You’ve just walked out of your boss’s office after a talent review session. At the end of the meeting, you received a clear message: although your organization is performing well, your boss believes you have a “B team” with no clear successor to your position — and you’re expected to do something about it. But what isn’t immediately clear.
Most managers know how to manage and coach individual B players, solid performers unlikely to rise within the organization. However, dealing with a team composed of all B players is one of the most problematic tasks a manager can face. The challenges stem from the fact that B players are blocking key developmental positions, that is, those most useful in developing the skills and experience of a successor or other upwardly-mobile staff. And teams of people who stay in the same job for a long period of time tend to become static, as their members become comfortable with the status quo and less open to change and new ways of doing business. What makes the B team phenomenon so difficult to address is that you’re dealing with a group of sound performers who are experienced, often committed to the best interests of the company, and, in the case of technical experts, difficult to replace. As a result, many managers are reluctant to take steps to deal with the situation. So, with your boss’s admonition ringing in your ears, how can you upgrade your team and still be fair to your people, many of whom are loyal performers?
The short answer is that ultimately you’ll need to free up some positions on your staff in order to bring in new blood from the outside or promote high-potential talent from within. As a starting point, I suggest that you define the mix of skills and experience someone would need to take your place and lead your organization into the future. Years ago, I worked with a senior executive who told me — quite honestly, I believe — that his most important responsibility was developing someone who could do his job better than he could. Not as well. Better. Behind his comment lay the notion that as the company grew, jobs became more complex and new skills sets were required. Depending on your role and the company’s strategic priorities, that might include global experience, driving innovation, or making and integrating acquisitions.
Next, identify the positions in your organization that have the greatest developmental “pop” — the ones most useful in developing the skills and range of perspective your successor will need. These are the jobs you’ll need to open up since they are critical training grounds for your job. By contrast in most organizations there are positions that require deep technical expertise or place a premium on the execution of established strategies. Having a B player makes sense in such assignments, as, for example, lead actuary in an insurance business or head of a large shared services group.
Once you have identified these critical developmental positions, work with the incumbents in those jobs to help them find other assignments within the company where they can contribute and add value in new ways. This can be challenging but is not impossible. For example, I have seen long-tenured people rotate from a staff role at headquarters to a field office or into the company’s charitable foundation. Also, consider whether any of your supposed B players is a diamond in the rough who’s been mis-categorized — someone who with coaching and the right set of experiences could emerge as an A player and possible successor.
Some managers fall into the trap of playing the hand they were dealt — that is, working exclusively to develop the people they inherited when taking over a new team. It’s a serious trap I’ve seen even very senior executives fall into. In some conservative organizations it’s the path of least resistance for managers if bringing in people from the outside is viewed as controversial and upsetting to existing staff. Over time such managers lose perspective on how their team members compare to talent available in the marketplace.
The remedy is straightforward but requires both time and effort. To counteract this tendency, devote time to getting to know people outside your organization by working with a recruiter or joining a professional or industry group, both to find new talent and calibrate your current team members’ talents. By meeting people outside the company, you’ll expand your frame of reference, and often you’ll begin to view your existing staff through a new lens — and be less willing to accept performance or behavioral deficiencies that seemed acceptable in the past.
Turning a B team into a high-performing group with the requisite mix of A and B players — including at least one potential successor — demands time, finesse, and the willingness to have sometimes uncomfortable conversations with people, some of whom have been loyal lieutenants.
The major variable you control is time, so if you’re leading a B team, the time to start addressing the situation is now
By : John Beeson – HBR Blog Network