Grow your team by focusing on strengths not weaknesses

Main illustration: Kim Salt

Getting the maximum impact from everyone on your team, and growing their potential for impact over time, is perhaps the most important thing a manager can do, but it can also be one of the hardest. Here’s a simple way you can do that.

There are many reasons why your team may not be fulfilling their potential. Maybe you’ve got some new hires who haven’t upskilled yet? Maybe they are overworked or working on the wrong things? For the purposes of this post, let’s assume your team is composed of a bunch of happy people, who have been successfully onboarded and are fully bought into you and the company.

As you observe this team’s performance over time, you’re probably going to have a lot of data on where people are not performing well. Common management wisdom tells you your next step should be to encourage people to work on their weaker areas. In fact, this is more likely to encourage your team towards mediocrity than high performance. When you evaluate individual performance in the context of your whole team, it makes much more sense to encourage people to get even stronger in areas of existing strength.

Categorise the most important traits

Before jumping into performance management of any kind, it’s worth understanding the traits you consider important to your team. We run quarterly performance reviews, so I spend some significant time looking at how my team are doing and thinking about where I’d like to encourage them to grow. I find it helpful to first define four traits that I’d like to measure and optimise for: leadership, expert execution, strategy and planning and cultural alignment.

These categories map roughly onto the traits I think you need to build and run a successful engineering team, but they are abstract enough to apply to any team in your company.

  • To ensure the team and the individuals on the team are solving the right problems, and to call out when we are not, leadership is required.
  • To ensure solutions to these problems can be built in a high quality and timely fashion you’re going to need expert execution.
  • To keep expert execution in check with direction, to measure progress, manage new information and changing requirements, you’re going to need strategy and planning.
  • Lastly, you’ll need to do all of these things in a way that is culturally aligned with the values of your organisation.

If you’ve got all of these in some measure on your team then you’re in great shape.

Start by amplifying strength

Once you’re satisfied you have sufficient data to assess the performance of your team, seek to double down on the strengths of each individual team member.

By way of example, let’s first take Lucy’s performance assessment.

Lucy is clearly doing well on the leadership side and the strategy and planning side, and it’s reasonable to conclude she has work to do on expert execution and cultural alignment. A logical next step would be to set her up with some goals on her weaker areas in the next performance cycle. However, Lucy’s true value to the team can only be understood in the context of the full team.

As it turns out, Lucy is actually your team’s strongest leader, strategist and planner. However, she’s still not as strong on these areas as she could be and to build a truly high-performing team, you need Lucy to excel at her strongest skills.

If you draw an enclosing line from each maximum point in the diagram, you get the convex hull of strength of your team. Choices that increase the area inside this box are the ones that are increasing the capacity of your team. Other choices may not be as effective.

In practical terms, I would favor increasing Joshua’s expert execution skills over improving his leadership skills. Lucy is already a strong leader and with a little encouragement will become an even stronger one who will significantly increase the overall strength of the team. Asking her to improve on expert execution wouldn’t have the same impact as it’s being well covered many times over elsewhere on the team.

Apart from improving the overall strength of your team, there are some other nice side effects of this approach. In most cases, people are strong at what they are drawn towards naturally. Encouraging people to be exponentially better at what they are exceptional at is an easy sell. They are likely to embrace it and therefore are more likely to succeed at it.

It also sends a positive message to your team. You’re accepting that this person may not be strong in some area, and that is perfectly ok. This sounds trivial but is actually quite powerful, particularly when you are direct and honest with the person you’re coaching. Some of your team have been through performance reviews that have encouraged them to address weaknesses first and will embrace this more empowering slant. By encouraging strength in one area, you can either ignore the weaker areas completely, or you can make it clear that ignoring that area is a wise choice. It very much depends on the person, but I’ve seen both approaches work.

Paying your strength tax

I’ve painted a fairly rosy picture thus far, but in reality there’s some cost that you need to pay when you amplify strength first. Shifting the focus of your team away from their weaknesses is tricky as there’s going to be a minimum bar you’ll want to set in each particular category.

The stereotypical example of this in engineering is the expert executor that is completely culturally misaligned. In the example below Peter and Joshua are below “table stakes” for leadership. Anyone operating on your team below table stakes on any particular skills will be costly for you and your team. Peter and Joshua may encounter situations where some dose of leadership is necessary and Lucy, as a strong leader, may not appreciate the lack of this trait in others.

At this point you need to decide if you’re willing to pay the tax on this imbalance. In Joshua’s case he is bastion of your company culture and is really strong on strategy and planning. I might be willing to pay the tax and ask him to get even better on these things as a fallback for Lucy. Peter’s not making as strong a case, as he is not a stand-out performer in any of the categories and you, or his teammates, may be less tolerant of him being weak on leadership.

In this example you might want to pull him up to table stakes, but no further. Don’t push him towards leading the team per se and instead encourage him to spend most of his energy on getting exceptionally good on expert execution.

The real world is mostly more complex and messy than a worked model. There are many arguments to be made that the traits I’ve picked out cannot be improved in isolation from each other. In concrete terms, a lack of leadership might hold Joshua back from being an all out expert executor. This is probably true and these things will always require good judgement.

But as a general rule of thumb, when thinking about growing your team, try to:

  • Understand what traits are important.
  • Seek out and amplify strength, first and foremost.
  • Have a budget for tolerating lack-of-strength in some areas.
  • Pay your strength taxes from that budget and with a smile.

Follow a few of the above steps and you’ll build a healthy, happy team that is performing to their full potential.

If you’re excited by what and how we’re building at Intercom, we’d love to chat about roles we have open. We’re hiring across all of our teams!