You may have the best idea, the most defensible IP/tech, or impeccable market timing. But with a mediocre team around you, it doesn’t matter. Without exceptional execution you won’t win. And you can’t execute alone. Who you surround yourself with – who you pay to help fulfill your dream and bring your ideas to life – is the most critical decision you will continually make as a CEO and founder. Quickly identifying and nurturing top talent is a superpower, as is identifying and eliminating mediocre talent. Never have I heard a founder say: “I wish we didn’t fire that person so soon” or “firing that person was a mistake.” 9/10 times I hear the exact opposite: “we should have fired them sooner” or “with that person gone, the team is happier, and our pace of execution has significantly improved.”
Firing “fast” or impulsively is not the take-away. The muscle I would encourage founders to build is knowing your team. Only if you really know your team can you effectively nurture or eliminate high and low performers. Here are some of my favorite ways you can develop this instinct and pattern recognition:
- Pick up the phone and call your team, often. Best if it’s not scheduled! Just pick up the phone and call your directs on your morning walk for coffee. Ask how they are doing and then….don’t talk. Wait. Honesty often follows silence, and you want honesty. You want to really hear how your leaders are doing. You’ll begin to develop a more personal relationship which will help you learn things about them and your business that aren’t shared during the formality of a team meeting or 1:1.
These regular calls will also help you develop a fuller picture of how your team handles stress over time, and what they’re motivated by to ultimately help you, help them. This is not a “gotcha” exercise. It should be obvious but is worth saying – a team member letting their guard down and sharing their stress should not trigger a performance plan. Instead, these calls have the potential to clarify your perception of people, or in some cases, correct it entirely (ie they’re not a low performer, their strengths are misaligned with your ask of them).
- Ask your team who they’re grateful for at work lately. Or phrase to your liking (who can’t you live without?) But you get the idea. In your 1:1s ask pointed questions to better understand who in the organization is shining. Top performers will become clear after you ask this a dozen times. Some rising stars are not the best self promoters. By better understanding who enables your team to execute you can more quickly identify emerging talent. Then, nurture and scale that talent across the organization to multiply overall output.
- Conduct an end of month people pulse with your co-founder. To add a formal solution to our toolkit, a quick 30 minute “end of month people pulse” with your co-founder and possibly a few execs, is worthwhile. This 30 minute sanity check is designed to be dispassionate and specific. Use the template below to facilitate a discussion with your co-founder around who’s shining and who’s struggling. Push yourself to be concrete – save venting for another time. Note the specific behaviors that demonstrate how someone is shining/struggling and what next step you both can take to either double down on what’s good or course correct what could be a train wreck. This is a very easy meeting to depriotize because it’s not a metaphorical fire that needs to be put out. Proactive exercises like this are hard to protect on your calendar. But it’s worth it. This conversation can expedite your instincts…ie you do in fact have a problem that needs correction. It can also improve your leadership, reminding you to thank and check in more on your top performers.
The added benefit of really knowing your team? Understanding what talent gaps are missing so you can acutely solve for them with future hiring. Also understanding what talent exists but that’s untapped so you can reallocate resources or promote from within instead of solving problems with hiring. My favorite, however, is adding levity to your day. These spontaneous calls don’t always yield a huge “aha” moment, but instead, a closer connection to a colleague or good laugh. Pointed questions like “who are you grateful for at work lately” is a boost of serotonin. And honoring a meeting like the end of month people pulse can leave you feeling more aligned and calibrated with your co-founder.