Our Trojan horse was parked near the house of Amin Lubada, a notorious terrorist. He had been on the run for years after having been the architect of seven explosive attacks that had injured and killed dozens of innocents. There we were, submerged in silence and total darkness, in a windowless truck, in the middle of an extremely dangerous area. It was 3 a.m. and our adrenalin was at maximum levels. We were waiting for the agreed upon signal. Under pressure, we reviewed all the possible scenarios one last time.
Bam, bam, bam!
The back door slammed opened and we streamed from the vehicle. We were a dozen well-trained members of an elite force. We fanned out into four clearly defined task forces, racing to take our positions so we could execute a well-worn strategy. Our goal was to flush out one of the most sought-after terrorists in the Middle East and to do so without any collateral damage.
Again, a long silence.
And then it began. Bam, bam, bam, bam! A hail of bullets rained down. A projectile passed just next to my head and next to Elisha’s head too. He was a long-time fellow member of my team in elite unit 217. We located where the shooting was coming from and repositioned ourselves to take shelter in a blind spot. We returned fire and signaled the situation to the task force positioned on the overhanging roof. Amin Lubada was quickly neutralized. We had accomplished our mission.
You may be wondering why I am telling you about my time in the commandos. This speaks mostly to the men that I met in the unit. In the years following this particular operation and many others, I have had the opportunity to analyze the clean efficiency of these teams within their own specific environments. They all had a common denominator, however, whatever the mission was—launch a start-up, grow a mature company or lead a delicate operation into enemy territory. When facing risk, teams can only succeed if they possess certain key elements. When one of these is missing, all parts of the team are in peril. Scaling a company is an exceptional challenge and, as a result, requires participants who are not only high performing, but also who specifically complement each other. Here are nine key elements, according to our experience, that make the difference between just a good team and an exceptional one.
Vision, Product, Client
1. The Visionary
I am certain that you know this profile well. Like a Henry Ford or a Steve Jobs, this type of leader is capable of galvanizing a team around a clear, long-term vision. Creative, and often philosophical, this individual is driven by a burning desire to have an impact on the society of tomorrow. This person is far sighted and can imagine the product or service likely to be able to reflect their initial vision. The visionary’s credibility is directly proportional to how easily he or she can execute each of the steps that will lead to successful project outcome. Henry Ford left the world a unique industrial concept that has resulted in productivity gains on the order of 300%. As for Steve Jobs, he was the forefather of today’s ubiquitous technology.
Visionaries are generally those who found companies. Furthermore, they have composure, charisma, and a sense of organization that allows them to also take on the additional role of CEO.
2. The Builder
Leonardo de Vinci was a remarkable visionary, a father of movement in both the civil and military sectors. However, he lacked the presence of a key element to bring his ideas to life. Hundreds of years before their time, he had imagined planes, tanks, parachutes and even drones as prototypes. But none of these machines became actual finished products that were sold in the Venetian marketplace of his time. The builder is there to guarantee the existence of the essential step of transforming a vision into a finished product.
This role was played brilliantly by Steve Wozniak at Steve Jobs’ side, at the beginning of the 1980s. With the creation of the Apple and the Apple II, he propelled a tiny start-up of three people crowded together in a garage into a phenomenal industrial success. Product builders often have great aptitude for resolving problems and their involvement is a determining factor for innovative products.
3. The Coordinator
Our first start-up didn’t get off the ground and ended in failure. The second, however, delivered on its promise. There was a notable difference between these two ventures and that was the presence of a coordinator. For our first entrepreneurial odyssey, we were able to transform our vision into a tangible product, a mobile knowledge management application. However, the next phase fell short due to a lack of coordination between client requests and the features actually being developed.
It’s as if the coordinator is playing midfield, ensuring the connection between defense and offense in a soccer match. The coordinator’s role is to always deliver a satisfactory product, in line with the clients’ expectations, and to do so even if the clients’ needs evolve. To do the job well, this person must be a good listener, be capable of understanding the client’s need from a technical perspective and ensuring smooth operations.
Business Model and Scalability
4. The Igniter
The vision is communicated by the visionary, the product is built by the builder, and consistent product-client fit is achieved by the coordinator. This embryonic success still needs to be reproduced on a larger scale. This is the igniter’s exact mission.
