Where do brilliant teams come from? If we look at the great teams in the worlds of sport and business, it’s clear they don’t happen by accident. Creating a team that’s able to consistently perform at a high level takes time, effort, and intention.
Teams need a clear purpose, a shared vision, and to be set up so that every team member knows their role in achieving that vision. That’s the theory behind team design in a nutshell.
Think about a car gearbox. It’s a set of perfectly engineered cogs that interlock with each other precisely. There’s very little friction between the cogs, they run super smoothly and the gearbox performs efficiently. Minimal energy is wasted.
But in the real world, designing and recruiting brilliant teams is more tricky than making a gearbox. Every team starts with a group of people. Yet we often design teams as if they are gearboxes. We define jobs like cogs in the gearbox and then expect people to fit into them precisely.
We forget that each of us is a unique human being. We rarely slot neatly into a role that’s described within a team. And even if we do, our skills and attitudes evolve over time in response to the environment we’re in and the people that we’re working with.
So if we treat creating a team in business like an engineer building a gearbox, we’re going to struggle. Yet not taking that deliberate approach to building a team risks wasted time and energy, lack of focus, and dysfunction.
The answer lies in being able to design teams in a human-centric way, bringing the right people into those teams and then finding ways for them to self-organise to achieve the goals the business needs.
This approach balances the art and science of bringing people together to work. It keeps team members engaged in their work and harnesses the intellectual brilliance of unique individuals in service of a shared ambition.
I’ve helped many high growth businesses to build the teams they need to scale. When I reflect on that experience, there are three areas where things go wrong.
1. Getting role design wrong
The building block of a well-designed team is the role. When designing teams we need to break down the work that needs to be done into coherent groupings of activities. Those groupings are the roles that we then hire people into.
It’s simple and most founders know this. Yet they rarely get it right.
The most common mistake I see is a lack of clarity about what founders expect someone to do in the team. In other words, the role is defined too loosely.
In early stage start-ups this flexibility is an advantage. Start-ups need people to be able to move seamlessly between different types of work and hold a wide range of responsibilities. This helps start-ups pivot fast and remain nimble.
But as the start-up moves into a scaling phase, work needs to be more organised to enable growth. Teams and roles need to be better defined, while maintaining the right level of flexibility.
Attention needs to be paid to how roles interact with each other to get work done. It’s no longer good enough to rely on best efforts among team members to work this out.
The boundaries between roles need to be clear. Overlapping boundaries between roles means people tread on each others’ toes.
Boundaries need to allow enough flexibility for people to exercise their judgement, autonomy, and creativity to work out how to get the job done.
I recently worked with the founders of a business which was bringing together its first leadership team. They had already hired several new leadership roles but the team wasn’t coming together as they’d hoped. There was a lot of friction between team members. Some work was being duplicated, while other important things were getting forgotten or falling between leaders. The founders were seeing a lot of confusion and wasted effort.
Working with the founders and the newly hired leaders, we established that the boundaries of roles in the leadership team weren’t clear. There were a number of gaps between the boundaries of roles, which was leading to some things not getting done. There were also a few overlaps which were leading to friction.
Addressing these issues together transparently and collaboratively developing having clear role scorecards helped the team move towards a consistent and reliable level of leadership for the business. This clarity also helped the founders gradually release more responsibility to the new leadership team, building trust and competence gradually.
2. Not paying enough attention to the recruitment process
Once a team is designed, it’s time to start hiring into those shiny new roles you’ve just created. And now’s the time when reality hits: people don’t fit neatly into roles.
When hiring into teams at scale, it’s really important to think about the process you’re going to follow. What stages do you need? Who will make decisions at each stage? How does this process fit with your scale-up’s culture and behaviours?
I always encourage founders to look at the recruitment process through the candidate’s eyes. Hiring at scale means bringing in larger numbers of people that will affect the culture of the growing business.
The experience those new people have as they are recruited will be their first exposure to what the culture in your business is really like. And the cues they take from that process will influence how they work once they’re in the business.
An efficient hiring process is vital. Disorganised or disjointed processes are really obvious to new hires and will affect your success in finding and bringing in the right people at pace.
Having the right forms of assessment in the process matters. What information do you feel you need to make the hire decisions for each role and how will you get it? Too often I see unnecessary exercises, tests or interviews that yield little extra insight.
And ensuring the people involved in the recruitment process are properly trained and understand the importance of what they’re doing matters too. I’ve seen too many interviewers who aren’t experienced or well trained enough to be able to conduct a high quality interview. This is something your candidates will notice too.
3. Not onboarding new hires properly
The third area where I’ve seen scale-ups struggle is how they bring new people into the business. This is a formative stage in the journey to create new teams. There’s a peak of emotional engagement with the new business for many new hires at this time. That’s an opportunity to lay down foundations for a deep and long-lasting relationship between the business and the new hire.
