It’s long been a truism in sports that the best team in the league can beat a team of
all-stars handily. The reason given is that the league champion has practiced and played together innumerable times compared to an all star team. But the review of the book Astroball in The Wall Street Journal makes clear that there’s another critical element to winning teams. While Ben Reiter’s Astroball may seem to be about team sports, which it certainly is, many of its insights apply equally well to startup teams. Note his sub-title: The New Way to Win It All.
The VC mantra back when I was building companies was hire the best person in the world for the job. However, it’s become clear since the late 1990s that’s not the best way to build a winning team in business. The savviest CEOs and founders hire for company fit as well as individual talent.Just as startups all seek the elusive product-market fit, a startup team needs to work together effectively. There’s no room for prima donnas, or to use the startup tech term, no room for assholes. But whether you follow the old style of trying to hire the best individual for their position or today’s model of hiring the individuals who will not only make sterling individual contributions but who also fits the company culture, there is still a missing element.
Here’s the money quote from the Journal review of Astroball:
This roster-creation, all by itself, did not bring home the championship. Building an exceptional team is one thing, but making it work as a team is another. “Fault lines” exist in all complex organizations—including baseball teams. If these lines can be bridged or eradicated, a team is likely to win more ball games. To use another bit of old-fashioned terminology, a team needs chemistry.
So where does chemistry come from? In the case of the Astros it came when they signed veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran, who immediately took on the role of chief chemist. In addition to creating a postgame ceremony that awarded prizes for excellence in the field coupled with a fine system for those who failed to attend, he had a strong desire to close the gap between English and Spanish speakers on the Astros team.
Your chief chemist may well be a founder, or might be your CEO. But in the case of Course Technology, the educational publishing company I co-founded in 1989, our chief chemist was Howard Diamond, the fireball VP of Marketing and Sales who galvanized the company though his then unique sales team model. Like other publishers Howard established geographic territories for each team. But unlike any other sales team, Howard’s team was made up of three people: an inside sales rep, a field sales rep, and a customer service rep. The three of them shared in the yearly bonus based on the performance of their team. These teams became self-managing for excellence. We quickly found that Howard’s teams easily beat out the old-fashioned teams of competitors where every sales person was in it for only for themselves and customer support was relegated to a backroom, somewhere, some place.
So when you are building your team if you or your co-founder is that chemist who can close gaps, whether between English and Spanish speakers or between sales and customer support, you are all set. But if not, start looking for that chemist, almost always a veteran who has been proven to not just close gaps in the company but to erase them completely.
All star teams in sports lack chemistry. Don’t model your team after the Washington Redskins where owner Dan Synder has never learned the lesson that you can’t buy your way to a championship. Not only do you need to hire for company fit, you need the secret sauce, and that sauce is leadership.