Category: Thought and Opinion

The Importance of Working With “A” Players

Stop me if this sounds familiar. There is a person who toils alone for years in relative obscurity before finally cracking the code to become a hero. The myth of the lone genius. It’s the stuff of Disney movies.

Of course, we all have moments when we’re alone and something suddenly clicks. We’d do well to remember, though, that in those moments, we are not as independent as we like to think. The people we surround ourselves with matter.

In part, because we tell ourselves the story of the lone genius, we under-appreciate the role of a team. Sure, the individual matters, no doubt. However, the individual contributions are supercharged by the team around them.

We operate in a world where it’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything great as an individual.  When you think about it, you’re the product of an education system, a healthcare system, luck, roads, the internet and so much more. You may be smart but you’re not self-made. And at work, most important achievements require a team of people working together.

The leader’s job is to get the team right. Getting the team right means that people are better as a group than as individuals. Now this is important.  Step back and think about that for a second — the right teams make every individual better than they would be on their own.

Another way to think about this is in terms of energy. If you have 12 people on a team and they each have 10 units of energy, you would expect to get 120 units of output. That’s what an average team will do. Worse teams will do worse. A great team will take the same inputs and get a non-linear outcome. The result won’t be 120; it’ll be 360.No matter where you’re going, great teams will get you there multiples faster than average teams.

Here is a quote by Steve Jobs on the importance of assembling “A” players.

I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but I’ve thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which [the ratio of] “average” to “best” is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver, versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile; what’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; maybe even 100:1. Very few things in life are like this, but what I was lucky enough to spend my life doing, which is software, is like this. So I’ve built a lot of my success on finding these truly gifted people, and not settling for “B” and “C” players, but really going for the “A” players. And I found something… I found that when you get enough “A” players together, when you go through the incredible work to find these “A” players, they really like working with each other. Because most have never had the chance to do that before. And they don’t work with “B” and “C” players, so it’s self-policing. They only want to hire “A” players. So you build these pockets of “A” players and it just propagates.

Building a team is more complicated than collecting talent1. I once tried to solve a problem by putting a bunch of PhDs’ in a room. While comments like that sounded good and got me a lot of projects above my level, they were rarely effective at delivering actual results.

Statements like “let’s assemble a multidisciplinary team of incredible people” are gold in meetings if you work for an organization. These statements sound intelligent. They are hard to argue with. And, most importantly, they also have no accountability built in, and they are easy to wiggle out of. If things don’t work out, who can fault a plan that meant putting smart people in a room.

Well … I can. It’s a stupid plan.

The combination of individual intelligence does not make for group intelligence. Thinking about this in the context of the Jobs quote above, “A” players provide a lot more than raw intellectual horsepower. Among other things, they also bring drive, integrity, and an ability to make others better.  “A” players want to work with other “A” players. Accepting that statement doesn’t mean they’re all “the best”.

In my experience solving difficult problems, the best talent available rarely led to the best solutions. You needed the best team. And the best team meant you had to exercise judgment and think about the problem. While there was often one individual with the idea that ultimately solved the problem, it wouldn’t have happened without the team.  The ideas others spark in us are more than we can spark in ourselves.

Footnotes
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    A play on a quote by Bill Belichick

In the face of adversity, are you a Guernsey or a Brahman?

If the mother of a Guernsey and a Brahma calf dies, one of the calves will survive and one will not. One thing makes the difference. And is it the very factor that keeps us from reaching what we want most.

***

Persistence in the face of defeat often makes the difference in outcome.

Ask any farmer, and they will tell you that orphaned Guernsey calves die. It’s not the fact that they die, so much as how it happens, that stays in the mind. An orphaned calf soon gets so hungry she picks a new mother from the herd. The cow promptly kicks the strange calf away. After all, she didn’t give birth to the calf—why should she feed it? The Guernsey calf gives up, lies down, and slowly starves to death.

The orphaned Brahman calf gets a different result. The same scenario plays out, with the calf being kicked out by the reluctant mother. However, in this case, the naturally persistent calf keeps coming, until the potential new mother acquiesces out of exhaustion. As a result of this persistence, the calf survives.

Persistence is hard. It’s hard to get kicked in the face and to keep going. It hits at your self-esteem. You begin to wonder if you have value. You begin to think you might be crazy.

So often we’re told that having a positive attitude is the important thing. You can get through the setbacks if you find the silver linings and believe in what you are doing. But it’s important to remember that persistence and a positive attitude aren’t the same thing. They differ in some pretty fundamental ways.