Yet often onboarding processes are too functional. They only focus on the basics of contracts, equipment, and system access. And sometimes even those elements aren’t delivered competently. I’ve seen too many people start work without a laptop or not being able to log onto the company’s systems.
Focussing on the new hire experience during onboarding can really help here. It helps ensure that onboarding is designed around the needs of the new hire, not just the needs of the business or the hiring manager.
Onboarding processes also have the potential to help new hires build their network in the business. The people they meet during the process are their first meaningful connections in their new workplace and team. Too few scale-ups recognise this and design in the opportunities for new hires to form early relationships that will underpin success in their roles later on.
Designing teams and roles
Accountability is deeply important in designing and building teams, yet few people think enough about what it means.
Accountability at work is when someone acknowledges and takes on responsibility for all the decisions, actions, and work needed to achieve a particular outcome. They embrace being ultimately answerable for the consequences of achieving or not achieving that outcome.
Accountability can’t be shared between people or held as a team. It’s something only one person can take. Designing roles in teams for distributed accountability enables scale-ups to coherently move at pace while remaining flexible.
That’s because in team design, accountabilities can be nested. One person breaks down their accountability and in turn creates the conditions where others take accountability for more granular outcomes.
But doing this doesn’t absolve that person from having that overall accountability. They can’t delegate the consequences of not achieving the overall outcome.
This means that understanding the work that needs to be done by a particular team is the starting point for designing a team. Think about why you’re creating the team and what it needs to deliver to the business – and then set this out as accountabilities.
For example, if you’re creating a client success team, the accountabilities for the most senior role in that team might look like this:
• Achieving +80 net promoter score every quarter
• Ensuring new clients are successfully onboarded within seven days of sign-up
• Resolving 95% of inbound support requests within 24 hours
Note here that we’ve identified outcomes that support what the business wants to achieve. They are relevant to the business and clearly measurable.
But the accountabilities deliberately don’t say how these outcomes will be achieved. This is important because it allows people to work out how to best achieve the outcomes. It provides flexibility because the best way to achieve an outcome may change frequently as the business scales.
I see too many job descriptions that summarise the activities that currently make up a job. That’s not a solid basis for hiring as you end up recruiting people suited to what’s needed now, not people that are able to flex and grow with the business.
Once you’re clear on the top level accountabilities for the new team, then it’s time to think about how to break them down to the next level. These detailed accountabilities are the building blocks of the roles that’ll exist within the new team.
Having led this work with many scaling businesses, I’ve learnt that the best way to do it is to involve team members who are currently working in the business. They best understand the problems you’re solving in the creation of the new team.
For example, if client success is currently done by someone in a sales team, involve them in the work to thrash out the detailed accountabilities to be held by roles in the new team.
This works well as a generative workshop where participants list out as many detailed accountabilities as possible. Once you’re happy that all the outcomes are captured in detail, participants then group them together into coherent roles. These groups are the basis for defining roles within the team.
Once you have coherent roles defined, make sure that the accountabilities are nested properly. There should be a clear thread between the top level accountabilities and the roles at each level of the team.
Check for gaps between roles too. Walk through some key high level processes in the workshop and make sure you’re clear which role you see contributing to each stage in those processes. This will quickly show up any unclear boundaries of roles or places where you’ve got gaps between the roles you’ve defined.
Now you’re clear on the accountabilities for each role in the team, it’s time to think about the ideal candidate for each role.
What attitudes, behaviours, and experience are most important to be able to meet those accountabilities? What do these mean for the sourcing and assessment stages in your recruitment process?
Creating your ideal recruitment process
I’m a big fan of candidate experience design. This means taking a deliberate approach to creating a coherent and engaging experience for candidates and new hires.
By looking at the recruitment process from their perspective, you can design a positive experience that differentiates your business as an employer, enhances your brand, and helps you bring the right people into your team.
To do this, bring together the people in the business who are involved with hiring and some recent new hires. A collaborative workshop is a good way to bring together the needs of the business from a recruitment process with the real experience of people who’ve recently joined the business.
Make sure you do this with a diverse group to help ensure you get broader perspectives and reduce the impact of biases in the design of your process. If you lack that diversity in the business now, it’s worth bringing in help from outside to avoid blind spots.
Using a tool like a candidate experience journey map in this workshop can help you outline a process and then understand how to optimise it for experience as well as operational efficiency.
Think about the emotional highs and lows of the job seeking journey for candidates. How can you use these to increase attraction and engagement with your brand? How can you design an experience that is differentiated and drives high levels of engagement.
Remember that to do this you need to have a good understanding of the process from both the business and candidate side. Ideally, you’ll do some research to get reliable user evidence about your current candidate experience. Be wary of making assumptions based on your personal experience or biases.
