Like millions of other people, I saw Marvel's The Avengers yesterday. It's anticipated to bring in around $200M in its opening weekend. It's full of explosions, space aliens, and people in outlandish costumes.
So what does The Avengers have to do with recruiting and hiring? Nothing. Unless you care about building a high-performance team.
Sure, the movie is nominally about a egomaniacal godlike being, Loki, who is attempting to destroy all humans using an army of aliens summoned through a space portal (I call that Monday). But I think what the movie's really about is the challenge of building and sustaining a high-performance team.
The power of teamwork
Nick Fury has a tough job. As the Director of a secret international espionage and military agency, he's tasked with figuring out how to respond to the threat that Loki poses. While his bosses (let's call them the board) encourage him to use more drastic solutions, Fury steadfastly sticks to his team (that'd be The Avengers--Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye, and The Hulk). Why? Because he believes that their sum exceeds their parts.
Which brings us to our first lessons:
1) Teams are particularly effective when you need the benefits that come with combining talents and skills to deal with a complex situation beyond the abilities of any individual.
2) Successful team leaders believe passionately in the power of the team and are personally devoted to seeing them succeed. They may even need to resist pressure from above and put their reputation on the line.
Dealing with Superstars(heroes)
Fury's biggest challenge lies in assembling the team and keeping them cohesive. Why? Because each one of them is a "high producer". Technically they don't need each other to do great things--and each one of them is extremely confident in their abilities (with Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr. being the poster boy). Each is used to dealing with big challenges themselves, in their own way. Not only are they not used to a "boss" (Fury), but they struggle to form a group identity. Lessons:
3) Recognize that building a team of superstars will be a challenge. And then recognize it publicly. Acknowledge to the team that accomplishing great things will likely not be easy--but it is doable (and in this case, necessary).
4) Plan ahead for what will attract these individual performers to come together. Is it broader recognition? Satisfaction of a job well done? A sense of duty? An opportunity to right wrongs?
5) Prepare for some in-fighting. This is likely inevitable among individuals used to working in their own fashion (and, not coincidentally, getting all the glory).
Bringing them together
So how do you recruit and keep together a group of often-selfish, always stubborn, personalities? Fury gives us some clues...
6) Seek out the diverse talents you need. While each member of The Avengers is super in their own right, each also brings something different. For example, Black Widow is particularly adept at persuasion and interrogation; Captain America is a natural leader; and Thor, well...Thor happens to be related to the main bad guy so he's pretty familiar with the core issues.
7) Appeal to a greater cause. Fury isn't shy about sharing his passion for the idea of The Avengers: the world's most powerful superheroes coming together to defeat evil that threatens the planet. That's a pretty powerful EVP and/or leadership vision, wouldn't you say? (By the way, he's also good at manipulating team emotions for the greater cause)
8) Harness the unique talents of your team members. While Fury is a pretty good recruiter in his own right, he recognizes that certain team members (namely Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a. The Hulk) might be better wooed by others (i.e., Black Widow). Similarly, as the two scientists, Iron Man and Bruce Banner, are brought together we see immediate results of their complimentary passion and talent.
Keeping them together
Here's where Fury stumbles a little, and it results in the biggest setback the team experiences. The team starts bickering and Fury lets himself get drawn into it. This intensifies the mistrust and distracts them while their enemies infiltrate their headquarters. Only the immediate threat solidifies the team. Last lessons:
9) As a leader, stay above the fray. Teams with strong personalities don't need another one. Your job is to stay and produce calm. Fury would have been better served by calling for a time out so people could cool their jets.
10) Stay focused. Don't let distractions such as momentary setbacks or petty infighting ruin the potential. Remind people why they're there.
11) Be honest. In Fury's case, he's caught with hidden intentions and it drastically lowers team trust. Superstars are often particularly adept at spotting weaknesses in leaders. Don't give them reason to doubt.
There's a lot of research and writing on the topic of building and sustaining high-performance teams. Heck, there are even conferences devoted to it. Interestingly, it's one of the most enduring themes in graphic novels as well (think Fantastic Four, X-Men, etc.). There's a reason why there is so much interest: there are times when special teams are called for, and it's exciting to think about harnessing disparate talents and focusing them on achieving great things.
The best lessons, I think, to draw from The Avengers are that bringing together superstars isn't easy, and keeping them together may be even more difficult. And it's another example of where the strength of leadership can make or break the mission. We may not be trying to recruit and engage superheroes. But we should all be familiar with the challenges inherent in bringing individuals together in the pursuit of a common goal. Even if it isn't saving the world.