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Finders Keepers: The secret art of building your dream team

An illustration I commonly use to describe leadership development is that of a painter perched high on a ladder leaned against the side of a building. While the painter may be skilled, he is limited in his ability to accomplish the task by the stability of the ladder. What does the painter need? Ladder holders.

In the same way, you may look at your leadership journey as a climb on a precarious ladder. Each rung brings you closer to the top, but also increases the risk. Like the painter in the illustration, you need ladder holders—people who help you accomplish your vision.

Ladder holders may be overlooked. They may seem to be expendable and nonessential. But nothing could be further from the truth. An effective leader understands that the difference between success and failure, destiny and disaster, is determined by the quality of one’s ladder holders.

I’ve often described the process of finding ladder holders with three “D”s—discover, develop and deploy. In fact, whether mentoring a newly-minted team leader or consulting with a seasoned C-level executive, I’ve found myself coming back to variations on the principles found in the three “D”s. Most catastrophic organizational failures can be traced to a failure to master this process, and nearly every success can be attributed to its consistent application.

If the fulfillment of your vision is dependent not only on your own commitment and competence, but on that of the team that you gather around you, could there be a more crucial task than discovering, developing and deploying those ladder holders? After all, they may determine the difference between your success and failure. In this article, I’d like to focus on the first “D”—discovery.

BAD INGREDIENTS

Let’s look more closely at those you choose to hold your ladder. You can’t just throw anybody into the job. I’ve found that it is helpful not only to identify the qualities I am looking for, but also the characteristics that are red flags in the selection process. To get started, here are the kinds of people you don’t want to hold your ladder.

  1. Undependable. Sometimes you’re so tired of reminding people to take up their positions at the foot of the ladder that you try to mount the steps by yourself without any support. I’ll take an unskilled, dependable ladder holder any day over a skilled, undependable one. At least one of them can be trained.
  2. Casual. Are the people you hire or recruit intentional about their work, or are they casual and distracted in their approach? Will your ladder holder curl all his toes around the bottom rungs and hold the ladder with both hands? Or will he have one hand draped casually across one of the rungs and a cup of Starbucks coffee in the other?
  3. Conditional. These are the resumé builders. They are committed to holding your ladder as long as an opportunity to hold a larger, more prestigious ladder doesn’t present itself. Their commitment is not to you and your vision, but to the advancement of their own careers. If you’re not careful, they’ll move on to another ladder, and you’ll be stuck 40 feet in the air.
  4. Unhappy. Whether it’s the disgruntled employee or the church attendee who’s been coming for years but can’t stand the music and constantly complains about the preaching, unhappy people don’t usually change, even when the circumstances do. Not to mention, their misery is contagious.
  5. Puppets. “Yes” men and women may be initially supportive, but they ultimately make unreliable ladder holders when you need them most—to tell us the truth when the truth may be uncomfortable for you to hear.

THE RIGHT STUFF

Since we’ve identified what not to look for in ladder holders, what core qualities should you seek instead? There are five qualities I’d insist on, and there are others I’d like to see and that I would hope for. These are the essentials for ladder holders.

Strength. They must be people who can handle instruction and criticism, with whom you can use plain language and not have to walk on eggshells, withhold feedback and then fix things for them. If they need to be corrected in certain areas, they can change without you having to worry about how much you’re going to hurt their feelings. You must have people holding the ladder who can handle instructions in two to three words and be able to follow through quickly.

Attentiveness. They need to be able to pay attention—alert to what you’re saying and absorbing it quickly. You don’t want to give them the same lessons repeatedly. Attentive people understand the first time.

Faithfulness. I’m not referring to having faith in the Lord. I’m talking about having faith in you as their leader and being committed to you. You need people who remain at the ladder no matter how difficult things become. As long as you’re up there, the faithful show you that you can be assured they are still down below. They don’t need you constantly yelling down, “You’re doing a great job. You’re wonderful.” They’re steady, and you can count on them.

Firmness. By this I mean that they not exploited by manipulative people. In every church and organization there are manipulative types. They may be extremely self-deceived or just mean-spirited. It doesn’t matter which because the end is the same. They want to destroy the present plans and operations or build a name for themselves. Ladder holders need to be strong enough to discern their tactics and stand up to them.

Loyalty. I do not mean they must agree with you all the time. Loyalty doesn’t mean repeating, “Yes, yes, yes,” no matter what the visionary says. They may disagree with your head but not your heart. They may disagree with how you do things but not why you do things. They may disagree with your methods but not your motivations.

WHO VS. WHAT

You may have noticed in the above characteristics the absence of specific skills or competencies. This is not because I’m suggesting you recruit incompetent or unskilled people as ladder holders. However, from my experience as a CEO with paid employees, I learned that we hire people for what they know; we fire them for who they are. In other words, if you pay more attention to why you fire people and let that influence whom you hire, you will end up needing to fire fewer people.

A pastor may hire the musician because she can make the simplest music sound like a concerto in every piece she plays. He fires her because she has a bad attitude. A CEO may hire an office manager because he is a computer whiz and understands spreadsheets, profit and loss, government regulations and knows all the latest software. He fires him because he can’t get along with people.

