by Jim Davis

Jim Collins has taught thousands to “get the right people on the bus”. In the pursuit of success, he has a simple mantra: “first who, then what”. Strategy is subject to implementation, he suggests. Successful implementation depends on the people who implement.

Leaders have a tendency to fall in love with our own ideas. We create artistic and intricate systems. We draw concepts and links on whiteboards, forgetting to first assemble the right collection of people.

Phil Jackson had an elite strategic approach to basketball. The differentiating factor in his 10 championship teams, when compared to those teams which underperformed, is twofold. First, people. The right people executing his strategy was essential. Second, how those people interact. The right people interacting in the right way makes the strategy exceptional.

Winning in business and winning an NBA Championship are surprisingly similar. They hinge on the same ideas.

First, People.

Business leaders and elite coaches recognize the same thing: assembling talented people is key. Bill Campbell (who spanned domains as a coach in both business and sport) noted that “everybody who is managing a function on behalf of the CEO should be better at that function than the CEO” – the basketball coach should not be better at dribbling and shooting than those on the court.

Bill coached an unparalleled roster of high achievers. He was a football coach at the Ivy League’s Columbia University before moving fully into the business sector. There, he worked with visionaries from Google, Twitter, eBay and – most notably – the inimitable Steve Jobs.

For Bill, working with Jobs wasn’t much different than a talented but eccentric quarterback. Bill was concerned – first, foremost, and always – with people. Quirks, tempers, and picadilloes colored the engagement. But it was an engagement between people first, then business.

One of Bill’s operational mantras was “work the team, then the problem”. If the right people were not aligned in the direction of a cause, then the approach to the cause was insignificant. You cannot ask the people to do what they are not capable of doing. Therefore, assembling a team of capable people must come first.

Bill Campbell, the “Trillion Dollar Coach”, at Columbia University

People can develop, of course. Which reflects an essential capacity of Bill’s hires – not elite performance or genius level aptitude, but a combination of smarts, care, and desire to grow. They did not have to be finished products, per se, but they had to have the tools it takes to someday be great.

Those were his people. Finding them was important. So was taking care of them.

Second, How People Interact.

While interviewing potential members of his team, Bill Campbell would ask not only about accomplishments, but how those accomplishments came to be. That is, he would listen for lessons hidden within the responses. He would listen for pronouns – does someone use “I” more than “we”, for example. He wanted “we” people. The right people, in his mind, were willing to commit to a cause and put the team first. The were willing to work toward a goal together.

He didn’t like finger-pointers. He didn’t like complainers. He would note if a candidate had more answers than questions. He was not interested in people who were done with their learning. He recruited those who aimed at continuous growth.

He wasn’t looking for “status quo” employees. Bill sought people who thought and behaved a little differently. People just beyond the status quo. Those people were fun to work with, and often provided insights that would allow companies and teams to grow. They were a worthwhile challenge to work with, in his mind. Steve Jobs, for example.

His confidence in dealing with those “beyond the status quo” came from tapping into the human qualities that unify us all.

Bill recognized that people exist outside of the office. It is human nature to talk about lives, families, and ideas beyond work. Recognize that, he advised, and ensure that even the most goal-directed among the group should have patience and be willing to make space for some genuine human banter. Depending on the situation and time between meetings, Bill was known to spend 20 min. or more settling in with the human before digging in to work with the employee.

Organic conversation between the right people can positively influence culture without much effort. Give good people space to be with one another, to discuss those things that are important to them.

When it’s time to get to work, those good people work together.

Then, Get to Work.

Kim Scott has provided a roadmap and rationale for Radical Candor in the workplace. Good work is never accomplished while sweeping problems under the rug. Bill Campbell felt the same way, though used slightly different language.

With Bill, there was never space for the proverbial elephant in the room. He called attention to it. Every issue should be named. No need for judgement, only assessment – an issue that lingers over the group without being acknowledged cannot be assessed. It is the only way to do good work and solve difficult problems.

Naming the elephant in the room can be uncomfortable. All the more reason to prioritize people and create a culture of healthy interaction between them.

This unbridled honesty was not a business truism, but the product of a thoughtfully crafted culture. Bill got the right people in the room, made sure the people interacted well, then unveiled strategy and communication expectations. In this atmosphere, one can be candid. There was always a need for empathy and care, of course. But when empathy and care are assumptions within the team, working through issues becomes more efficient.

To create this atmosphere, prioritize people and culture. Work the team, then the problem. It won’t always be easy, but it will always be worth it.

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