How to build A+ team?

Originally posted on July 23, 2022

Recent article in WSJ about Tour de France provides a good reminder of how to build high performing team and what great teamwork looks like.

To win the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, it definitely takes more than the lead rider. Lead rider is very important but everyone else on that team protecting and working for the lead rider is just as important. The best team this year is the Jumbo-Visma team, composed of riders from the Netherlands, the U.S., Slovenia, Belgium, Italy, Australia, Norway, Denmark, and France. This team, like other teams, have riders who specialize in climbing monster hills, racing in any condition, sprinting, leading the peloton out (doing the hard work for everyone first), or being all-around riders with particular aggressive riding style. Jumbo-Visma assembled A+ players who are celebrated riders. And all A+ players know exactly what they have to do to get the lead rider the yellow jersey and for the team to win.

I like to use cycling peloton as an analogy for building amazing teams at startups. Distance cycling comes with many challenges that take place in unfamiliar and challenging terrains. Anything can happen. It requires a lot of grit, determination, and tremendous teamwork.
No one do it alone to win the yellow jersey. Startup team building is the same. The CEO (the lead rider) is important but every functional leader and others in the company are just as important. Sales, Marketing, Finance, Customer Success, Engineering, Product must all be A+ players and teams. Each person must bring a specialization but can also work with the boarder team as a whole. Finding A+ players and building an A+ team are extremely hard.

Who are A+ players in the startup land and how to find them?

  • They have superpowers. Their superpowers are superpowers that the CEO doesn't have or needs help to strengthen. Their superpowers amplify existing superpowers.
  • They get stuff done by rolling up their sleeves. No task is too small. No task is too big. They don't say I want to do this but I don't want to do that. The climber rider doesn't pick which mountain to climb and doesn't sit out when there is no mountain. That rider rides with the team as an A+ rider and shows his superpower when the hill comes to get the team ahead and win points.
  • They have no ego but they have confidence. Ego is "I don't want to do this because it is not worth my time and someone else has to do it." Confidence is "I can do this on my own or I need help from another team member, and how do we make this a small or big win."
  • They are transparent and direct. Riders on the tour have nowhere to hide, rain or shine. If they don't feel well, they stop. If they are tired, they tell the other riders on the team and they fall back a bit. Same in startups. Transparency and being direct on how to do things, how to help each other, and how to solve problems together are very important. Analysis paralysis is often a symptom of not being able to create a transparent and direct culture.
  • They execute and look ahead. Riders wake up and ride based on a plan, and they shift their plans as they ride. Flat tire. Change and continue. A teammate pushes another one forward to restart fast. Same in startups. With a sound plan, it is time to execute vs talking about the plan and how to execute. Just do it and iterate.
  • They celebrate wins - small or big. Some days are really hard but even on hard days, there are wins. Celebrate those as a team! Celebrate the individuals who helped with the wins. The positivity is the magic dust that goes around and make the next day brighter.

How to do find A+ players and build A+ teams?

CEO and functional leaders must be seeking talent all the time even if the company is not hiring. A+ player can come from anywhere.

A+ players are often missed because they don't fit a box or definition or the job descriptions. Look for traits, superpowers, attitude, how they answer questions, how they think, evaluate their career choices as a whole vs hiring based on the prior role they have had, for example.

A+ players want to achieve a big mission. They are mission driven and goal oriented. They are part of the team with a clear mission. They want to achieve the mission. They are able to break down the mission into goals and execute.

A+ players are confident and do not have ego. Really figure this out before you hire a person. Ego is toxic in a team environment. Teams should be made up of confident, driven, smart, hands-on, and nice people.

Look at if the person has overcome big challenges - in their personal and professional lives.

Look for people who are constantly learning to build or strengthen their superpowers.

Look for people who are strategic and hands on. They think and reflect and absorb the big picture and they work with others to deliver on the specific elements of the big picture.

A+ players work hard. Working hard is an essential element to achieving big things. No way around it. It is not for everyone which is fine. Don't be apologetic that you want to build an A+ team with people who want to work hard.

A+ teams have crystal clear goals that are stupid simple and everyone from the EA to the CEO can articulate and get it. Win yellow jersey and let's talk about how. That is a clear goal. Everyone plays a role and is accountable to achieve this goal. Same in startups. Too many goals or measurements confuse people and accountability is lost. A+ players get frustrated and under-performers start to grow.

Diversity. A+ teams are hard to build but look at this year and prior year's Tour de France team. They are diverse in skills, age, culture, experience and where they grow up and from!

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