When designing the ideal candidate-centric recruitment process, it’s also important to decide what the start and end points for that process are. While recruitment process work usually begins with the first exposure a potential hire has with your brand, the end point can differ.
I like to use the end of a candidate’s probation period as the end point for designing a candidate experience. By doing that you take a longer-term view of what successfully bringing a new person into your business means. It tends to result in an experience that feels less transactional to the candidate and aligns their interests with the outcome the business wants.
Efficiency and scalability in recruitment processes
Once you’ve come up with that candidate-focused recruitment process, it’s time to think about how to put it into practice. It’s important to model the number of hires you’re looking to make and in particular how many people you might have going through the process at any one time.
This is crucial because it helps you ensure that your process is scalable. It’ll help show you any capacity bottlenecks ahead of them happening – for example, do you have the resources in place to handle candidate sourcing or reviewing applications at the scale you need them? Do you need to phase your hiring plans to balance capacity?
An efficient process is one which has the minimum number of steps in it to achieve the desired outcome. Be ruthless. Eliminate unnecessary hurdles like collecting data you don’t need at that stage.
Anything that doesn’t contribute towards achieving a successful hire decision should be stripped back. Minimise the number of hand-offs between people in the process – as every hand-off adds time to the overall process.
Then look at the process you’ve designed and see where there are activities which could be automated. Could you use a calendar tool to enable candidates to schedule their own interview slots? Can you use a tool to capture interview notes and decisions in real-time, rather than delaying the process by doing this later on?
The right tools for the job
Running recruitment well at scale is a lot easier when you use the right systems. An applicant tracking system (ATS) pulls together what you need to be able to manage the workflow for applications and candidates seamlessly.
Look for an ATS that integrates with your HRIS or provides a lot more recruitment-specific functionality within the ATS itself. This can make it simpler to do background checks, run references, get candidate feedback, and get detailed process analytics. Having everything in one system reduces data rekeying, enables a more seamless candidate experience, and increases process efficiency.
Once you have candidate data being managed effectively in an HRIS, think about the opportunities for automation in your candidate experience. Evaluate tools that allow you to capture knowledge and insights from interviews and tests quickly and accurately.
Look for robust reporting and analytics. These give you essential recruitment metrics like time-to-fill, source effectiveness, and candidate conversion rates to better manage recruitment ops through data-driven decision-making.
Automated interview transcription, analysis, and marking up can save hours and avoid repetitive conversations in subsequent interviews. This gives better insights for hiring decisions and gives your candidates a more personalised and informed experience during the recruitment journey.
Tailoring ATS workflows to align with the recruitment process you’ve designed, specific job roles, and various stages of recruitment can increase efficiency further. Customising email templates allows you to quickly send status updates and rejection notices without the need to draft individual emails, while still providing personalised communications to candidates.
Bring the right people with you
The final element of bringing your ideal recruitment process to life is working out who needs to be involved from within the business and why they need to play a role.
Think about the different purposes there might be for people to be involved.
Some might be there to evaluate values or behaviours fit, to test out professional knowledge or skills, or to assess leadership potential. Others might be involved because they’ll be making or contributing to the decision about who to hire.
You may also want to involve people who are there to share information about the role or business. Taking a candidate-centric approach to designing your recruitment process will help you understand what information is needed at each stage – and then you can think about the right way and best people to do that.
Having a well-implemented ATS makes it easy for those people to quickly understand the candidate and their previous interactions with the business. It allows them to quickly and consistently record their insights and contribute to the subsequent stages of the recruitment process.
Designing for brilliance
Failed hires and poor performing teams affect everyone. Beyond the obvious human cost for people who end up leaving, there’s disruption to teams, work, and lost time in the business. But creating brilliant teams takes time and focus. Often those are things that feel in short supply in rapidly scaling businesses.
Taking some time to slow down to design roles, teams, and a great hiring process can pay dividends in the longer term. It provides solid foundations for further scaling in the future after subsequent funding rounds or organic growth.
It helps unlock the intellectual capacity of people in new teams, increasing the quality and velocity of work in the business. This can drive product innovation, enable geographic expansion, and transform the organisation beyond the ambitions of the founding team.
Teams, like the people within them, are constantly evolving. Having a well-designed team enables this evolution and helps ensure that teams change in a way that powers the growth of the business, just as the well-built gearbox with its precision-engineered cogs provides drive to the wheels on a car.
Top five tips for successful team recruitment:
1. Make sure every role has a clear job scorecard
2. Design every part of your end-to-end recruitment process with the candidate in mind
3. Involve existing team members as much as you can in recruiting
4. Use automation and AI tools for efficiency and speed
5. Do a recruitment retrospective with every new starter to understand where you can improve