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Don’t just hire the brilliant exec: how to build your executive team

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I worked most of my career for a Fortune 500 life insurance company that was well over a century old. 

By the nature of its business, that company was necessarily conservative and risk-averse. Overall, the general attributes of executives I knew who succeeded there tended to be thoughtful, moderate, careful decision makers who were collaborative in spirit. When someone strayed too far from this mold (let’s say more of a hard-driving, big-risk-taking, start-up type), they tended not to fit as well over the long term.  

Success in the culture had little to do with raw intelligence; there were brilliant people who were key players for decades, and there were brilliant people who didn’t last a year. At the end of the day, it wasn’t only about intelligence—it was about strategic and behavioral fit

Executive team meeting

What great team builders do differently

Over the course of our careers many of us have seen executives who regularly build strong, cohesive teams. Meanwhile, others struggle with teams that more closely resemble a herd of unruly cats. 

How do good team builders do it? Is it luck—or is it something else?

While everyone has their own favorite tactics, my own observation is that good team builders tend to be data collectors

Over time, they’ve collected data on what works and what doesn’t work for them. They identify their organizational strategy and the kind of behavioral makeup that’s compatible with that strategy. 

Then, when it comes to hiring a new exec, they know what to look for. While experience and education might be nice, what they’re really looking for is “Are you a fit for this organizational strategy? Can you model the behaviors required for us to successfully execute this strategy?” And then they collect data points to determine the right fit. 

If you know what data boxes to check, you have a considerably better chance of succeeding than if you simply choose a highly talented individual without regard to how that individual will actually fit in at your company. 

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How to build the right executive team

Given this context, what specific steps can you take to ensure your executive team will be cohesive and successful?

While there are no guarantees, there are broad data points to consider that can prove helpful when building your executive team.

Look at tangible, verifiable accomplishments.

It’s always valuable to see prior work a candidate has done that’s strategically aligned with the needs of your organization. For example, perhaps they implemented a process that streamlined work and increased efficiencies. If that’s an activity your business strategy requires, that experience would be a great data point.

Be sure to look for specific, tangible accomplishments that can be verified.

Seek cultural fit.

Cultural fit can be hard to define, but it’s a critical piece of the puzzle. Consider how each puzzle piece has a different shape but they all come together to create the whole. That’s kind of what cultural fit is like. Not everyone will think, work, and act the same but they all come together to complete the puzzle—or execute the business strategy.

Use objective people data to identify candidates who are solidly in sync with your organization’s traditions and needs—rather than be wooed by a candidate’s charm, charisma, or force of personality.

Hire from within.

Quite often, suitable candidates already work for you. When opening an executive position, consider who in your organization may be a good candidate for the role. 

Even if the inside candidate isn’t quite there yet but has the clear potential to “grow into” the role, an internal hire can reduce risk. In such an instance, you’ve probably had months or years—rather than hours—to observe an individual’s performance, as well as proven strategic alignment and fit within the culture. 

As you would with an external hire, be sure to consider if the internal candidate is a good behavioral match for the role they’re moving into. For example, if you’re promoting someone to direct your operations team, you’ll likely want to ensure they’re not only equipped to lead, but can take a data-driven approach to optimizing process and increasing efficiencies.

Building a strong executive team can be a tricky road—which is why reliable data is a friend that can help you navigate it. 

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Victor Lipman is a management trainer and author. His online courses on Udemy include The Manager’s Mindset and his book is “The Type B Manager.” He has more than 20 years of Fortune 500 management experience. He has contributed regularly to Forbes and Psychology Today, and his work has appeared in Harvard Business Review.

Victor is a management author and speaker.

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