Dream Team – Or Your Worst Nightmare? In praise of the “B” Team

Everyone wants that perfect team. We are taught from the time we start in business that the secret to project and corporate success is getting the “very best” people in the right positions.  The “dream team”.  Get that right and you are 90% of the way to giving the competition a real butt-kicking.

That’s what we imagine. Excitement builds. We’ll get the best people, from the best schools, people who are “up and comers”! Get me the “A” performers! No “dead wood” on this team!

What a load of crap.

First of all, it rarely happens. Most of the time, in projects or when you take over a department, division or even an company, you get what you get.  And while you can imagine in your dream world – or in some business book – that you can “clean house” and put in your own team of the very best, life doesn’t always work out that way.

You can’t just fire people at random and put in your own team.  You need to figure out who should go and who the “keepers” are.  You need to know the repercussions of any action you take.  It takes time to do an assessment.  It’s harder than it sounds. When the new guy or gal takes over, everyone has an interest in influencing your opinion of them and others.  Don’t expect to get objective facts from anyone.  Figuring it all out is tough.

Or if you have a project team that you are assembling from scratch, reality rears its ugly head again. Usually, the “very best and brightest” are also the busiest. Sometimes – as Mick Jagger said, “you can’t always get what you want.” So if Sarah, the high flyer is too busy, maybe you get Bob the, uh — “not so high flyer.”  Sometimes you get that person that the French so cutely call “un cadeaux” — a “gift”.   Most of the time you get lame excuses.  I can hear it in my mind. “Did I promise you Sarah?  I guess I did.  Sorry – that was before we got this new client.  But Bob is a real gift to any team…”

The only time you get the clean slate is in a work of fiction or a business book – which are often the same thing.

Unfortunately, I business happens in the real world. But if we didn’t – if just for that one wacky time, where we got chance to hand pick our team, and instead of Wally from Dilbert we got nothing but “A” performers – what a disaster that would be!

What? Did I just say disaster?


Think about it. Or live it, if you ever get the chance. Because this may be something you can only learn from experience. Sometimes even the best schools graduate people who talk a great talk, have excellent grades, networked out the wazoo, maybe even head of their alumni association —  but are, to coin a phrase, “as thin as piss on a plate”.  Sometimes the “high flyers”, who’ve been promoted time and again aren’t everything they are cracked up to be. Yes, some do good things.  Few people walk on water.  And some are a flash in the pan.  It’s possible to have a string of apparent successes without any other clear talent than luck and the ability to escape before disaster hits.

So you might not get the god of commerce that you have dreamed of.   But even if you do, you may be in for a rough ride.  Have you ever tried to facilitate a group of “A” performers – it can be challenging to say the least.  I once ran a global consulting practice and I can tell you, some of my toughest times were when I pulled together the top consultants from around the world.  There was a reason we had a theme for one conference which was “check your ego at the door”. Unfortunately, just like in real air travel, not much of the baggage was checked – and a lot of people brought their egos as “carry on”.

I don’t expect you to believe me.  Maybe you’ve had different experiences.  But sometimes the “dream team” can be your worst nightmare.

So it may be fortunate that you don’t get a lot of opportunities to build these mythical “dream teams”.  Most of the time, business is like poker. You play the cards you are dealt.  Yes, there are rules that let you discard a few and pick up a few new ones. But over the course of the game the real winners make the best of the hands they are dealt.

That’s been my strategy. I work with what I have, even if it’s what everyone else calls the “B” team.  In fact, I prefer the “B” team even when I have my choice. Why? Because I get great results from them and over the years, it’s a strategy that’s worked for me.

Time and again, I’ve taken over departments where the team were regarded as under performers.  They (not me) turned things around in an incredibly short time. I’ve hired from the middle of the class in great and in simply good schools.  I’ve found people who were used to working hard to keep up, people with a real desire to learn and above all, I’ve found people who were coachable. Yes, coachable. They listen.

Funny, when my friend Doug Sparkes and I are asked to mentor entrepreneurs, we have two criteria to judge if we’ll take on a new entrepreneur.  It’s not the obvious.   It’s not their great idea — frankly, great ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s not their marks.  It’s not their connections or network. And it’s certainly not the fact that they present well – some days we’ve wanted to poke out our eyes with a fork rather than take one more powerpoint slide.  Nope. We look for two things – drive and coachability. Do they really want to succeed more than anything? And do they listen?  Everything else can be taught.

As a formula, it’s worked pretty well. Listeners succeed. Not just by listening to us. It’s listening to their other advisors, to their partners and colleagues and above all to their potential and current customers.

Listening doesn’t mean that you always agree.  It means you listen and think. In fact, a team that is always “on the same page” is a big danger, no matter how smart they are.  You need diversity, questioning and even challenging to make sure that good ideas are really good.  Some of the dumbest ideas in history have been floated by teams that had all “drunk the kool-aid”. Because it was “social media” or “mobility” or “Web 3.0” nobody questioned whether what was being presented was really a good idea.

My “B” teams are full of questioners. They ask questions — not so they can show what they know – but because they don’t have to hide the fact that they don’t know some acronym or buzzword.  They don’t have to believe everything because it’s a new hot trend.  That’s how they fought their way to the middle of the class. These people ask good questions and they listened to the answers. When you have one of these guys or gals on your team, he or she will ask — “why is that so good? What can it be used for? Why would someone buy that?”  Great questions.  And if you experience a wisp of annoyance, maybe it’s time to check your own ego and realize that they may have done you a hell of a favour.  Maybe you haven’t communicated it well.  Or maybe (actually all too many times) the emperor really does have no clothes.

