden hour of the interview (or probably “golden hours” if you are doing it properly) are likely to be the most important time you ever spend with your employee (even before they start).  Being uber-fussy and uber-specific is generally the way to go when hiring.

A good firestarter will make a difference wherever they end-up working so you generally won’t go far wrong if you start with this in mind and then push them into the parts of business that are the key contributors to change.

In summary: find firestarters, use them in the right places and you’ll transform your team, growth and business a whole lot faster than you could imagine.  The longer you leave it, the longer it will take!


LESSON 4:  Avoiding recruitment mistakes by being “super-fussy”

As an experienced musician and having performed in many highly exposed settings over the years, I have become more and more aware that the place to make mistakes, to learn what works, what doesn’t, to assess risks and how to deal with them is the practice room, not the auditorium.  (I’m a trumpet player, generally a loud instrument, where if you make a mistake everyone knows about it).

You hear the same kind of language talked about in sport – where it is the work on the training ground, not the time in the stadium where the game is won.

And so, our philosophy to recruitment should incorporate the same lessons – it is the recruitment process where the success or failure of the future employee should be decided, not once they are on your payroll.

My experience is that “under-preparation” for the interview/recruitment process is guaranteed to catch you out in the long run.  Interviews (especially second interviews) are not about having a nice chat and asking a few anodyne questions, they are about absolutely nailing whether, or not, the person in front of you can do the job you need them to do.

I don’t think “tough-guy” interviewing is what is called for, but there are golden rules which make all the difference to the effectiveness of the process.  At a headline level these are:

  • Be crystal clear what the core competencies look like for the role. I usually work in fives, so will always pick the 5 top “things” that it is absolutely critical that the candidate can do.  I will articulate these very clearly for my own benefit and the candidate’s.
  • Do not be superficial about testing these core competencies. Whether I am interviewing top-end directors or junior admin staff I always structure exercises for the second interview that really test their ability to deliver on the core competencies.  Around a third of people drop out ahead of my second interviews because the preparation works looks too hard.  I see this as natural thinning process and just means that I have found out about their inadequacies sooner rather than later.  I always ask sales people to sell to me (e.g. do a software demonstration), analysts to do some analysis, researchers to research something etc. etc.  Why wouldn’t you do this as part of the process?
  • Challenge track record and relate it your business’ goals. Sales people are easy to interview because ultimately it is all about delivery of numbers, how long it takes them to get up to speed etc., but you can dig into track record for pretty well all roles in some way.  I always work on the assumption that if someone has done something well before they will likely be able to do it well again.  If they have consistently not delivered in a certain role-type then there is a reasonable chance they will not deliver for you.
  • Asking clever questions that get you to the heart of their character – their passion, motivation, how they like to be managed, what irritates them, how they behave if they are demotivated or someone winds them up – are massively revealing. My favourite five questions (below) that I have been asking for years always bring this out and you can get a really good sense of how this person will fit your culture just by seeing how they talk and how their mood changes as they answer each one:
    • Tell me about a real “punch the air” moment in your career – a real success!
    • And the opposite – a real “jaw on the floor, life is rubbish” moment!
    • Who’s the best manager you’ve ever had – and why?
    • And the worst manager… and why?
    • What’s the last thing that someone did in the workplace that really wound you up?
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to score the candidates – so make the process far more objective, get a grid together of the key components of the core competencies/attitudes that you want to assess and actually score each person you see once the interview is over. This really works and removes a lot of the challenge when you have a couple of people vying for the post.  A final tip here is to score out of 4 – so that you can’t just plump for a “middle of the road” score – they either end up being “poor”, “below average”, “above average” or “excellent”.

I’m always surprised, but always remind myself that I shouldn’t be, when people I employ turn out to be more amazing that I possibly could have hoped for – but ultimately that is totally down to that energy and time invested in the recruitment process.  People complain that they don’t have the time to think like this and this is easy to empathise with, but really the time spent upfront saves hours, days, months, years of pain and time-wasting afterwards if it turns out you made a mistake during that “golden hour” of the second interview.


Lesson 5: Sustaining the impetus once the “talent” starts!

Having done the hard work of defining roles, sifting candidates and putting people through their paces it’s amazing how easy it is to forget that orientation, induction and on-going clarity coupled with a structured management methodology must be at the heart of your relationship with the team you are depending on to deliver your vision.

There are simple things that you can do when new team members join you to give yourself the best possible chance of success.

  1. Don’t start until you are ready. It is better to wait, to “do the detail” and make sure when you press “go” everything is in place, rather than to muddle through with a new starter.
  2. Run a proper meaningful induction programme. This doesn’t have to be 2 weeks of content, but does need to be a crystallisation of the critical messages that you want to get across.  This can be quite interesting when you are pushing through a “change programme” using new starters because one of your critical objectives needs to be to make sure that your “firestarter” does not “go native”, drink the local water and become part of the status quo.  This takes transparency and mental strength from both you and your new starter.
  3. Have a 100 Day Plan and simple KPIs. Going right back to Lesson 1, the whole rationale of most roles should be to “do something” that directly impacts on the commercial business plan of your organisation.  In pretty well every case there will be only a small set of “inputs” that ultimately drive the “outputs” you desire.  In the early days of someone’s career with you concentrate on inputs, not outputs and make sure that you have a blended approach (training, support, management) to deliver an acceptable run-rate as quickly as possible.
  4. Build a toolkit for the role– what does this person actually need to do the job. Ordinarily this won’t be more than 5 to 10 things – so should be within your reach to get together.  I often talk in the language of an “emergency toolkit” – i.e. a “get-go” collection of key items.  This approach also has the benefit that it invites the new starter to work on improving the toolkit as they discover the nuances of the role.
  5. Keep coming back to core competencies (identified in Lesson 4). If you have been clear at recruitment stage on what you believed the person needed to be able to do in order to perform for you, then this is unlikely to change significantly.  The framework will stand the test of time and you can keep coming back to it in the early months, making sure that all key competency areas are coming up to scratch, and adjusting development focus as required.

If you have hired well, you should be able to push the pace, get your “talent” to a place where they are doing “real” work as quickly as possible.  If the orientation, goal setting and induction have been well structured then the right candidates will be super-keen to get on with it.

Simple management techniques: regular weekly reviews of progress, specific grounding around key focus areas (see Lesson 1 – simple milestones, 5 areas of focus etc.), rhythm and rigour will drive progress and achievement quickly and you should quickly begin to feel impact of all the hard work.

In conclusion then, finding and keeping the team that will drive your business growth takes focus and discipline.  Make sure that you are working off a clear commercial business plan and structure the role-types that directly impact on this; be realistic about whether your existing team is up to the job; understand that the right “firestarter” positioned in the right place (wherever that may be in your business) can ignite pace and growth that you might not have believed possible; be super-fussy when you run your recruitment processes and, finally, once you have found those key people make sure you nurture and lead them so they keep going the extra mile again and again.

At Firestarter, we consult daily with businesses like yours to ignite and sustain their sales growth. Our business growth consultancy is second to none, with over 25 years industry experience, and a diverse portfolio of clients that span throughout the UK. Get in touch with us today – we’d love to hear from you.

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