We conducted some research recently amongst fast growth start-ups. We asked them about their recipe for long term success – they put people and factors relating to an open mindset ahead of the business’s idea. Understanding the role of people in business performance is cited as the reason why the number of tech unicorns in the USA exceeds those in Europe. The logic being that venture capitalists in the US place a greater emphasis on “the talent” over the idea, in contrast to their P&L driven European counterparts.
HR management has an often underrated role in supporting any high-performance team achieve their business growth goals. Here are some hacks, based on our observations working with the best.
Know the plan
High-performance teams work best when there is clear direction – what are we trying to achieve and why. Studies have shown that simply having a plan can significantly improve chances of a business’s success.
If businesses are to unleash the value of their talent, it is essential that strategy is clear and deeper than the usual platitudes. The direction and motivation are key not only to drive a clear role for HR but also in attracting and retaining the right talent. Increasingly we have seen that those with talent are not looking for long-term stability but a challenge to which they contribute. Is the company trying to make a difference in the world, serve the customer in a different way, beat the competition, blow up the market – these are much more engaging challenges than building a career over decades. High performing talent seeks organisations with ambition, to stretch and develop them rather than job-for-life stability. They will stay whilst the challenge is there and they can see what they do contributes to the bigger goals.
HR hack: Know the strategy and the purpose behind the numbers – make it come to life in recruitment, in role metrics and use it as the north star to drive HR’s role. If it’s not there – ask and ask again.
Be smart about resources
With any resource there is often a natural assumption that more is better. The bigger the goal, the more people. In a study comparing performance across business units within a multinational we found the inverse to be true. The least well-resourced business unit enjoyed the best performance. The lack of people and time made the decisions for them, it forced creativity. Necessity had become the mother of invention with step out results.
Whilst running lean can drive efficiency and often more effective results, organisations lose out when everyone is flat out the whole time. No one can sprint for long periods and the negative impact of burnout is the most obvious concern. Beyond the challenges around mental health and employee welfare there is also a huge commercial opportunity being missed.
Jeff Bezos’s annual letter to Amazon shareholders is always a great read and this year one of the key themes was creating the space to “wander.” The logic is that the creativity upon which genuine high performance is based needs time and space to grow. It is the principle behind 3Ms 15% rule and why Google have actively created queues in the staff canteen. For soccer fans, it is why Barcelona let the world’s greatest footballer, Lionel Messi, explore and assess the opposition for the first 5 minutes before he fully starts contributing. Good things happen when we give ourselves a chance.
HR hack: Look to help leaders balance the right resource (the “Goldilocks” balance between too much and too little) and try to create time and space for high performers to “wander”.
Think creatively about capabilities
High performers are not usually satisfied by being best in class. They want to learn from the best in any field. This type of “growth mindset” is common in leading sports teams and businesses.
We recently worked with data scientists from pro rugby teams and a team of marine engineers, both facing common challenges around the easy metrics being the wrong ones to drive performance. We also spent time learning about real and perceived risk from a VC, an extreme skier, and pro gambler in order to help corporate execs make investment decisions around innovation.
There is always someone facing a similar challenge in another business or field – HR is uniquely placed to bring this into businesses and challenge the status quo, whilst building capabilities. All that is needed is a growth mindset and some lateral thinking.
HR hack: Cherish growth mindset and look to bring in relevant skills from unusual places (or unusual skills from relevant places)
Make it safe to experiment
Much has been made of Google’s Project Aristotle study. One of the key headlines is the central role of psychological safety in high performing teams and innovation. Innovation, creativity, bold risk-taking all deliver step change growth, but they also require support. It is not fair or right for a team or business to share the upside of an individual’s experimentation or risk taking, if they are not prepared to support the potential failures which naturally may follow.
Sports teams do this brilliantly. Chatting with an elite sports team coach we were fascinated by how passionately he spoke about encouraging key players to take risks with the reassurance (both implicit and explicit) that if the all or nothing play did not work, there would be no retribution. In any team risk taking needs support and legitimising.
HR hack: Help create psychological safety by being clear about what sort of risks are acceptable/expected and set smart metrics to support the individuals.
The All Blacks rule
Any successful team requires positivity – high growth is challenging, it is hard pushing the boundaries and taking risks, so a positive mindset is key.
One of the world’s greatest teams in the history of sport is the current All Blacks team. Despite their success and domination of the rugby they pride themselves on having a hugely strong team which, rooted in Maori culture, is about respect and putting the team first. Whilst every team has its stars and a degree of self-confidence is important in high performance – they very publicly have a no “dickheads” policy. This means they won’t select players who don’t play as part of the team.
HR hack: The All Blacks rule is just as relevant in managing people in and out of teams. High performance is high pressure and negative players will have a greater impact on the outcome.