How to build your ‘A Team’: To take your business to the next level, choose wisely

Last updated on July 1st, 2019 at 02:01 pm

In my last column, I asked if your employees who are “better than nothing” might be doing more harm than good.

It’s clear we accomplish more together as a team. So, as owners, we must learn to lead teams, not just direct individual members.

About 29 million small businesses exist in the United States today. About 89 percent have fewer than 20 employees.

I think the reason the vast majority of businesses never break the $1 million revenue mark is because the owner or founder never developed the skills needed to create and manage a team.  Now, absolutely nothing is wrong with that kind of revenue. But if your goal is to go beyond that mark, you’ll need a team to power you and your company through it.

Core values as hiring and team-building filters

It’s all about selection.

I enjoyed dinner recently with Adam, a young entrepreneur. His annual revenues are about $750,000 and he wants to break the $1 million mark. I asked him to share his personal and business core values. 

It turns out, they’re identical: work hard, play hard, have fun and treat everyone the same.

He’s concerned that Paul, a salesman, isn’t working out. 

“Does Paul share most of those core values?” I asked.

Adam said he didn’t think Paul shared any of those values. So, as I often hear from early-stage entrepreneurs, Adam said he was going to make “fixing” Paul his spring project. I told Adam his time would be better spent moving Paul to another company where he could make a positive contribution, and finding someone who was a better fit with his company.

In Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Ideal Team Player,” he describes the three “virtues” which make up his personal and business core values: hungry, humble and smart. He uses those values as filters for hiring. To learn more about this, I recommend you read his book.

Unusual interview techniques

You’ve accurately identified your core values.  But now, how do you use them for effective hiring and firing?

First, you must spend time – carefully and thoughtfully – further defining and dissecting your values.  What do they look like, day-to-day and every day, in your organization?

Then develop and consistently create a set of interview questions based on behaviors. Look for real-life situations in which your potential future team member actually exhibited and embodied your core values. Beware of people who provide only hypothetical examples. It might mean they can’t recall ever living your core values. 

Another great idea from Lencioni’s book is to use unconventional interview techniques. For example, ask each candidate to go for a ride or run errands with you. How do they interact with you and with strangers along the way? How do they treat service people?

How do they handle unusual situations? One famous CEO would ask the restaurant to ruin an interviewee’s dinner so the CEO could watch the reaction.

Finally, gather all pertinent background information. I’m always shocked at how few companies do any type of rudimentary, pre-employment assessments. I wouldn’t hire a dog-sitter without at least doing a personality assessment. And I’d never hire a “C” level executive without having an industrial psychologist do an in-depth interview and analysis.

Unfortunately, in my career, I have plenty of experience hiring somebody who was not the ideal team player. The cost of those hiring mistakes can be astronomical. Sometimes they break a small business beyond repair, sometimes they even destroy a big business, like Enron.

We will never be perfect at selecting members for our teams. But, if you truly want to break through and blow past the other side of whatever business goal you’ve identified, you’ll need an “A team” as your power engine. Start building it!

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As a serial entrepreneur, business and community leader since 1983, John Howman has led a variety of businesses, from technology to consumer products companies. He leads two groups for Vistage, a professional development group of CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at