Positivity is fragile. If you’re positively certain that you’ll be successful, you’ll start to worry the minute things deviate from your plan. Once this worry seeps into your mind, it’s impossible to get out. You’re done. When the going gets tough, positive attitudes often vanish.

Persistence, on the other hand, anticipates roadblocks and challenges. It gears up for the fact that things never go as planned and expects goals to be hard to attain.

If you run into failure, persistence continues, and positivity disappears. Persistence is antifragile and benefits from setbacks, while positivity, like that Guernsey calf, crumbles when it runs into hard times.

When met with setbacks, are you a Guernsey or a Brahman?

Yes, It’s All Your Fault: Active vs. Passive Mindsets

The hard truth is that most things in your life – good and bad – are your fault. The sooner you realize that, the better things will be. Here’s how to cultivate an active mindset and take control of your life.

What happens when someone repeatedly says it—whatever “it” may be—is not their fault?

“It’s not my fault I was late for the meeting. Traffic was bad.”

“It’s not my fault I lost money. I got the stock tip from a friend.”

“It’s not my fault I don’t have the skills for the job and was laid off. They should have trained me.”

I don’t want to get into edge cases. But most of the time these kinds of things are your fault. And if you don’t see that, you’re going to continue to find yourself in these situations over and over again.

You should have planned for traffic. You made a terrible investment and you have no idea what you’re doing. Stop waiting for people to teach you the skills you need to earn a living and go learn them.

When the passive mindset takes over, you say another phrase that drives me batty: “I can’t.” Actually, yes you can, you’re just not willing to pay the price. You’re not willing to do the work or spend the time. You’re not willing to do something hard. You’re not willing to sacrifice what’s needed.

The passive mindset is defined by an attitude, an assumption that life happens to you and you’re not responsible. People with this mindset also say things like, “Why does this always happen to me?”

When the language you use about things going on in your life is passive, you slowly convince yourself that nothing is your responsibility. This makes you feel good because it absolves you from responsibility. It means you don’t have to look inside yourself and change anything.  It means you’re not in control.

Well I have news for you: you are in control. You’re in control of how you respond to the ups and downs of life. You’re in control of how you talk to yourself.

An active attitude means ownership. You own your failures. An active mindset means you are responsible for things you control.

“Sorry, I should have planned for traffic, I’ll consider that next time.”

“Wow, that investment blew up! I really don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I should learn.”

“I got laid off because I didn’t make myself indispensable. I won’t let that happen again.”

The next time you catch yourself saying “I can’t,” say “I choose not to because….“

“I choose not to go to the gym because….”

“I choose not to learn something new because…” 

“I choose not to eat healthy because….”

It’s not that you can’t do something it’s that unless you have literally done everything, you’re choosing not to because the price is too high. Stop lying to yourself.

Own your choices. Own the process. Take control.

The Distrust of Intellectual Authority

It’s getting harder to have the expertise necessary to navigate every arena in our lives independently. Sometimes, we need to defer to the expertise of others, but how do we know who to trust?

We are a culture of explainers. You’ve met them and so have I—the people who think they’re more informed than the experts, always happy to share their thoughts with anyone who will listen. Such people sometimes were considered quirky, even endearing, because they meant well and were usually few and far between. However, “the public space is increasingly dominated by a loose assortment of poorly informed people,” writes Tom Nichols in his excellent book The Death of Expertise.

There is an intellectual Gresham’s Law emerging, as misinformation overtakes knowledge.  But this isn’t really a new thing. The conflict between people who know and people who believe they know isn’t always so obvious, but as the gap between experts and the general citizenry grows, so too does the mistrust.

In some cases, ignorance has become hip. Consider the flat Earth movement, vaccines, or the raw milk craze of a few years ago. Rejecting the advice of experts has become a cultural symbol. Why listen to doctors about vaccines, or the Center for Disease Control about the hazards of raw milk? And don’t even get me started on the shape of the Earth.

Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1930 decried the “revolt of the masses,” writing:

Thus, in the intellectual life, which of its essence requires and presupposes qualification, one can note the progressive triumph of the pseudo-intellectual, unqualified, unqualifiable, and, by their very mental texture, disqualified.

I may be mistaken, but the present-day writer, when he takes his pen in his hand to treat a subject which he has studied deeply, has to bear in mind that the average reader, who has never concerned himself with this subject, if he reads, does so with the view, not of learning something from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader caries in his head.