Another wonderful thing about “B” teams.  They are full of real people.  Some have quirks, many aren’t the fastest talkers, they often haven’t read “Dress for Success”, or maybe they aren’t from the top business schools. Some have come up through practical programs.  Some of come up through the school of hard knocks. They are real, authentic people – some of whom only need to be given a chance.  Some need coaching and mentoring if they are going to advance.  Some are comfortable being just a team member, and have no ambition to lead (in the classic sense). Some wouldn’t be caught dead making a speach or presentation. Some have been told they shouldn’t.  But for all of these supposed “disadvantages” when you look beneath the surface, there is a lot of talent there.

But lets also be real.  Not all business is rocket science.  B teams can deliver. In the drudgery of day to day discipline and the mundane part that is every job, they do it and get it right. It’s wonderful to have great idea about how you can improve things. It’s better to do the real spadework to prove and implement an idea.

I remember back when I was starting out and got my first national role for product development and financial control. I had not studied business at that point.  I felt very insecure about it. It was only later that I went back at night to get my degree.  I was smart enough to get a book and read up on financial analysis. I could make sense of it, in fact it didn’t look all that hard, but people train in this stuff for years.  They get very expensive MBAs.   So I thought I was missing something. So I hired an MBA from a great school (that shall remain nameless) and set him to work.

What a disaster that was!  He nearly caused a mass uprising. In those days, the heart of our business was data entry.  As was common at that time, it was mostly women who had high school and not much more.  They worked all day doing the same thing over and over – accurately and quickly. That’s how we made money. Because I’d never studied at a good management school, I thought the way to train our new recruit was the way I was trained.  I put him to work doing data entry.   I had often gone down to work with them when we were short staffed or just to help out with high volumes. Sometimes I just got them coffee.  I could almost keep up on key punch although I never matched the top performers.  But I’d try my best to compete.  I didn’t think that this was doing very much.   But I did get the feeling that they while they might not walk over hot coals for me, they would stay late and put in that extra effort when needed.   For someone from the executive floor, I was almost human.  In turn, I appreciated and respected them.

The first day my new recruit was down in that area, the supervisor came to me to tell me to “get that brat out of her area”. His moaning about what a “dead end job” this was had gotten on their nerves.

To make matters worse, the new recruit wasn’t doing a particularly stellar job on the financial reporting and analysis I’d hired him to do. It turned out that although he’d passed his course on stats he hadn’t really paid much attention. Imagine my surprise to find that I had to coach him with what I’d learned from a book and some common sense. I showed him to the spreadsheets that I’d devised with great pain and with lots of weekend work.
I don’t think he ever really got it.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to fire him. Amazingly, some other department really wanted a “A” performer like him. Great school. Nice clothes. Knew how to talk. Had the right attitude. He went off to join someone’s “dream team”. I was left with my “B” team. We made money for the company and got the job done.  My rudimentary financial analysis showed that 🙂

That was a learning experience.  The first of many.

Later, as I went back to school at night to study the business and technology that I was living, I would learn that a lot of what I had picked up by observation and by simply trying to be a real human being was the best way to manage.  I learned  about things such as the Hawthorne Effect – where simply paying attention to people could generate improvements in performance.  I learned that you needed to appreciate people, to learn to inspire but more often to be inspired by real people.  I learned that by looking for the best in people, I would find it.

Time and again this proved out and my career took off — thanks to all of those “B Teams”.

But I never stopped learning – so as I struck out on my own to head up a boutique consulting company, I used the same learning and the same wisdom in my consulting.   For example – I was in a call centre a while ago. Everyone had told me that this was a dead end place, nobody cared, they should just outsource it and be done with it. It was true that they had their challenges – there were a lot of complaints.  But instead of reading reports I went to see them work. While I was there, something happened.  In a very short period, the calls spiked and the queue grew incredibly. I would later find out that there were some problems in the operation that drove huge spikes of calls into the call centre with little preparation and no training at all.

I watched them valiantly handle each and every call. Intent. Hard working. Frustrated at times, but persevering. And then I watched as the last call in the spike was handled and they crossed back to regular volume. When that call had been handled, they all stood and applauded the person who took the last call.    It was an amazing experience and one that I’ll never forget.  So much for “not caring”.  These folks were fabulous.  And watching them pointed out where the real problems might lie.

And I was confident that I’d find those problems.  I knew that this “B Team” would help me succeed — if I let them.

So keep your “dream teams”.   Give me real people who care and listen.  We’ll do great things together and I’ll be proud to be on the “B Team”.


Filed under Change, Organization, People, Strategy

2 responses to “Dream Team – Or Your Worst Nightmare? In praise of the “B” Team

  1. Fantastic!

    Example of a bad A-team: The 2004 USA Olympic men’s basketball team made up of NBA all stars and lost to Lithuania

    Example of a great B-team: The 1980 “Miracle on Ice” USA Olympic men’s hockey team the beat the powerhouse Russians and went on to capture the gold (Watch the movie!)

  2. therealjimlove

    Thanks! Sports is full of great examples. If paying top bucks for a star player won Stanley Cups, the Leafs would not have been shut out for the past 43 years. .

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