At the beginning of the nineteen-seventies, a very well-known coffee chain had only three stores in the city of Seattle. The concept was to import high-quality coffee beans. The production process used a Dutch roasting machine and clients went crazy for this high-end coffee. But the chain hardly grew at all. It stagnated at six stores for over a dozen years. Then, in 1987, it took off. That was the year that Howard Schultz took the reins of Starbucks to create an industrial empire that, today, has 30,000 locations serving 50 million visitors a day.
This example perfectly illustrates the importance of the igniter in deploying a small company’s products on a grand scale. But this principle is also valid for medium-sized companies whose only choice, when scaling, is to hire someone in the role of bulldozer who is able to make sales explode. The igniter often takes on the position of VP of Sales.
5. The Strategist
The strategist profile is one that does not exist in many organizations. This individual is the architect of a company’s strategy. The strategist is proactive and has strong analytical skills. The impact of this person is decisive when setting objectives, measuring performance, targeting priorities and anticipating market trends likely to affect future company success.
In 2008, a social networking platform was thrilled with its increased traffic but, at the same time, was suffering huge losses ($130 million in 2007), the fault of its operational structure and an inefficient business model. By chance, during a holiday gathering, the company’s young founder met a formidable strategist, who happened to be a master at the art of scaling. Three months later, Sheryl Sandberg took her place next to Mark Zuckerberg and tripled profits—increasing Facebook’s valuation fivefold—in barely three and a half years .
To create an exceptional team, a new position must be invented which is that of Chief Scaling Officer, mandated by the board to work with, but not in the place of, the CEO. Is the profile of someone around you?
6. The Evangelist
The five profiles discussed above are essential. This initial team is then ideally completed by an evangelist. This individual is in charge of creating a maximum number of partnerships, developing the company’s “Rolodex,” and most importantly, creating, establishing and growing brand recognition. Perfectly executed by Tifani Bova at Salesforce or Nancy Kramer at IBM, the role of brand evangelist has received considerable attention in recent years.
In 2012, a small Australian company named Canva had only twenty employees. The company named Guy Kawasaki to the position of Chief Evangelist. He contributed to rapidly growing the company’s recognition and it experienced exponential growth, increasing the number of employees from 20 to 200 in four years. The company’s valuation was multiplied by ten. It is difficult to remain unconvinced by such numbers.
7. Execution Manager
During a combat exercise on the shooting range in an urban area, somewhere in the Middle East, an instructor asked one of my friends who had come to provide me with assistance, “What was the name of Napoleon’s lieutenant?” Receiving no answer in return, he continued, “As you can see, no one ever remembers the second in command.”
This conclusion is so far from the truth that it made us laugh. Whether it’s during the daily life of a commando, an intelligence officer, or an entrepreneur, the inescapable principle that applies is that you cannot accomplish anything without the help of others. The CEO who “does it all” is a myth.
Without the assistance of an amazing number two, Sergei Brin and Larry Page’s Google would have never become a unicorn. Susan Wojcicki, who is appropriately known as “the most important Googler you’ve never heard of” organized everything. She was key. From operations to PowerPoint presentations, the execution manager is responsible for implementing the strategist’s strategy and fulfilling the visionary’s vision.
8. The Perfectionist
Many leaders are happy and, in fact, proud, to have some or all of the profiles discussed above on their teams. And rightly so. Armed with a product that meets a need, a differentiation strategy and an operational machine, such a team already generates revenue that demands respect.
This was the case for an entity I worked with in early 2018. The executive wanted to begin the scaling process, but I felt that there was an obstacle to quality production and the sales teams’ success. One Friday morning, during a leadership seminar, I invited the participants to reflect and come up with a list of problems that they hoped to solve. Each one expressed frustration:
“The information we provide often contains errors.”
“Our sales presentations always have mistakes.”
And other such comments.
The problem was clear: they lacked an essential profile—the perfectionist.
