Teams: Chemistry, Passion and Grit

Getting team chemistry right is essential to high performance. But that’s not news, so let’s get to the hard part. How can you tell if someone will make a good team member? The explosion of big data and analytical tools has not yet produced much good insight on how to staff and manage high-performance teams.

The U.S. military, [however], uses training and testing to find out pretty quickly how a person fits in. The military, and especially the Special Forces, [created] training exercises that mimic the extreme conditions of an operating theater. For example, Bill Owens—a retired Navy admiral and former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs—told me that one of the last things they do in Navy SEAL Team 6 training is to fly over a body of water at jet altitude, nearly thirty thousand feet, and have candidates throw their inflatable rafts out the door. Then they jump out of the plane, pull the parachute, and, in the dark water, assemble all the pieces they need to get ashore and accomplish their mission. It may seem extreme, but that’s the way it really works when stuff hits the fan.

But in the corporate world, we can’t ask prospective employ­ees to jump out of a plane, right? Well, maybe some people can, but most of us still need to resort to other techniques. From my interviews and discussions, I discovered a few things you should look for in a team member.

Eric Edgecumbe, chief operating officer at Specialized Bicycles, a global leader in high-end bicycles and bike gear, looks for commitment and a background in team sports. “To me, it’s that selfless committing to the goal of the team. When I inter­view people I always ask them, ‘Did you play any team sports in high school or college?’ Tell me what you liked about being on a team; what you didn’t like about being on a team.”

Mike Sinyard, the founder of Specialized, believes you’ve got to passionately love your product. So you can’t work at Specialized unless you love biking. Period. Specialized employees told me that Sinyard watches to see who does lunchtime group rides. You don’t have to be a great cyclist, but you do have to love bikes. He doesn’t just say that: he absolutely believes it.

“There’s love, and then there’s love,” as Tony Fadell, of Nest Labs, remarked.

Fadell himself actually quizzes people on their passion: “One of the questions I ask when people come in is, ‘When did you find your passion for the thing you do every day?’ And for me, most of my best hires figured it out when they were in first, second, third, or fourth grade. They had some great story about how they found what they loved to do, and they just continued to learn about it.”

In forming teams, you want people who are passionate. Those are the ones who will spend all the extra hours on a project; who will think about that problem or product on the weekends, in the shower, wherever they go. Every great invention, every signifi­cant advance in human history began with passion. A passion to contrib­ute or discover something new. It might even be a revolutionary passion to kick an old, dysfunctional industry into the grave.

What is your passion?

How did you find your passion?

When did you find your passion?

Those are the questions you need to ask people when putting together a high-performance team. With a team full of passion, you can accomplish nearly anything. Without it, your team is likely to be a gaggle of clock-punching automatons.

But it doesn’t just end with passion. In choosing team members, many of the leaders I spoke with brought up an old-fashioned trait—grit. Grit is the ability to overcome adversity. Robert Egger, chief designer at Specialized Bicycles, said: “I want a kid that’s had it a little bit rough. I don’t want the kid who says, ‘Well, you know, my parents sent me to boarding school and then I went to Stanford where I read about your company.’” Similarly, Northwestern Mutual’s Jennifer Brase told me: “People who do well at Northwestern have had to overcome something that has been extremely difficult. Sometimes I think to myself, wow, I’m not sure I could have overcome that.”

Team orientation, passion, grit: those are the attributes of great team members. Passion and grit often count more than an off-the-charts IQ or an impressive degree when putting together a team. If you keep these factors in mind, you’ll get the right people in the right place. But how do you push those chosen few to a higher level of performance?


Cultivate the Gifts of High Expectations

One common trait I found among all these enduringly success­ful organizations was a demanding culture. This type of culture is built on a clear expectation of high performance, one of con­stant growth and improvement. But it’s an expectation that’s also built on optimism about human capability. Yes, we’ll ask a lot of you. We do so because we really do believe you can be better and achieve bigger things. Todd Schoon, executive vice president of Northwestern Mutual and manager of the firm’s field rep force, referred to it as “the gift of high expectations.”

These types of high expectations serve a number of purposes. They’re a reference point for giving meaning to behaviors and actions. They motivate team members because they require more effort and have a much bigger return than vague or eas­ily met goals.

A big part of creating this atmosphere of achievement is being directive: demanding it. Let team members know your expectations. Don’t screw around. Don’t be a passive-aggressive wimp about it. Don’t be afraid to drive people, cajole them, and push them to find that last 1 percent of team performance.

But do it with love.

As Tony Fadell reminded me, the true soft skill in raising team performance is being able to simultaneously drive and reas­sure your team members. “I’ve said this before,” Fadell told me. “I said ‘If you’re not slightly scared or slightly worried, you’re not pushing hard enough.’”

Ask big. Push hard. Fight complacency. Then use love and reassurance to get the balance right. A chronically scared team won’t produce the best results. You want a slightly scared team—bold enough to stretch but scared just enough to remain alert.

Don’t underestimate the power of reassurance. It is based on the genuine belief that good things—whether a new client, a groundbreaking product, or a championship—will come from working hard and following a system. This kind of real-world optimism is more than hope: it’s the ability to approach your task as an opportunity. It’s letting your team know that if they stay positive but alert and a touch paranoid—just a touch!—they’ll have a shot at achieving something bigger and better.


Rich Karlgaardis the publisher of Forbesmagazine and author of its “Innovation Rules” column. He co-founded Upsidemagazine,, and Silicon Valley’s premier business forum, Churchill Club. Karlgaard is also regional winner of Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award.

Reprinted with permission from The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success by Rich Karlgaard © 2014 Rich Karlgaard (Jossey-Bass,

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