A Winning Model for Human Resource Management

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

The CEO stood at the podium and declared once again to the staff gathered for the annual all-company meeting: “Our people are our greatest asset.” And the audience sighed inwardly because they knew it was bullshit. A worn-out cliché that becomes more hypocritical with each use. They think, “If people are indeed our greatest asset, then why have training budgets been slashed again? And if I’m truly valued here, why am I working longer than ever but for less pay? And what about Frank in accounting? He’s not an asset – that jerk is a liability!” or some variation. Rarely do companies back up their “our people are #1” rhetoric with demonstrable, consistent actions.

Perhaps there’s no better way to mask a self-evident truth like “value your people because ultimately your value comes from them” than through over-worn clichés and empty rhetoric. It’s a shame because if you’re going to build a thriving organization, you’re not going to do it through strategy, systems, branding, sales, market share and efficient use of capital – you’re going to do it by building and re-building a winning team. Everything in your organization traces itself back to the people involved. It’s the people who define the strategy, design and implement the systems, conduct the branding, engage in sales, capture market share, and deploy capital. People are indeed your most important asset.

So why don’t more organizations put their money where their mouth is when it comes to people development? The hard truth is that attracting, aligning, reviewing, motivating, compensating and retaining people make up a complex challenge fraught with difficulties. What kinds of people best contribute to a winning culture? How do you find them? How do you keep them? Each person within your organization brings a unique perspective, skill set and life experience. Each also has his/her own desires, expectations, and stated and unstated needs seeking fulfillment within your organization. How do you nurture long-term needs when faced with short-term time and money pressure? No wonder very few organizations take a sincere, methodical approach to finding and retaining the best people for their company… it’s hard to do it right.

Sometimes a simple model is the best way to make sense of a complicated set of variables. If you’ve got a sound model to apply, it helps you to quickly cut through the noise and focus on the most important things. This is especially true when it comes to human performance. I learned one model for building winning teams from Brian Holloway, a nationally recognized management trainer and former NFL star. The legendary football coach Bill Walsh, who used this same formula as a key system for the San Francisco 49ers’ three Super Bowl championships in the 1980s, mentored Brian. You too can use the “winning team” model to attract the right type of people for your organization and to become a better manager. The winning team formula consists of four simple quadrants:

  • Quadrant 1: The Starters. Shared Vision & Values and Strong Performers. Develop for the long term.
  • Quadrant 2: The Bench. Shared Vision & Values and Weak Performers. Coach for the short term.
  • Quadrant 3: The Free Agents. Unshared Vision & Values and Strong Performers. Motivate for the short term.
  • Quadrant 4: The Waivers. Unshared Vision & Values and Weak Performers. Trade.

The first step in using the winning team model is to place all of your current staff in one of the four quadrants.

The Starters in Quadrant 1 are those individuals who exemplify the best that your company can be. They walk the talk. They embody the unique culture of your organization and, at the same time, they perform their job functions at a very high level. When it comes to managing starters, you want to develop their capabilities and career path for the long term. This is a strategic investment and a smart one. Your job as manager is to help them cultivate their own leadership qualities and find the career path that is most engaging and rewarding to them. Celebrate and honor this group. They can set the tone and tempo for your entire organization. Include them in strategic planning and the new hire process.

The Bench in Quadrant 2 includes those individuals who exemplify the desired culture of your company but who don’t perform at the same level of proficiency as the starters. When it comes to managing the bench, your job is to coach them and train them to improve their technical skills (e.g. the technical skill of sales, marketing, finance, programming, etc.) for the task at hand. Invest time, energy and attention in this group for results today. It is relatively easy to develop skills in the short run but it is very, very challenging to develop character in the long run. You either have it or you don’t.

The Free Agents in Quadrant 3 are those who perform technically at a very high level but who don’t align with the company’s vision and values. This is a group of mercenaries. They are in the game only for themselves and everyone knows it. Be careful with this group. Use mercenaries sparingly and in areas that are non-critical for the business but require a specialized skill. If a free agent is in a leadership position, this will have an adverse affect on the entire culture. When it comes to managing free agents, your job is to motivate and create incentives that reward short-term performance.

The Waivers in Quadrant 4 include those who don’t perform at a high level and who don’t share the desired vision and values of the company either. If this was a sports team, this is the group that you’d place on the waiver wire and hope to trade to your competition. There’s no real point in investing time, energy and attention in improving skills or attempting to create a shared sense of vision and values. You can put a sheep in wolf’s clothes but it’s still a sheep. Do yourself and that person a favor: help them find a new job with a different company that better aligns with their talents, vision and values. You’ll both be better off.

Using a simple model like the winning team matrix can help you quickly group the types of people in your organization and develop a short- and long-range plan to develop each one. It also brings tremendous clarity in identifying the types of starters you want to attract and what it takes to develop your bench. Like attracts like. It also shows you the types of free agent mercenaries who you can use for selected tasks, but that you shouldn’t count on to be around for the long term. Finally, it brings clarity to your waiver wire and the types of people who aren’t a good fit for your organization’s culture.

I had lunch the other day with a successful CEO who said something interesting to me: “You know, every time we’ve gone out and hired an expert to fill a particular position, it hasn’t worked. But every time we’ve found someone who is smart and fits our culture, we’ve found a job for them, even if one didn’t previously exist, and it’s been a smashing success.” In essence, this CEO had found a formula for his company to identify and attract Quadrant 1 leaders and his business is thriving as a result.

The greatest benefit of the four quadrant approach to creating winning teams is that you can start to be really honest with your company. Your people are not your greatest asset. Your starters are your greatest asset. Your bench is a great asset too because they have the opportunity to grow and become starters. Your free agents and waivers are a liability and should respectfully be treated as such. When you can point to people in your organization who fit the starter and bench profile, you have a powerful means to lead by example. And when you back up your quadrants with a disciplined and passionate investment in attracting, aligning, reviewing, motivating, compensating and retaining people, you’ll create a winning team.