The red flags in your team

An excerpt from Dr Dana Sinclair’s new book, ‘Dialed In: Do Your Best When It Matters Most’

Founding Fuel

(Editor's Note: This book features in D Shivakumar's 'My 6 best business books of summer 2024')

Less talent, more character 

Building a successful business or team is a lot easier when you have the right people. Those who can add significantly to the performance of your group are key ingredients to quality results. Interestingly, avoiding a red flag may be even more important than finding people with skill and talent. 

While many people mature with experience and age, red flags tend to struggle more in their approach to life. These individuals are much more likely to behave in thoughtless, inconsiderate ways. They are generally self-serving, can act impulsively, or disregard rules for their own satisfaction. They are emotional and ready to complain. They tend to tolerate lower standards for themselves and others, enjoy rebelling, and avoid being socially responsible. They can try to make a conscious effort to think through their actions or try to avoid doing things just for their own gain, but such efforts are not reliable over the long haul.

A senior publishing executive told me about his “character rule” when signing potential authors to book deals. He had just met with a high-profile business leader who would surely land on the bestseller list. The problem was that the publisher left the meeting feeling strongly that this corporate boss would be his usual arrogant and condescending self when working alongside the publisher’s high-level team of editors and public relations and marketing specialists. Even though this future author was only, say, half a red flag, the publisher was unwilling to expose his people to morale-busting treatment. 

Tough decisions like that take courage and integrity. If you can avoid difficult people in the selection process, you should do so, as no amount of sensitivity training is going to change the core of a red flag individual. If you recognize a red flag in your organization and see that they are disrupting your group unnecessarily, strongly consider terminating them. Let them go with care of course, but sooner rather than later.

Many businesses fail to be accountable for their red flags. It is easier to ignore them and hope for the best, especially if you are excited by the opportunity to bring in a rainmaker or a super talent. But red flags put an organization’s long-term viability at risk. No organization can absorb a red flag without consequence. Those that do it better have exercised strong leadership and a willingness to discipline those who step beyond the organization’s core vision and values. Even so, they eventually lose good people or gain a reputation as a problematic or noxious place to work.

It’s not so difficult to avoid a bad situation if you do your due diligence up front. When hiring, check the candidate’s references, and ask specifically about character and personality. Investigate: Were there any issues? Any confrontations of note? I say “of note” because, let’s face it, some confrontations are appropriate and necessary. For instance, if you feel there has been a mistake in your performance review or something is being said about you that isn’t true, why wouldn’t you confront the situation to make it right? Confrontation doesn’t have to be contentious.

Working for the right people is important too. In my consulting practice, I have learned the hard way to look for red flags before I join an organization. I once signed a contract with a professional sports team and was weeks into the season when the front office called me upstairs for a meeting. This was the second time that management sat me down and pressured me to provide them with a daily list of the names of the players I was talking to as well as notes on what we were talking about. Of course I said no, again. So they fired me. I was upset about the whole mess, but it worked out well as clearly that wasn’t the place for me. Breaking client confidentiality is obviously never an option and they knew it. They just didn’t care. It was a bad fit and I didn’t catch on to that beforehand because I assumed they would do the right thing by their players. Now I make sure.

An NBA owner once called me in a panic while in the middle of a stressful player contract negotiation. He immediately blurted out, “You don’t think he will hurt me, do you?” He was actually scared for his physical safety. Nobody needs that. If you are going to purposefully invite a red flag into your organization (not recommended), make sure you can move that person out with minimal damage or loss. If you end up working for a red flag, purposefully (also not recommended) or not, be prepared to cut ties, hopefully with minimal upset or loss. If a person is difficult in the extreme and likely to upend your team, is their skill set worth the cost to employee well-being, productivity, or to your broader performance culture? My experience says it is not. 

Your performance culture is worth protecting. Groups that do it right are willing to avoid or eliminate red flags. This takes foresight and control as it can be very enticing to hire a big talent despite knowing there could be big consequences. Good cultures minimize these potential derailers. They always look for new talent but also focus on getting the most out of the talent they already have. 

Good cultures decide where they are going. They have clear goals and defined roles for everyone. They deal in individuals, by which I mean organizations tend to get their best results when each person is emboldened to do their best. They have reasonable rules with follow-through—people know where the line is and what is expected. 

They talk too. Good performance cultures are positive and straightforward. They challenge underperformers and help them improve rather than ignore them and expect the high performers to take on more to pick up the slack. There are exchanges and conversations. Some are intense and demanding but there is listening and expressing of the good and the bad. Individuals hear about what they are doing well and are encouraged with specific technical or mental coaching to work out how to do the other things better. There is kindness and respect too. 

Communication won’t help much with red flags, but it makes a monumental difference to your performance culture when you have strong character to work with. Good cultures actively promote individual accomplishment not just because it promotes team results but because it is the right thing to do. 

Invest in character. Its power is underestimated.

(Excerpted from Dialed In: Do Your Best When It Matters Most by Dr. Dana Sinclair.  Copyright © 2024 by Dana Sinclair. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Canada, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

Buy it on Amazon

Also Read: The Gist: D Shivakumar's insights from the book 

Watch (or read the takeaways) from a conversation with Dr Sincair and two of the authors: 23 Takeaways from Founding Fuel Live: The Best Business Books of Summer 2024

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Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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