To Build a Top-Performing Team, Keep Your Stars Happy and Your Bench Inspired

A patient, systematic program to improve your underperformers is the quickest and least expensive way to improve company results.

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By Dave Mattson

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

With the NFL season now upon us, and our hopes high that our favorite team will be Super Bowl bound come early next year, it's worth reminding ourselves that the most important part of determining how successful our team will be is by looking at who we currently have playing for us.

As much as anything, wins are a byproduct of the collection of players brought to training camp each year. The GMs who did the best job during the off-season of identifying their team's previous weaknesses, then plugging those holes, are those with the best chances to make it to the big game in Phoenix next February.

Related: How to Motivate Employees in Less Than 5 Minutes

The same paradigm is true, of course, for the company you're building. Your staffing decisions have a significant impact on the success of your enterprise. Making those decisions requires a process that provides both an objective assessment of both your current team and its needs, and gives you the tools for making the best hires moving forward.

It seems counterintuitive but the process should not start with sizing up your current staff. Before evaluating the players on your roster, first determine the must-have roles that will make your organization run smoothly. Create a matrix of the positions you need to ensure success, and then list the skill sets and behaviors each position requires. To help picture an ideal staff member in each of the identified roles, consider using what we at Sandler Training call the SEARCH process:

  • Skills – Identify the skills needed to be a top performer.
  • Experience – Determine the level of experience that the job requires.
  • Attitude – Understand how important is a positive, focused and resilient attitude and, conversely, how a poor attitude can impede what you are building.
  • Results – Quantify what success looks like for each member of the team.
  • Cognitive skills – Settle on the kinds of cognitive skills – memory, logic, reasoning – that are necessary for the position.
  • Habits – Uncover the kinds of work habits that top performers possess so that they can be replicated by others.

You are in a better position to measure your current staff against the ideal once you have a clear idea what a productive performer looks like. (In many ways, this exercise is easier for startups where there are no incumbents around to skew your objectivity.) Assess your bench honestly and dispassionately, putting aside your personal feelings for each person. Sure, everyone in the office likes Bob, but how is he performing? Has it been going up or down? Does he have the skills to do more, to develop into a future leader? Most importantly, how does he stack up against the SEARCH model?

Related: How Well Are Managers Really Evaluating Their Employees? (Infographic)

This gap analysis identifies gaps that exist between what you have and what is needed. If you believe that a current member of your team does not measure up (and there are assessment tools to help you make that determination), first figure out what training they may need. Because you have made a significant investment in each one of your hires (the average hire in a sales position typically costs a company between $150,000 and $350,000), it's critical that you give them the best chance to succeed and reach their full potential.

To do so, create a training playbook based on the skills and habits of your top producers. Ask your most productive team members to take a step back and look at what they are doing so you can identify behaviors for your underperformers to replicate and build on. From there, set up benchmarks for what success looks like. For example, in six months, they should have accomplished X, Y and Z.

Training playbooks and career paths are important management tools for teams and companies of all sizes. Assessing your current team also means evaluating their potential for growth within the company. What skills do they need to help them progress with their careers? They may be happy in their current position as an account manager but still should know both what skills and attributes they need to excel at their current job and those that might lead them to vice president.

Because you have used the SEARCH model to identify what you are looking for in that vice president, you have, in effect, created a defined career path for everyone to succeed. Preparing your employees for their next job goes a long way toward strengthening your bench.

In professional sports, the most successful general managers are those with the best eye for talent, who employ that talent to optimize the performance of the entire team and who provide players with the opportunity to reach their full potential. Putting the best team on the field starts with putting the best team on the bench. The Oakland Athletics' Billy Beane proved that science and strategy was a better way to construct a team compared to relying on your gut and intuition. The same holds true for attracting and growing talent in the business world.

Related: 7 Ways to Pump Up Employee Engagement In Your Office

Dave Mattson

CEO and President

Dave Mattson is the CEO and president of Sandler Training, a global training organization with more than three decades of experience in providing training to companies of all sizes throughout the world.

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