Want to Be a Great Leader? Become a Great Identifier

By Jeff Haden

Once upon a time I was a member of the most productive crew in the department, which meant we were considered to be the best crew, because numbers were everything. But we didn’t need a Jobs or Bezos or Sandberg or (pick your personal epitome of effective leadership) to get us there.

Steve was our Bobby Hurley (yep, old school college basketball reference): Always pushing, always encouraging, always making assists. Lee was solid: Never made mistakes, helped out the entry level workers, quick to make repairs and get running again. Jeff was our glue, coaxing surprising up-time out of the least reliable machines on the line while also serving as our quality conscience. Doug was easily rattled but his nervous energy helped him catch up when he got behind, and also to help keep the end of line workers straight.

I was definitely the weak link… but because I hated to be seen as the weak link, I tried to be useful in as many other ways as I possibly could.

So what about our supervisor? We had one, but we didn’t need him.

He didn’t have to drive our performance; we were already (almost too) competitive. He didn’t need to find ways for us to run better; we were constantly looking for improvements on our own. He didn’t have to deal with weak links, or mentor newer employees, or do any of the stuff supervisors claimed they did; we were already doing all those things.

We only turned to him when we required immediate assistance from another department and our clout in an extremely hierarchical organization was insufficient to get results.

Yet he was seen as the best supervisor in the department. (More on that in a moment.)

I know what you’re thinking: If you’re in a leadership position, you probably see our results as an anomaly. A great team starts with a great leader, right?

Not really — at least not in the way you might think.

Take sports. A team with great players and a decent coach will almost always beat a team with decent players and a great coach. (That’s why the best college coaches are, first and foremost, great recruiters.)

Force Mike Krzyzewski, the winning-est Division I coach in college basketball, to take over a struggling D-II program and the first thing he does will not be to talk about culture, or group dynamics, or teambuilding….

Instead he’ll say, “We need great players. We’re going to spend every waking moment recruiting the best players we possibly can.” No matter how inspirational, transformational, or exceptional, leadership can only produces incremental improvements. Even a guy like Coach K can’t turn a struggling program into a winning program without incredibly talented players.

Where teams are concerned, the impact ratio is 80 or 90 percent players, 10 to 20 percent the leader.

Fine, you might say, but what about Bill Belichik, the Patriots coach who for years has been able to plug seemingly any players into his winning system?

You’re right — at least where the second half of that sentence is concerned. The Patriots put a tremendous amount of effort into plugging in players who are able to fit into their system. Talent is important, but if you can’t put team goals first, the Patriots don’t want you.

First they put incredible effort into finding the right players. Then Belichik and his staff coaches them up.

And the same can be true in any field.

Put together a team of awesome salespeople and you can basically leave them alone. Put together a team of awesome engineers and you can basically leave them alone.

Put my humble little production team together, and you could basically leave us alone.

Yet if you ask most leaders to describe their jobs, they’ll talk about leading the people they have.

Maybe you do, too. Maybe you only think about finding great people for your team when you have an opening.

Ninety-nine percent of the time you focus on leadership: Developing people, building team cohesion, creating an innovative culture, driving performance, focusing on results… all the things leaders rightly value.

But what if you changed your ratio? What if you spent 20 percent, 30 percent, or even more of your time focused on building your team? What if you constantly worked to identify, recruit, and even develop your next generation of talent?

What if, instead of “just” being a leader, you became an identifier?

It’s not hard. Imagine you’ll someday need to replace Mary. Start looking now. Look closely at lower levels of your organization to see who might be perfect. Ask friends if they know someone that would be perfect.

Instead of having a list made for you — of the people who someday apply for Mary’s job — identify the right people now, and create your own list.

And then keep identifying.

Spend a significant chunk of your time focused on how you’ll add the perfect people to your team. Make it a daily part of your job to identify. Make it a daily part of your job to recruit.

Spend a chunk of your time developing the people you have currently lead, and spend the other chunk identifying people who won’t really need to be led — which then gives you the opportunity to identify and add someone even better.

Build a great team and you’ll need to spend less time managing that team, which will allow you to spend even more time identifying even better people to add when the occasion arises… which makes it even easier to attract great people. (Success attracts success. Great people love to work with great people.)

Become an identifier and you create the most virtuous of cycles — one that helps your team perform at an ever-increasing levels of performance.

And isn’t that what the job of a leader really is?


This piece was originally published by Inc.

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