August 03, 2021

#4: Right People, Right Seats, No Exceptions

Written by Dan Bradley

The last entry to The Team Room talked about the Pareto Principle – the idea that 80% of outcomes come from just 20% of inputs. In the context of small teams, it’s the terrifying concept that just one or two employees drive the vast majority of your team’s productivity and that those employees know they are the “talent” on a relatively untalented team. Let’s firm up three things about the Pareto Principle:

  1. Teams that fall victim to this principle are, by definition, low-talent.
  2. Teams that are low-talent don’t win.
  3. A great leader can transform their team and escape the Pareto Principle.

Yes, it is possible to eradicate the Pareto Principle in small teams everywhere, and all it takes is thorough accountability. That accountability starts with the leader, and their first step to correcting this issue is making sure that the “right people” are in the “right seats,” with no exceptions.

The challenging part about “right people” is that the right person for my small team probably isn’t the right person for your small team. A few weeks ago, I hosted a conversation with Mike Sarraille and Bob Pragada (President and COO of Jacobs Engineering). We talked about establishing a company’s culture and using that culture as a driver for attracting, retaining, and growing talent. One of the tricky things about culture is that it varies by industry, company, and even by teams within companies. In my experience, there are three ways to miss on culture as it relates to talent:

  1. Your team doesn’t have a strong culture, so you don’t know what attributes you are looking for in your team’s talent.
  2. Your team has a strong culture but doesn’t recruit or retain based on an employee’s alignment with that culture.
  3. Your team has a strong culture, but it doesn’t align with your organization’s culture.

In the three cases above, the onus for failure falls on team members precisely zero times – it is all on the team’s leader. Suppose the leader isn’t actively building and maintaining a culture, recruiting and retaining based on that culture, or is perpetuating a culture that conflicts with the organization’s overall culture. In that case, there is no clear path to success from a talent perspective.

The concept of “right seats” can’t be assessed until the goal of having the “right people” has been effectively accomplished. Many organizations conflate the very different concepts of “right people” and “right seats,” believing that employees with the requisite skills for their role are both the “right people” and in the “right seats” – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Right people” measures an individual’s ethos, values, and principles aligning with the organization’s. “Right seats” is a measure of an individual’s talent, skill, drive, and capacity required to perform the tasks of the role they are in. From a leadership perspective, having the “wrong person” in the “right seat” is magnitudes worse than having the “right person” in the “wrong seat.”

With all this in mind, there is a balance. When we say, “Hire for talent and values, train for skill,” we propose a two-part process. Certain skill gates must be met initially, of course – you aren’t going to hire someone with a sales background to be an engineer just because their values align with your team’s values. Still, even when you have the “right person” with the necessary attributes and basic skills, you have to provide them the training, mentorship, and tools required to succeed in their “right seat.”

In terms of small teams, you have very little (if any) room for error with putting the “right people” in the “right seats.” As a small team leader, you should only have between five and nine seats to fill. Each team member must be the right person in the right seat if that team will be successful. With small groups, redundancy is difficult to achieve. Even just one or two “wrong people” (or “right people” in the “wrong seat”) is highly detrimental to the team’s performance. What’s worse, if the “right people” in the “right seats” see that the majority of the group is either “wrong people” or in the “wrong seats,” they aren’t going to be in their seat for extended – no matter how “right” they may be for you.

A single person is responsible for their team’s outcome, and that is their leader – YOU. Your responsibility is to maintain the balance of your team’s culture and ensure that the “right people” are in the “right seats” at every level of your group and your organization.

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This article is also available on Medium.

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After graduating from the Air Force Academy, Dan served for over five years as an officer in the elite Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) community. He served both as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) and as a Task Force Advisor on a 2018 deployment in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. His expertise in selecting, developing, and leading effective small teams stems from his experiences as an Air Force Special Warfare Officer, both in training and in combat.
Dan partnered with the Talent War Group (formerly EF Overwatch) in 2019 and now works as the Director of Sales for Kahn Mechanical Contractors in Dallas, Texas. Dan holds a Master of Arts degree in Strategic Leadership from Saint Bonaventure University. He is passionate about mental health advocacy for the veteran community.

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