I have seen a lot of posts on social media advising that we remove negative influencers from our lives. I could not agree more. The stress and distraction caused by feeding the needs of negative people are just not worth it. Handling these “bad apples” eats up so much energy that could be better spent, elsewhere.
The same could be said for teams. In my experience of creating and building teams, I have seen how one negative personality can disrupt the productivity and morale of an entire organization. Like those negative people that suck up all our personal energy, one “bad apple” can pull all the energy of a team in the wrong direction. I have seen teams get caught in a whirlpool of energy, dealing with a negative influence, totally distracted from their real growth objectives. Three examples of “bad apples” come to mind:
Bull in a China Shop
Over 15 years ago, I was leading the turnaround of a manufacturing business. The operation had been spun out of a large, multinational corporation and the leadership of the spin-out was junior and inexperienced. As the team grappled with their newfound responsibilities and finding their culture, their personalities were on full display. A natural leader emerged, full of confidence and with an attention to detail. She was not the official leader, but a natural one, and was able to drive change and get things done – in her opinion.
It was true, she was very technically talented and was comfortable taking the lead. However, she was like a bull in a china shop. She got things done, but always at a price. Her charging style left bodies along the way – employees that felt bullied, under valued and exhausted by her forceful nature.
It was clear to me that the team could not move forward with her in that role. The challenge for me was that she was easily the most talented member of the team. It was a painful decision to let her go, losing all that talent and energy, but there was no other choice. It was her or the team. Without her, the team was certainly less technically capable, but now more stable, enabling the addition of fresh talent and ideas to help support the team’s growth.
Part of the joy of leading a start-up is seeing productivity increase exponentially with the addition of each new hire. I recall a company I started a dozen years ago where the progress that we were making literally doubled or tripled as we went from zero, to adding two, three and then four employees. It was remarkably rewarding the see this group of strangers that we were gathering, become an effective, productive team. Selecting the right chemistry and energy is critical in those early stages of building a team. We were on a roll. Until, that is, we made hire number 5.
I have seen start-ups make cheap hires at the outset, naturally cautious about spending, and I have always thought that hiring strategy was a mistake. In my mind, right at the outset is when you need the very best talent. People with broad experience, able to wear many hats, take on wide responsibilities and, frankly do the work of three or four employees. The only way to build a strong foundation and get that kind of valuable experience is to pay top dollar. The challenge is that many senior executives come from large corporations and can tend to be tellers and not doers – unable or unwilling to roll up their sleeves.
Employee number 5 was just that. We went from four employees, making enormous progress, to suddenly “needing” seven or eight more hires in his team to get the work done. Number 5 was a teller, not a doer. We also saw a change in the way communication was flowing. The original 4 of us communicated openly, without barriers, hurdles, or any sense of hierarchy. Number 5 wanted all his team’s communications to go through him – the chain of command. He was an empire builder and, rather than continuing the trend of adding exponential productivity to the team, he and his new hires slowed everything right down. Suddenly we were no longer a fast-moving start-up. We were plagued with the molasses of politics and procedures. Needless to say, number 5 had to go.
A third type of “bad apple” is the underminer. These folks can be hard to spot as they can be devious and political – even pretending to be publicly supportive. These are the folks that are never on board with the operating plan but pretend that they are. They save their criticisms for the water cooler or the lunchroom, rather than having the courage to speak up. They do not have the vision or strength to lead. They prefer to use their negative energy to complain about the leadership even going so far as to undermine progress through secretly lobbying against a plan of action, while publicly supporting it. These are the culture destroyers and have no place in any team.
I love building teams. To me there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a group of strangers “gelling” and cooperating. A few years ago, I was called out of a management meeting. We had built the new management team over the course of just a few weeks and this was our inaugural full-team meeting. I was reluctant to step away, but the call was critical.
When I returned to the meeting, standing in the open doorway (the office was so new that we didn’t even have a door on the conference room, yet) I saw a miracle. Rather than sitting around the conference table, the entire team was standing, leaning over the table around a bunch of diagrams. The energy was electric, and the room was buzzing with ideas and exchanges. This group of strangers, that had not met each other until a couple of weeks earlier, were interacting and problem-solving in the most beautiful and respectful way. It was a joy to see and one of the true rewards that comes from the very hard work of starting a company. No bad apples there.