Oswald Letter

Surround Yourself with Great People, Not Just Ones Who Agree with You

In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the author details how President Abraham Lincoln assembled a cabinet that included three men he bested for the Republican party’s presidential nomination and how Lincoln used their respective talents to win the Civil War and, ultimately, preserve the Union.

It’s unusual for someone to surround himself with rivals and former opponents when putting together a team — especially a politician. Typically, a politician wants to keep his rivals out of the spotlight, and naming them to key cabinet positions isn’t the best way to do that.

So what was Lincoln’s motivation?

Maybe he just wanted to surround himself with the best people to create the strongest possible team. Couldn’t it be that simple? Simple but unusual.

Most executives aren’t as secure and savvy as Lincoln. For example, an executive gets promoted to the top spot and the first thing he wants to do is banish his rivals from key roles and, possibly, even the company. Hiding behind the guise of assembling his own team, the executive’s rivals for the top spot suddenly are in a company outpost the equivalent of Siberia or find themselves being asked to quietly leave.

Lincoln chose to surround himself with the strongest people despite three of them opposing his nomination for President. He asked political rivals, all with views different than his own on certain topics, to join him for the good of the nation.

All too often, managers looking to build a team select people who think and act the same way they do. When they interview candidates, they ask questions to determine whether the potential hire would handle specific situations the same way they would. The manager is looking for someone who answers the questions the same way they would. They want to know that they will agree on major points.

This is a huge mistake! What’s wrong with two people who think and approach situations differently? Healthy debate and discussion about ideas from different points of view actually stimulates creativity. And we all know there’s not just one way to a successful outcome. By bringing together strong minds and actually working a problem is much more likely to elicit a positive result than assembling a group of “yes men” who blindly follow the leader.

To be successful, a football team requires a group of individuals with diverse talents. It needs people who can block, run, throw, catch, kick, and tackle. In the same way, a successful team needs people with different skills and experiences. By assembling a team of people from different backgrounds and experiences who also think differently about certain issues, a manager is greatly increasing his chances of success.

The trap many managers fall into is that they want to be in control. They want to call the shots. They’ve worked hard to earn the top spot and their success or failure is going to rest in their own hands — not someone else’s. So they go in looking for a group of people willing to agree with them and follow their lead. It’s the wrong way to do it. By assembling a team of individuals with specialized skills and experiences which make them stronger in specific areas than the manager himself, the manager is giving the organization the best opportunity to succeed.

Does he still need to manage and lead the team? Definitely. But he doesn’t need to make every decision. He can let the team work together, debate, discuss, and even argue how best to move the organization forward.

It takes a strong leader to manage a talented and diverse group. Managing that type of team will produce more challenges — intellectual and otherwise — than a group that’s willing to just execute the orders of the leader. But the results will be so much better.

So when you go to hire the next addition to your team, make sure you’re not looking for more of the same. Look at the team you have in place and determine what skill set would benefit the team the most. Think about the experiences and personality of the current team and look for someone who complements them. And make sure you’re hiring someone who’s willing to fight for what he believes, even if it’s counter to your position.

If you want to build a great team, you need to follow Lincoln’s lead and bring together a group because of the differences of the individuals, not the similarities.