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How to quickly evaluate the capabilities of a team

When developing your team, look for these five critical factors that Alaina Love led one of her clients through.

6 min read



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Matt is the newly appointed CEO of a health-focused non-profit organization. He came to the role with previous experience leading non-profits but also brought a decade of skills he built through critical roles with a large multi-national manufacturer. He understands the challenges of both satisfying shareholders and engaging donors, so he demands a high level of accountability from the teams he leads. It’s a quality he consistently models in his behavior. 

“I’ve been in this job for 30 days,” said Matt, “and I already see that there are people on the team who are underutilized as well as others who aren’t well-suited to lead at the level they’re in. We’re up against some tough goals the Board has set for us, so I need to understand who can deliver immediately and who is going to require more help to become a great contributor. Additionally, I want to start grooming a successor now so I leave the organization in good stead whenever I move on. To do this, I need to know what talent I’ve got to work with.”

In essence, Matt wanted to compress the usual 12-18 months it might take a typical leader to truly understand and leverage the talent on a team. To his credit, he was also thinking ahead and legacy-focused even though he had just joined the organization. We accelerated Matt’s progress through the learning curve by holding a two-day team retreat which would offer some insights about each member of the team. The retreat was designed to allow sufficient time for everyone to enjoy social interactions and get to know Matt while concurrently offering Matt an opportunity to observe the team in action. They would be working to design strategies for achieving the goals of the upcoming fiscal year.

The team was divided into four working groups, with each assigned a different business challenge to address. At the end of every day, the groups convened to discuss their progress and insights, as well as offer input to their colleagues in other working groups. This provided Matt a chance to evaluate individuals and measure their contribution to the process. While each organization’s needs are unique, we scored team members against five core qualities that Matt felt were critical to achieving the stated goals and potentially becoming his successor. 

1. Leadership

During his short tenure with the organization, Matt had observed the team’s hesitancy to share ideas or take a firm stand on an issue. They tended to wait until Matt offered an opinion before taking ownership of a direction. “Leadership is more than just being the first to pick up the pen at the flip chart. I want to see who offers well-thought-out ideas, solicits input from their colleagues and discusses and debates in a healthy way. Then, that person must show a desire to carry an idea to fruition in partnership with their colleagues. Those are the signs of leadership that matter.”

2. Growth potential

People with growth potential are lifelong learners. They understand that a whole world could be filled with the things they don’t know, compared to a gallon bucket with the things they do. Matt looked for people on the team who were intellectually curious and asked questions with the intent to understand rather than roadblock. He valued individuals who provided expertise and information, but he celebrated those who offered insights that could lead to better solutions. Given the challenges the organization faced, Matt was keen to identify team members willing to take on projects in new areas where they had little prior experience. 

“Think about it. Just five years ago, no one knew how much AI would influence how companies operate, and we’re still figuring it out today. I need leaders who want to stretch outside of their comfort zone and learn new things,” said Matt.

3. Strategic mindset

People with the capacity to view the organization’s opportunities with a perspective that extends beyond today’s challenges were especially valued by Matt. 

“Attention to detail is important,” shared Matt. “But we also need folks with a 30,000 foot view of where we are and where we are going. People who thrive in ideation are key to our growth.” 

He wanted people who demonstrated a clear-eyed view of the business and were capable of translating insights into actions. Matt knew this was especially important for securing committed donors who wanted their investments to have a long-range impact. Without the team demonstrating a strategic mindset, the organization would fail to develop new and engaging programs that attract and keep donors.

4. Respect

The team was comprised of highly accomplished scientific professionals, many of whom held strong opinions about their field of expertise as well as others. This often led to internal battles among team members, a trend that Matt found unhelpful, especially as he was frequently asked to mediate disagreements. He looked for leaders who were able to disagree respectfully but with the intent to seek common ground. Respect was at the foundation of the team’s ability to generate and act on the best ideas.

5. Collaboration

Some members of Matt’s team became known for establishing fiefdoms, where limited outreach and interaction with other departments was a common way of operating. If the aggressive goals of the organization were going to be realized and its long-term success assured, collaboration was essential. 

“That begins with listening,” Matt stated. “I’m looking for leaders who seek out others’ perspectives and have learned to leverage the variety of skills available in the people around them. The more brain power we can put up against a challenge, the more likely we will arrive at solutions that work.” 

He depended on leaders who invited others to share and could effectively cull ideas. That empowered the team to use the lessons of the past to build on future success.

What five qualities are most essential for your team’s success, now and ongoing? How would you define them?


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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