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Mortal blow # 4: Tolerating an elitist senior team

(Editor's note: This article is the fourth in a five-part series on the "Five mortal blows guaranteed to kill your culture," inspired by A&P CEO Sam Martin. Read part 1, part 2 and part 3). 

"Show me an elitist, and I'll show you a loser," says novelist Tom Clancy. If that's true, and I believe it is, imagine what an entire senior team of elitists can do to a company.

Elitists believe they have special characteristics that make them better than other people; so they're not readily open to ideas and feedback. When you have a team of them in leadership roles, knowledge and power reside in the hands of a few people with very large egos. And rigid barriers divide the people who lead from the people who work. Neither closed systems nor closed minds have ever built great companies. Rather, they contribute to their ongoing mediocrity or demise.

CEOs and boards that look beyond elitist attributes, like superstar status and charisma, in recruiting their senior teams are creating the world's best companies.

Elitists and leaders

In his 2001 classic, "Good to Great," Jim Collins tells us that the leaders of great companies are more like Lincoln and Socrates than Patton or Caesar. They share the traits of "extreme personal humility" and "intense professional will." Elitists, by definition, lack humility-and their will is based on personal accomplishment and aggrandizement.

Elitists tend to believe that their natural talents determine success. They prefer to be right than listen to feedback or make adjustments; and they are rigid and controlling. As a result, elitist teams produce cultures that lack trust, collaboration and accountability; and where adversarial interactions and relationships are common. Employees flounder without positive role models or a clear path to success.

In contrast, leaders of great companies drive toward sustainability rather than personal gain; attribute success to others and take blame for themselves; remain flexible and open to learning; and listen and pay attention to the people and things around them. Great leaders, according to Collins, build cultures of disciplined thought and action, eliminating the need for hierarchy, bureaucracy and excessive controls-the things that stagnate motivation, innovation and growth.

Reaching for the wrong stars

Celebrity worship is embedded in our culture, so it's not surprising that boards and hiring managers are easily impressed with larger-than-life superstars in business. It feels great to "win" them to your team, even if it costs an excessive salary and a range of costly incentives and perks. You have them, and the competition doesn't. But are you reaching for the wrong stars?

When looking at candidates, consider that the "right" people will deliver the best results they can, no matter what incentives you offer them. Of course they want a reasonable salary, but compensation is not what drives them. How much importance do candidates place on the money and perks versus other aspects of the job?

Elitists emphasize their ability to personally generate quarter-to-quarter results, and take the credit for past successes. The" right" leaders show their concern for the human aspects of the business, their regard for the contributions of others, and a focus on long-term results.

If you single out elitists for special treatment and training, you are likely missing potentially great leaders within your organization who may not seem like superstars in their current positions. That's because they are humbly doing their jobs and meeting company goals rather than feeding their egos.

Who do you want on your senior team: Caesar or Socrates? Patton or Lincoln?

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Kathleen Quinn Votaw

Kathleen Quinn Votaw serves on the Board of Directors for both the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) Denver and Colorado Companies to Watch. She is also founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a Denver-based professional services firm that helps high growth companies solve the people puzzle.TalenTrust offers strategies to attract, retain and engage talented people. Reach Kathleen at kvotaw@talentrust.com or 303-838-3334.

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