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Most companies claim that people are their biggest assets, but their practices say otherwise. Do you believe in people development and having a creative and empowering work environment? In this article, we’ll look at how to develop people, using ideas from 4 amazing leaders from Google, Pixar, Opsware and the Virgin group of companies. Do take some time to consider if/how each of these perspectives can be applied to unlock the potential of people in your organization.

Hiring and Managing the Best

In “Work  Rules!“, Laszlo Bock explains in great detail why/how Google hires only the best people and manages them for top performance. Here are 2 important ideas:

Hire the Best

You can build a great team by (A) hiring great people in the 90th percentile and let them do great work, or (B) hiring average people and try to make them into 90th percentile performers. Google chooses Strategy (A). To achieve this, they have a sophisticated inhouse team to cultivate top performers worldwide (including those who aren’t looking for jobs yet), and pre-qualify/ select the best candidates (which make up only 10% of your applicants). While line managers are involved in the hiring process, they do not make their own hiring decisions. This is to safeguard the quality of the recruits.  As of April 2013, Google hired only 0.25% of all applications it received, i.e. it’s 25x harder to get into Google than Harvard.


Focus on the Two Tails

Most companies treat performance like a normal distribution curve—most people are labelled as average, those at the top are rewarded, and those at the bottom are removed. Google focuses its resources only on the best and worst performing employees (i.e. the 2 tails). Specifically, it uses the top 5% as success case studies, studying them closely to find what they’ve done right, then building programs to measure and duplicate these best attributes. They then focus their intervention on the bottom 5%. Assuming you’ve invested the resources and recruited great people, it’s wasteful to remove them just because they aren’t performing as well as the rest. If you can move someone from the 5th percentile to the 50th percentile, it’d mean a huge jump in his/her contribution. By applying lessons from the top 5% to the bottom 5%, they get the most bang for buck.How to Develop People_two-tails
Food for thought: What’s your hiring and performance management philosophy? Can you apply the 2 tails approach to improve your staff performance and bring out the best in your people? [In the book, Bock covers many other tips about people and performance management. Do get more ideas from our free Work Rules! Book Summary, buy a copy of the book / book summary bundle.]

Avoid Size Mismatches

“But my company is small, and we don’t have Google’s type of resources!”
This is one of the most common complaints that businesses have. Indeed, in “The Hard Thing About Hard Things“, Ben Horowitz talks about the challenges of starting, growing and running a company. One of the common mistakes that startups makes is to hire big company executives, only to realize there’s a mismatch. The work a startup involves different rhythms and skill-sets from that of a large company. Startup executives must be hands-on, create things from scratch, handle 8-10 new initiatives a day, and get out there to make things happen. On the other hand, large company executives must be good at juggling tons of emails/meetings, handle organizational design and process improvements, and usually take on ≤3 new initiatives a quarter.

To avoid wrong hires, test for mismatches during interviews. Ask questions like, “What will you do in your first month on the job?”, “What do you think will be different between your current job and this job?” Integrate your new hires asap by requiring weekly creations, hands-on involvement in product/customer details, and personal interaction with key people in the company.  [In The Ultimate Sales Machine, you can also get some great ideas on how to craft your ads/packages in a way that allows even a startup or SME to hire superstars].

Food for thought: Which phase of growth is your company at, and what type of people do you really need? [In the book, Horowitz address many other challenges including firing people, dealing with crises, making tough decisions etc. Do get more ideas from our free The Hard Thing about Hard Things book summary, or buy a copy of the book or our full summary bundle.]

Creating a Creative Culture

In “Creativity Inc“, Ed Catmull traced how he grew Pixar Animation Studios with Steve Jobs, and later rejuvenated Walt Disney Animation Studios (he’s now President of both companies). He identified 4 important foundations and barriers to creativity:

Getting uncomfortable

There are 3 important ingredients that go hand-in-hand with creativity: Candour, Failure and Change. Unfortunately, these are also what people feel uncomfortable with. Are you able to openly share and receive honest feedback without giving/taking offense? Does your team/ company accept failure as part of the process to successful innovation?  Do you embrace change as an inherent part of your landscape? If your answer is “no” to one or more of these questions, don’t fret; you’ve now identified areas that you can potentially improve!

Blind spots and mental models

We don’t know what we don’t know. Or worse, we may have wrong assumptions and mental models that blind us to alternatives around us. Does your organization have channels and mechanisms to help you uncover your blind spots? Do the leaders in your team/organization see the real picture of what’s going on around them?

Protecting the new

New ideas are like ugly babies…they look awkward and it takes deliberate effort to nurture them before they can blossom. How often have clunky ideas been dismissed in your team/organization before they can be fully explored? How can you protect, develop and select winning ideas in a systematic way?

Discovery & Uncertainty

In science experiments, every outcome is good, as it provides data to support or disprove a hypothesis, and unexpected discoveries may emerge. It’s the same with creative experimentation. Do you have such processes in your company to systematically learn from your experiments and mistakes?

Food for Thought: To unleash the true potential in your people, you must have the right foundations for creative input and output. Just working on the ingredients above can open up many new opportunities for your team and company. [In the book, Catmull dives into examples and tips on how Pixar and Disney address some of these challenges. Do get more ideas from >our free Creativity Inc book summary, or buy a copy of the bookfull summary bundle.]


Nurturing Intrapreneurship

The Virgin Group has probably created the most number of billion-dollar companies in the most number of industries. In “Like a Virgin” Sir Richard Branson stresses the importance of finding, energizing, and retaining great people, and giving them the environment to thrive and contribute fully. Here’s his perspective on intrapreuneurship:
• An entrepreneur is someone who initiates and organizes new commercial enterprises, while an intrapreneur is an employee who has the freedom and support to create new products, services and systems, without following the company’s normal rules. Entrepreneurs get a company started, while intrapreneurs drive a company forward with ongoing innovations.
• The key to successful intrapreneurship is to unleash people to pursue their visions, so they feel like they’re building their own company, rather than simply working for you. Think of your staff as “belongers” and your CEO as the “Chief Enabling Officer”.
• Many of Virgin’s businesses—e.g. Virgin Australia airline and Virgin Active health club—come from pitches by Virgin staff or external teams. When the idea is sound and the management team is promising, Virgin puts its resources behind the ideas. Virgin also invites employees from different Virgin businesses around the world to apply for projects; this brings people together, builds bonds and delivers new solutions. 
Food for thought: Can you go beyond creativity to cultivate intrapreneurs in your company? Are your leaders good role models who are approachable, constantly jotting down ideas and feedback and trying to learn/try new ideas? [In the book, Branson shares his thoughts on many other aspects of business, including leadership, customer service, innovation, and growing a company. Do get more ideas from our free Like a Virgin book summary, or buy the book / full book summary.]


Developing your Biggest Assets

Obviously, every company is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. However, one thing is true for any organization: People are your biggest assets. Each of the 4 perspectives/considerations above can help you to figure out how to develop people in a way that fits your organization’s values, culture and philosophies. Do check out the resources/links provided above or subscribe to to get instant access to all these summaries.

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