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Focusing on individual talent is a leader’s biggest mistake

by Garie Dooley

  • Phenomenal teams are led by many; they are not driven by or reliant upon individual brilliance
  • When individual talent is not aligned with the purpose of the team it leads to mistrust, disruption and misalignment.
  • Phenomenal teams use their purpose as the starting point to any performance-based conversation.

How often are a leader’s efforts to improve the performance of their team skewed by a singular focus: the acquisition of a key talent who will fix the perceived problem? Unfortunately, this is commonplace and results in disruption and disharmony within the team. The talent, the team and the leader become frustrated with the lack of long-term beneficial impact on the overall performance of the team and the organisation.

Collective talent for phenomenal team performance

A phenomenal team’s collective talent is part of a broader framework that delivers ongoing, sustainable performance for the team and the organisation. There are four key areas of focus for establishing a team that continues to deliver extraordinary results long after the key talent has left the organisation.

Team trust: High performance environments are characterised by levels of trust. Leaders work hard to create environments of accountability, commitment and performance where it is safe to challenge behaviours that are counterproductive, work practices that are not adding value, and old ways of doing things. This is where real conversations happen quickly to improve team and individual performance.

‘Dropping’ talent into a team with low levels of trust creates an ‘us versus them’ mentality where your existing team doesn’t feel valued. This will divide and demotivate your team and discount any additional results it has already delivered.

Team purpose: Phenomenal teams are purposeful. They are clear on why they exist and they understand that their purpose goes beyond their function. ‘Winning’ is a signpost rather than a destination for delivering on their purpose. All strategic efforts are aligned with adding value to this purpose.

Introducing individual talent with selected views on their role within the team and without aligning that person’s talents with the purpose of the team, leads to mistrust, disruption and misalignment.

Team currency: Where does your team go when conversations move towards performance? Is poor performance justified in the ‘blame – complain – defend’ cycle? Is it always someone else’s fault? For example, our competitors’ pricing is better, marketing is letting us down, or the customer is too demanding.

Phenomenal teams use their purpose as the starting point to any performance-based conversation. They look out the window for the result and in the mirror for the solution.

Team behaviours: Does your team have an agreed set of behaviours? Do team members test each other’s’ commitment to those behaviours? Having an agreed set of behaviours that drive the delivery of the team’s purpose and where the team is collectively rewarded is essential to building your phenomenal team.

Equally, these behaviours drive solutions to challenges. The question then becomes: who do we have to be rather than what do we have to do?

There’s no sense in playing by your own rules

Disconnect occurs when a team’s accountability (for itself and others) is solely outcome focused rather than behaviourally focused. In extreme cases, highly talented individuals who ‘play by their own rules’ want to be recognised for their individual performance. They have little regard for the established values within the team.

Phenomenal teams are led by many; they are not driven by or reliant upon individual brilliance, yet we are continuously overlooking the teams without the most talented players who deliver outstanding performance. Leaders must maximise the talent they already have before looking for the shortcut.

Trust trumps talent

A few highly talented individuals — who do not fit with your existing team’s purpose — will undoubtedly hit individual performance goals but they will not produce phenomenal teams.

Phenomenal teams thrive in high trust environments. When teams feel safe to take risks, innovate, disrupt, and make and own their decisions, they will seek out real conversations where they can challenge agreed behaviours, align their purpose and continue to achieve.

Garie Dooley can be contacted at


Material published in Governance Directions is copyright and may not be reproduced without permission. The views expressed therein are those of the author and not of Governance Institute of Australia. All views and opinions are provided as general commentary only and should not be relied upon in place of specific accounting, legal or other professional advice.


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