Steve Jobs embodied this profile to perfection (pun intended) when he made his big comeback at Apple in 1997. He personally guaranteed that each component would be perfectly integrated into the elegant and stylized design of the iPod, and then the iPhone. Whether it’s about ensuring product quality control from every angle, or fine-tuning a commercial deliverable, the perfectionist is the key to creating excellence when competitors are content with just “very good.”
9. The Expert
The last profile is the chief expert.
An anecdote comes to mind from when I was still a young entrepreneur. I can see my younger self visiting prestigious law firms to present a project management and documentation tool we had built. People would listen, interested. Some of them would invite us back to consider a pilot while others decided to take a pass. However, the pitch and level of preparation required was the same for each meeting. But, each time, the participation or absence of a specific individual on our side made all the difference. Ittai Artzi was a former head of information technology. He was a recognized expert in his field and, as a result, had a natural authority with our clients.
Without going into further detail, this was about the position of CTO being filled by a recognized technology expert. He was someone “famous” in his field. A former employee of “this-or-that-well-known-and-respected-company.” This type of profile has a decisive impact on an entity’s credibility.
Focus, Order, Priority.
There are three questions I am often asked when I present this model to government officials, thousands of entrepreneurs, hundreds of directors in consulting firms, and the boards of medium-sized companies.
The first question is one that is always asked. Individuals who have multiple roles want to know the answer. In many companies, the founder (visionary profile) also plays the role of sales igniter, lead strategist or even chief expert. This is catastrophic. Pursuing multiple goals at the same time is not a good strategy and this definitely holds true for entrepreneurial endeavors. Within such companies, there has never been a case where a manager wearing multiple hats has been able to excel at numerous parallel undertakings, during the same quarter. This seems obvious, but it is important to remember an important characteristic of efficient organizations: by definition, every role, every profile, every position is assessed by a specific metric and has its own specific objective.
The second question that is often asked by entrepreneurs is related to the order in which the various profiles should be hired. The order selected mirrors the model being used. The success of a start-up can be broken down into three phases. The first objective is to get users to actually use a new product. This product-market fit phase requires a concept (imagined by the visionary), a product that has been developed by a builder and for which a good product-client fit has been ensured by the coordinator. Next comes the business model creation phase, supported by the strategist, and creation of a sales machine that is repeatable on a large scale, built by the igniter. During the last phase, we see the emergence of a company bolstered by its brand’s reputation (cultivated by the evangelist) and optimized organization processes (developed by the execution manager) that then allow for maximal productivity.
The third dilemma confronting many companies in growth mode is how to keep these complementary roles separate when growth mode does not allow the company to recruit yet for these nine key profiles. Several solutions exist. When budgets are tight, the best approach may be to ensure that each individual only wear a single hat for one quarter of the year at a time, to be able to manage a single project before being thrown into another related task.
For example, in June 2019, we encountered several problems linked to data quality. The founder then took the risk of stepping away from several projects selling to international accounts, creating a new product, and putting strategic partnerships in place. The time that was freed up allowed for the priority task to be embraced with full force. Referring back to the previous discussion, the visionary had the courage to dare take off his igniter, builder and evangelist hats to focus on being the chief expert for a time. For an entire quarter, he was able to isolate his focus to address an action plan that allowed us to maintain our historical client base. That strategy paid off.
One last thing
These profiles only make sense when they come together to form a coherent group. Just like on a sports team, simply adding an individual superstar does not lead to the required collective quality—scaling requires a solid team. This brings us to reflect on the root of the word company or cum pane, which evokes the idea of individuals with (cum) whom we are sharing bread (pane). If you are in charge of building a team like this, keep in mind that certain values will be indispensable for guaranteeing performance. This is the topic of the next chapter.
Points to remember:
Nine key profiles are what distinguish an exceptional team from just a good team:
- The visionary comes up with a solution to a problem
- The builder is the architect of the solution
- The coordinator guarantees consistent product-client fit
- The igniter reproduces commercial success on a large scale
- The strategist initiates long-term success, masters methods that allow for growth in sections of the market, and operational excellence
- The evangelist, who acts as a catalyst for company visibility and is also the person who instigates strategic partnerships
- The execution manager administers operational success
- The perfectionist, who is the guardian of the product’s design and ergonomics
- The expert, who is the technical authority, a true authority in a given field