Ortega y Gasset attributed the increasing numbers of the ignorant public to prosperity, among other things. It’s hard to argue with success. Technology, secondary education, and the emergence of the United States as a global power undermine the idea that average individuals are ill-equipped to decide for themselves. And yet those powerful forces also have demanded that individuals develop specialized expertise that conflicts with broader competence. Sometimes, we must even be content to know what we don’t know, and trust other experts.

In the 1960s, political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the complexity of modern life has steadily whittled away the functions the ordinary citizen can intelligently and competently perform for himself.” In his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter points out with concern that

In the original American populistic dream, the omnicompetence of the common man was fundamental and indispensable. It was believed that he could, without much special preparation, pursue the professions and run the government.

Today, he knows that he cannot even make his breakfast without using devices, more or less mysterious to him, which expertise has put at his disposal; and when he sits down to breakfast and looks at his morning newspaper, he reads about a whole range of issues and acknowledges, if he is candid with himself, that he has not acquired the competence to judge most of them.

This overwhelming complexity of modern life “produced feelings of helplessness and anger among a citizenry that knew itself increasingly to be at the mercy of smarter elites,” writes Nichols. And Hofstadter warns, “What used to be a jocular and usually benign ridicule of intellect and formal training has turned into a malign resentment of the intellectual in his capacity as expert. Once the intellectual was gently ridiculed because he was not needed; now he is fiercely resented because he is needed too much.”

Don’t get me wrong. Reasoned skepticism and disagreement are essential to progress and democracy. The problem is that most of what’s happening isn’t reasoned skepticism. It’s the adult equivalent of a two-year-old throwing a tantrum.

Sometimes experts are wrong and the common citizen is right, but those occasions are few and far between. What’s growing is our inability to distinguish between experts being wrong occasionally and experts being wrong consistently. Participants in public debate search for loopholes and exceptions—anything that provides an excuse to disregard opinions they don’t like.

This sets up binaries and polarities, demanding that things be either true or false. This eliminates nuance. The reality is that most expert opinions are true at least in part, and the real value in disagreement is not dismissing the thing entirely, but taking the time to argue the weak points to make the overall better.

Laypeople would do well to remember that reasoned disagreement is what moves us forward. Not every idea has to be complete and completely defensible right from the beginning. It is because we question and push ideas that we make the progress that we do. Experts would do well to remember that they may be masters of their fields, but they are servants to society. Mastery means nothing without trust and engagement.

It’s intellectual hubris to think that with a few minutes of googling our opinions are on par with people who have spent their lives in a domain. And yet we’ve been taught that we are entitled to our own opinion and that it deserves equal weighting. Sure you hold your own opinion, but it doesn’t deserve equal weighting.

Getting Ahead By Being Inefficient

Inefficient does not mean ineffective, and it is certainly not the same as lazy. You get things done – just not in the most effective way possible. You’re a bit sloppy, and use more energy. But don’t feel bad about it. There is real value in not being the best.

***

Trying to be perfect is a waste of time.

Many of us feel constant pressure to adapt perfectly to our environments, especially our workplaces. Don’t waste time, we’re told. Maximize the output of your moments. Minimize your energy expenditure. If you aren’t getting great, someone else is, so before you collapse into a heap of perceived failure, take stock and improve your efficiency. We assume this is the ticket to success—to continually strive to be the best at whatever we are doing.

There is, however, something to be said for inefficiency: not doing everything perfectly, expending extra energy, making mistakes, trying new things—and possibly sucking at them. Sticking with something, even if you will never be as good as the person next to you. You develop flexibility and adaptability. You’re better prepared for new opportunities when there are changes in your environment.

Inefficient does not mean ineffective, and it is certainly not the same as lazy. You do things. You just don’t always do them in the most effective way possible. You’re a bit sloppy, and use more energy. But don’t feel bad about it. There is real value in not being the best at everything.

Efficiency Makes us Fragile

To understand how inefficiency can help you get ahead, let’s start with a story.

Imagine a tree that grows these tasty, nutritious turquoise berries. A species of bird has adapted to eating them efficiently. It has a beak that gets under the protective berry shell just so, allowing it to consume loads of the ripest berries whenever it wants. Its claws have adapted to the tree’s slippery branches, so it is the only creature in the forest that can perch on them with ease. The tree produces these berries all year round, thanks to a stable climate, so there are tons of them. The bird has evolved for the task of eating these berries, and they provide all the bird’s nutritional needs, so the bird has no incentive to try anything else.

