Building a Winning Team—Balancing Hunger, Humility, and Smarts

Building a Winning Team—Balancing Hunger, Humility, and Smarts

Hiring a Winning Team - What to Look for in a Candidate - Mark McClain

If you’re starting (or restarting) a company or team, I can’t overstate the value of those first twenty to twenty-five hires that will make up the future of your organization and define its success. You can’t even get to the goal of leading and growing a company without a core group of people who are capable and competent. But with those initial hires, it’s imperative that they embrace your vision and values, and that they’re the right fit for your roster. So, what’s the ideal candidate? A smart person committed to your company’s vision who’s balanced their hunger for personal growth with their ability to recognize when and how they need to grow.

In a terrific book called The Ideal Team Player, Patrick Lencioni spins a fable about the three qualities the best employees share: they’re humble, hungry and smart. You want people who are super competent but also hungry, truly humble, and nice to work with. It’s pretty obvious that people who are nice to be around but don’t have the mental acuity and/or hunger to drive initiatives are not optimal hires. Far less obvious, however, is the practice of targeting smart people with little regard for their hunger or humility. Pretty much every prospective employee you interview will have been forced, at some point, to work with very capable people who also happened to be real jerks. I, myself, have worked with some of these incredibly talented yet truly unbearable people. At SailPoint, we call them “prima donnas.”

That’s one of two guardrails I use in hiring: no “smart jerks” or “prima donnas.” Because no matter how smart a person might be, the negative impact of their jerk persona on a team will supersede the positives of their capabilities or intelligence. My other one is avoiding folks who are really nice but not terribly competent. I’m happy to meet someone like that when I’m browsing through a store (remember when we used to do that!?)—I’m just not sure I want them working at my company. Which brings me back to Lencioni and his three key traits: humble, hungry and smart. An abundance of any one of these, without enough of the other two to balance it, spells trouble.

Though we’re naturally attracted to smart people as prospective hires, hiring IQ without considering emotional intelligence can be as bad as bringing in a pleasant person who lacks hunger or mental acuity. In my industry, nearly everyone has an undergraduate degree. Many have master’s degrees or doctorates. But I’ve learned over time that smart isn’t enough. Without hunger and humility, the hallmarks of emotional intelligence, people will struggle to work effectively in teams. And counterintuitive as it might seem, the smarter they are, if they lack emotional intelligence, the harder it is for the rest of us to work with them.

The same goes for an overabundance of hunger, which can lead people to “claw and scratch” their way to the top of an organization, leaving a trail of broken relationships and damage in their wake.  What we all want is people who exhibit “good hunger”—or the phrase I prefer, coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, a “growth mindset”. This refers to people who are always looking to get better, to extend themselves, and to grow. Not necessarily to grow into organizational roles, like becoming a senior manager, but to always get better at the things they do for the organization. Without that growth mindset, people can and often do settle into complacency and coasting. Not the kind of employee we want at SailPoint. Not the kind you should want either.

We want people who challenge themselves and who accept challenges from others. People who can hear a colleague’s critique and say, “I know he is not attacking me as a person; he’s trying to help me get better,” and who then hold themselves accountable for increasing their expertise. People like that bring intelligence, and in case you missed it, humility (the “I still have room to grow” attitude)—both of which balance their hunger (or growth mindset). That’s crucial to consider in hiring, as anyone who has tried to work with the purely ambitious will quickly confirm.

I think you see where I’m going, but let’s bring it full circle with a look at the ways that intelligence and hunger balance an employee’s humility. I always want people who are not afraid of their own competence, those who know they’re a good developer, a good writer, a good leader. But I want more than that. Whether they were gifted their abilities at birth or developed them over time, alone or with the help of friends and education and experience, I want them also to have a strong sense of, “It’s not all about me.” In fact, that reminds me of the best quote I’ve ever heard about humility: “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” People like that focus on how much the team can accomplish, not just what they can contribute on their own.

The role of the leader is to take these incredible humble, hungry, smart people and mold them into a high-performing team. Some of the greatest examples I know come from the world of basketball. Some truly great coaches—Wooden, Popovich, Coach K—have consistently turned singularly talented players into amazing teams. It starts by getting guys off their egos. By definition, a team is a group of people working together for success. When ego prevails, that is simply not possible. It’s the same with hiring and building teams in business. It’s all about balance. So, think like a coach. Be sure each early hire has an appropriate measure of humility, hunger and intelligence, both IQ and EQ. Hire for complementary skills and talents. Then trust that these exemplary members of your organization will help attract others who reinforce your vision and values. Ultimately, this forms the foundation for the kind of culture that promotes long-term success: one where everyone plays for each other.

This blog post is part of my series on cultivating business cultures that create real success. If you’re looking for more in-depth tips on everything from hiring great talent to building a winning business strategy, check out my book Joy and Success at Work. In it, I’ve captured key lessons I’ve learned from over twenty years of experience in starting new companies and leading them to do great things. It’s my sincere hope that it helps you in your own business endeavors.

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