I recently took the Gallop strengths finder test and one of the strengths that came up in my top 5 strengths was something called Individualization. I recognized what this was immediately from the description and knew it to be part of my leadership style. I just hadn’t had a word for it before. Maybe it’s a bias on my part because it’s important to me, but I do believe it’s a skill that’s needed by anyone who manages cross-functional diverse teams, which includes founders and executives. Like most soft skill strengths, it’s one of those things that it’s hard to pin point whether it’s something you can develop or a natural inclination. I’m inclined to believe that for those who do it well that it’s a bit of both.
So what is it, why do these roles need this skill, and how can you develop it?
Individualization is the ability to see a person as an individual rather than as a generalization, to be able to understand their unique strengths and what motivates them to excel. The advantage that this then brings a senior manager is that it enables them to build high performance teams where people are encouraged individually to excel. As well, understanding how to bring these individuals together can create synergies where their strengths feed off each other, and the whole is even stronger.
Early in my management career, I thought that you needed to treat people equally to be fair. I thought that is what a manager was supposed to do. But after my first attempts at leading teams, I quickly changed to my own management philosophy. I came to understand that part of a manager’s role was to acknowledge the differences in roles, talent, experience, and motivation, and build the whole team by bringing encouraging this and bringing all of it together.
I always like to use an analogy of a high performance team being like the infield in a baseball team. Where the different players – pitcher, shortstop, first baseman – each come together doing very different things to enact the “play” striving to get the runner out on base. Baseball is one sport where the individual team members really play a position as well as know how to back up nearby players. The baseball plays of the infield are very often like a coordinated dance that responds in a very predicable manner to the unpredictability of the hit ball.
I think the old school idea of treating everyone equally came in part, like a lot of old school management styles, out of the military. The smallest unit of a team in the military is a squad of soldiers performing similar tasks in the same manner, performing as a whole. Squad leaders don’t have time to deal with differences. Differences or unpredictability could be deadly. Bootcamp is designed to instill sameness and cohesiveness. In some business circumstances, where there are repeatable understandable tasks to be performed – like manufacturing assembly line work – this type of sameness and standard of quality is still very much desired.
I think where individualization is really needed is when the work itself is fluid and changeable. Like in a Startup. Where roles are often a mixture of responsibilities and functions are split across the early small team depending on the individual skills of the team rather than traditional role boundaries. It’s often the founder – or founders – who are in put the position of making judgement decisions on how this split occurs. This is why they need to be really clear about the skills and strengths of their team and also of themselves. They also need to be able to quickly identify what they don’t have in house and when they need to go outside the organization to get it.
So what can help? On the left hand side of the business model canvas, there are three related boxes Key Activities, Key Resources and Key Partners. This is where it all starts. Identifying the things that need to get done for the business is primary. These key activities should then be split either between Key Resources or Key Partners, with a mind to keeping the “key” key activities in house, and engaging a partner for the others. By “key” key activities, I mean those that are critical to the values, vision and mission of the company. Then it is a matter of looking at the skills you need for these activities, and looking to see if you have them in house or need to seek someone to join the team (someone who also fits into the shared values and vision). Maybe it’s simplistic of me to say, but I feel focusing the mind on this aspect of looking at skills helps give you the framework of then looking at the people to see if they have the ability and capacity. By viewing the world in this way a founder can work on the skill of individualization.
As alluded to in the title, in many ways building a startup team based on skills is a lot like the casting activity in the film industry. Those responsible for casting a movie will look at the character in the plot, and try to find actors that they know have the ability to play the role. Though there is also a secondary look at how these actors look together on film, their onscreen chemistry. So the casting activity is actually a casting of the ensemble, not just the individual actors.
This need to do casting of a high performance team is also a necessary skill for a CEO of a more established company. The senior management team of a company is a group of people with very different skill sets and responsibilities. The CEO needs to both look at them for their individual strengths, and look at how they complement and work together. They need to cast their management teams.
Saying all this, in my years of project management I was often in a position of being given a team, or coming onto the project once the shell of the team was already formed. Then I had the task of building this project team from “resources” assigned to my project. Individuation was still a great tool in determining how to assign individual tasks, how to motivate people to do their best work, who to pair up together as needed, who to pull forward in meetings and who to protect with individual mentoring support.
So if you don’t have the luxury of building your own team or you’re having difficulty finding people and have people in interim roles, still look at the assignment of the key activities as based on skills and strengths. Practice individualization.
Photo credit: Microsoft clip art