In the forest there also lives a little mammal. Occasionally, the bird drops a berry and this mammal gets a taste of them. It really likes the berries, and tries to get more of them. It can never compete with the bird directly, as the bird is so specialized. But over time, it adapts to the situation. It starts to go after the berries at night, when the bird is asleep and not feeding. Its claws evolve to grip the tree better. Its vision in the dark improves. Being more active at night, it finds tasty grubs to spear with those sharper claws, so it eats them as well. The bird still gets the majority of the berries, but the mammal gets enough to keep the effort worthwhile, supplementing along the way.

Then, one day, a huge environmental change impacts the forest where this is all playing out. It is significant and lasts for a while. The vegetation patterns are disrupted. Food sources change. Who is in the better position to thrive in the new conditions? The environmental changes are a disaster for the bird. They are an opportunity for the mammal.

Why? In part, because the mammal benefits from its own previous inefficiency. Both the bird and the mammal can get the juicy turquoise berries. The bird is significantly more efficient at doing so, which is an advantage in a stable environment. Nothing can compete.

But in times of change, the inefficiency that forced the mammal to supplement the leftovers it could scrounge when the bird was sleeping is an advantage. That inefficiency allowed for the development of other traits that gave it flexibility to adapt to changing environmental circumstances. It became a generalist, with some specialized features like night vision that are broadly useful.

There is a bright side to disruption. Short-term disturbances enable fast-growing species with high metabolic rates and with inert life stages capable of withstanding adverse conditions to capitalize on briefly favorable circumstances, and it is these opportunists that are in the best position to spawn highly competitive dominants in postcrisis ecosystems from which well-adapted incumbents have been eliminated. — Geerat Vermeij, Nature: An Economic History

Total efficiency constrains us. We become super invested in maintaining the status quo because that is where we excel. Innovation is a threat. Change is terrifying. Being perfect at something is dangerous if it’s the only thing you can do.

Perhaps we need to change our idea of what it means to be the best.

Have you ever been to a rock-climbing gym? You can usually pick out the beginners, because climbing quickly exhausts them and they end up using their hands like meat hooks to grasp the holds and pull themselves up the wall. After a bit of time, this changes. They figure out they’ll tire less easily if they use their legs more. So they develop their technique, pushing up with the legs more than pulling up with the arms.

After more time and effort and practice, new climbers can become really good at rock climbing. But no one gets good by using the same holds to climb the same bit of wall. Being really good at rock climbing means trying different techniques in different locations, dealing with weather and pain and the unexpected. It means being adaptable. Being a great rock climber is about adjusting for the environment, and continually seeking out the challenge of foreign rocks and new climbs. A climber who scales El Capitan 20 times will be incredibly efficient at climbing that one rock face—might even become a climbing guide—but will not be able to get up a new mountain with equal speed.

Efficiency is great in an unchanging environment, but to expect an environment to remain static is unrealistic. Environments change all the time. When workplaces value efficiency in a changing environment, they become fragile. Inefficiency, like a genetic mutation, can allow for serendipitous discovery. Sure, it may produce the same mistakes as before, but if the environment is different, they might actually work now.

Don’t be afraid of a challenge. Don’t be afraid of not being the best. When you routinely put yourself in situations where you aren’t the most skilled, you learn, you grow, and eventually, you adapt. You build your repertoire of traits and talents, so when change hits you have a wide array of skills. This flexibility can also give you the confidence to seek change. The mammal could explore and find new opportunities, but that bird was never going to leave the trees.

***

Members of the FS Learning Community can discuss this article on the Forum

Samuel Andrews: The Man With the Billion Dollar Ego

We can learn valuable lessons from the life of Samuel Andrews. Haven’t ever heard of him? There’s a reason. He was John D. Rockefeller’s right-hand man, and stood to become one of the world’s richest men. But then something got in the way. 

***

There is an important lesson to be learned from the story of Samuel Andrews, as told by biographer Ron Chernow in Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller.

John D. Rockefeller learned to clean oil from Sam Andrews. Andrews was the ideal partner for Rockefeller. While he lacked business sense, he had mechanical knowledge that Rockefeller didn’t. The quality of kerosene that Andrews was able to produce, and the efficiency of his process, rendered him indispensable—until something got into the way. But before we get to that, a bit of history.

It was Rockefeller himself who propositioned Andrews to go into business in the first place.

“Sam,” he said, “we are prospering. We have a future before us, a big future. But I don’t like Jim Clark and his habits. He is an immoral man in more ways than one. He gambles in oil. I don’t want this business to be associated with a gambler. Suppose I take them up the next time they threaten a dissolution. Suppose I succeed in buying them out. Will you come in with me?”