Randall Murphy, the founder and president of the Acclivus Corporation, once said, “When you are assigned the task of taking the hill—or the market—you are less concerned about who is for you and more concerned about who is with you.”

Just because people say, “I’m for you,” that isn’t the real issue. The real issue is what they do. Do they do what they promise? Do they faithfully follow their words by their actions? These are the characteristics you should look for in ladder holders. With them holding your ladder, you can scale it with confidence, focusing on the things that really matter.

THE RECRUIT’S ADVANTAGE

Continuing with the ladder metaphor, if you were to need someone to hold a 40-foot ladder, would you post the job in the classified ads or start recruiting among trusted people you already knew?

Whether the position is paid or unpaid, those who volunteer are likely to be less experienced than the team members you recruit. The wrong people are often the first ones to volunteer—possibly, because they have nothing else to do. How does a volunteer get “unvolunteered” if the situation doesn’t work out? The most qualified people are busy and engaged elsewhere. They won’t come along unless someone recruits them.

The best Sunday school teacher may not be the one who offers to do it. The person for the job might be the public school teacher who doesn’t think she wants to spend another day with kids. However, if a leader takes time to share the vision for Sunday school, and she can see there is support from the top down, it’s possible to change her mind.

When Jesus needed disciples, He didn’t wait around to see who would volunteer. Instead, he went out and chose the men he wanted. That should be your goal when hiring people. When seeking the proper person to fill a job, the resume can’t help you make this kind of decision; the Holy Spirit must draw you to the right candidate, sometimes even in spite of the resume.

When choosing people for your team, remember the acrostic ASK. Unlike people who volunteer, ASK candidates are recruited because of their attitude, skills and knowledge, the three qualities needed for players on a winning team.

Attitude. When you hire people with the right attitude, you can teach them to do anything. A good attitude can help a person conquer the most difficult circumstances. Employees with good attitudes work hard, are driven to reach goals and continue to press on regardless of the roadblocks. People with bad attitudes are unmotivated, negative and self-absorbed. No matter how talented they are, they never amount to much.

Skill. Skill is relative and is determined by the amount of competence needed for the task at hand. While some skills can be developed and refined on the job, you need to identify the baseline competence needed to accomplish the task without slowing progress or adding work to other teammates who may need to compensate for an unskilled colleague.

Knowledge. The person who has a great attitude, superb skills, and also extensive knowledge is the ideal employee or team member. Those with skill and knowledge can fix what is broken and explain why it broke in the first place. But knowledge without skill is like a doctor who can make a diagnosis but doesn’t know how to treat the illness.

Candidates with the right balance of ASK need to be asked what they want to do. If they are forced into jobs that don’t suit their temperaments and passions, they won’t be fully productive. People are most productive when they are passionate about what they are doing. Always try to put people into positions they care about. Of course, the only way to do so is to know them and understand their passions.

I realize that there are certain positions that need to be filled and certain tasks and portfolios that need to be taken responsibility of. I’m not suggesting that you hire people for jobs you don’t need done. However, I am recommending a bias toward recruiting good people, understanding their skills and passions, then finding ways they can be leveraged toward accomplishing your organization’s mission and vision.

HIRING AND FIRING

What do you do when it’s time to put someone on staff? My suggestion is that you need to re-think your policy. You want competent people, obviously. But when you select ladder holders, you need to spend more time examining who they are rather than what they know.

You can read their resumés, and you can talk to people they’ve worked for and with. That is important. But troubles in the job usually start over personality issues and not over competency. Once hired, they will give you joy or grief. With few exceptions, the people I have fired I have terminated because of their attitudes. Rarely have I needed to get rid of someone for lack of ability to do the job.

With that in mind, I recommend following the this rule: Hire slowly and fire quickly.

It’s better to have a vacancy than to have bad help. Suppose the doctor diagnoses you with cancer, says surgery is the only option and asks, “When would you want it scheduled?” I’m guessing you’ll say, “As soon as possible.”

As a leader, a good question to ask yourself is this: Why do I tolerate incompetent staff? Why do I allow disgruntled team members to infect the rest of the staff with their bad attitudes?

Simply put, don’t rush hiring decisions; don’t delay firing decisions.

The best time to fire somebody is the first time it goes through your head. We tend to get our roles confused again here. Instead of thinking as a CEO and for the good of the organization, we tend to switch to a pastoral role and figure out ways to excuse or overlook problems serious enough that we’d consider terminating them.

I’ve also learned that if the situation is serious enough to fire people and I don’t, I soon begin to search for reasons to keep them.

The bias toward recruiting that I am advocating may require not only adding fresh people to your team of ladder holders, but rearranging existing people into roles and responsibilities that are better aligned with their skills and passions. Making these important shifts can inspire your team and can help the entire organization function better. In fact, they may help the team rise to a level they previously couldn’t reach.

Ultimately, seeking recruits versus volunteers may not give you all the ladder holders you need. However, it will create a culture of that places emphasis on the skills and attitudes that you value, and that culture will attract like-minded people to join your team, allowing you to climb higher than you would have with just a group of volunteers.

 

This article was extracted from Issue 5 (Spring 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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