In the pursuit of management excellence, most companies focus their search on finding the ‘right person’. In so doing, they become preoccupied with the qualifications, experience and achievements of individuals.
Even in entrepreneurship conventional wisdom supports the notion of the sole innovator: Henry Ford, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the like.
I would like to argue that conventional wisdom is wrong; that successful companies are started, grown, and made successful by a team of individuals. Clearly, I agree that one person may come to be recognised as the ‘innovator’ but it takes a team of good people to make any enterprise work.
In an organisational context it is arguable that the ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ person for a given job cannot be found simply because such individuals do not exist. This contentious statement can easily be demonstrated by trying to list the qualities of the excellent manager. I have no doubt that you will find that far too many of those qualities are mutually exclusive. So, the ‘right’ person must be highly intelligent and yet not too clever. She or he must be assertive and sensitive to people’s feelings; dynamic and patient; a fluent communicator and a good listener; decisive and reflective; and so on.
In an entrepreneurial context one also finds mutually exclusive qualities. The ‘right’ entrepreneur must be able to thrive on ambiguity and yet must also be a calculated risk-taker. The ‘right’ entrepreneur must be self-confident and persuasive and yet not have an over-inflated ego; have low support needs and yet be a team player; and so on.
Should it happen that you do find this ‘perfect’ manager or entrepreneur, this archetype of mutually incompatible characteristics, then what happens when he or she leaves or retires?
When it comes to pursuing management or entrepreneurial excellence, I argue for a shift in orientation from the individual to the team. If no individual can be a 100% combination of all these qualities, a team of individuals certainly can, or it can come very close! And it is highly unlikely that the whole team will leave the employ of the company at the same time.
So, in sum, it is not the individual but the team that drives sustained and long-term success in management and business. A team can renew and regenerate itself with new recruits as individual team members leave or retire, and it can find within itself all those conflicting characteristics that cannot be converged in any single individual. A team can build up a pool of shared and collectively-owned experience, knowledge, information and judgement that can be passed on as people depart and arrive. It can also be in more than one place at the same time.
Many of us have perceived something of the truth about teams from our own experiences. We know how often someone who has been highly successful within a team becomes a great disappointment when moved out of it. We have seen effective teams destroyed by the promotion of individuals, without anyone ever considering the alternative of promoting the whole team, or enlarging its scope and responsibility. And we have also seen teams produce a quality and quantity of work far greater than the sum of that which the individuals could each have produced on his/her own.
In closing: while not ignoring or neglecting the individual, we should devote far more thought to teams; to their selection, development and training; to their qualifications, experience and achievements; and above all to their psychology, motivation, composition and behaviour. The late Jeffrey Timmons summed it up thus: “An individual makes a living; a team builds an organisation.”
Dr Cobus Oosthuizen (BCom, MBA, PhD) is the Dean of the Faculty of Management and Leadership at the Milpark Business School. Visit www.milpark.ac.za for information about Milpark Business School, its courses and qualifications.