CARLY: Build a Team with Room to Grow

by Carly Fiorina

Building a team is hard. Building a team of the right people sometimes feels impossible.

Even when we understand how important people are to the success of our business, we struggle to identify the right people, bring them in the door, and retain them.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on my podcast, By Example, last week and he said something very important about identifying the right people. He said that when he looks for the people he wants to succeed him, he looks for someone with a mission bigger than themselves – and someone who has demonstrated growth in their jobs over time.

I think both of those qualities are important – but simply understanding the characteristics you need on your team isn’t sufficient. How do you screen for them? How do you build a culture that cultivates them in your current employees?

To identify and inculcate mission-driven leaders, you need to ask questions that invite prospective or current employees to explore what is important to them. Encourage them to think about the broader impact of their work by considering the people who are affected by it. How have those clients, customers, or stakeholders been affected? How is the world different because of their work? For prospective employees, how do they want the world (or their community) to look and feel different?

For people that are already on your team, create space to explore these questions and allow employees to devote real energy to the pieces of their work that drive the most impact. Everyone’s mission may look a little different – and that’s okay. As long as they continued to feel connected to a “mission bigger than themselves,” they will bring energy and excitement.

To understand and encourage growth, you have to tolerate failure. Innovation requires risk-taking, which often requires mistake-making. When talking to prospective hires, be transparent about what you’re looking for – and give them an opportunity to explain their experiences with growth and failure. Where have they tried new things that worked out? What about the places where it didn’t? What would they like to try if they were given the resources and the space? What about your organization would they like to change?

Admittedly, it’s tougher to actually implement this in your own organization, when it’s not a hypothetical. As managers, we often feel like we can’t tolerate failure or mistakes. We have people to above us who are holding us responsible; we have metrics, goals, and targets we have to meet; our names and reputations are on the line. But the reality is – if we want to encourage innovation and growth, we have to allow the people who work for and with us to make mistakes. Innovation isn’t a game in which there is a clear, right answer.

For those who are rightfully nervous, start small. Encourage your teams to run new ideas by you. Give them the tools and resources to estimate the cost of making a mistake. Together, determine where you can bear that cost – and where you can’t. Invite them into the process instead of simply dictating to them where they can and can’t experiment. Over time, they will come to understand how to appropriately gauge risk and they’ll get smarter about risk-taking. You’ll get more comfortable with mistake-making. Most importantly, you’ll both grow – and your broader team will come to understand how important that value is.

Building a team is hard – and part of being a leader is being clear-eyed about those difficulties. You can’t ignore them or pretend they don’t exist. But you also have to be optimistic that it can be done – and that requires building a strategy and a process that allows you to identify, recruit, and retain talent that is mission-driven and growth-oriented.

Taylor Enders