Andrews agreed and they shook hands on the deal.

Only a few weeks later Rockefeller quarreled with Clark. “If that’s the way you want to do business we’d better dissolve, and let you run your own affairs to suit yourself,” Clark warned.  Rockefeller moved swiftly.

Rockefeller met with his partners and stated publicly that he wished to dissolve the partnership. The two sides walked away after the meeting with contrasting feelings. The Clarks imagined they had cowed the young whippersnapper, while Rockefeller raced to the office of the Cleveland Leader to place a notice dissolving the partnership.

The next morning the Clarks were stunned to see the notice. The Clarks failed to realize that Rockefeller had Andrews on his side. As per the partnership agreement, the business went up for auction.

Ron Chernow describes the situation thus:

Even as a young man, Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis. In this respect, he was a natural leader: the more agitated others became, the calmer he grew. It was an index of his matchless confidence that when the auction occurred, the Clarks brought a lawyer while Rockefeller represented himself. “I thought that I could take care of so simple a transaction,” he boasted. With the Clarks’ lawyer acting as auctioneer, the bidding began at $500 and quickly rose to a few thousand dollars, then inched up slowly to about $50,000—already more than Rockefeller thought the refining business worth.

Since this was such a critical and defining moment in Rockefeller’s career, we can read his own words:

Finally it advanced to $60,000, and by slow stages to $70,000, and I almost feared for my ability to buy the business and have the money to pay for it. At last the other side bid $72,000. Without hesitation I said $72,500. Mr. Clark then said: “I’ll go no higher, John; the business is yours.” “Shall I give you a check for it now?” I suggested. “No,” Mr. Clark said, “I’m glad to trust you for it; settle at your convenience.”

At age 25 he and Sam Andrews controlled Cleveland’s largest refinery. No sooner had the ink dried than they took up a metagame strategy, one of rapid expansion, that he knew was diametrically opposed to how the Clarks would likely respond.

Refinery after refinery came under their control. From the start, Rockefeller used his business sense and relied on Sam Andrews for technical advice. Rockefeller held Andrews in esteem until Ambrose McGregor was named superintendent of the Standard Oil refineries in Cleveland. McGregor demonstrated superior ability. Andrews was shown to be less capable. His ego took a beating.

One day in 1878, Andrews snapped at Rockefeller, “I wish I was out of this business.”

Rockefeller remained calm and called his bluff, replying, “Sam, you don’t seem to have faith in the way this company is operating. What will you take for your holdings?”

“I will take one million dollars,” Andrews shot back.

“Let me have an option on it for twenty-four hours,” said Rockefeller, “and we will discuss it tomorrow.”

“Samuel Andrews was taken into the business as a poor workingman with little or nothing in the early stages when it was difficult to find men to cleanse the oil. … He had too much conceit, too much bull-headed English obstinacy and so little self-control. Was his own worst enemy.”

The next morning when Andrews arrived, Rockefeller had a check made out for one million dollars.

While he appeared confident, Rockefeller was petrified at the thought of Andrew’s holdings hitting the open market and depressing the stock. Andrews thought he had bested Rockefeller. However, when Rockefeller sold the shares to William H. Vanderbilt for a quick $300,000 profit, Andrews changed his mind, voicing his displeasure to Rockefeller.

Rockefeller, feeling some sense of loyalty to the man who had helped him build and empire and quickly fallen out of favor, offered back the stock for the same price at which he had sold it.

Feeling slighted, his ego bruised, Andrews spurned the offer. This decision kept him from becoming one of America’s richest men. The very same stock would have been worth $900 million by the early 1930s.

Later Rockefeller would say of Andrews, “He was ignorant, conceited, lost his head…governed by the same wicked sort of prejudice accompanying the egotism so characteristic of that type of ignorant Englishman.”

There is a little Sam Andrews in all of us. The lesson to walk away with is that temperament matters. A lot.

The ability to keep your head when others are losing theirs is a superpower. The world doesn’t always work the way you want to it. People will slight you. You’ll get fired. You’ll make mistakes. People who are smarter than you will compete for your job. And how you respond to all of this will make all the difference.

Rockefeller gained an advantage by keeping his head while others lost theirs. In fact, the higher the stakes, the cooler he was said to become. Andrews, on the other hand, couldn’t keep his head. As a result, a blow to his ego prevented him from being one of the richest men in the world.

Footnotes
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    Source: Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2007