You need a cast of characters with everyone to contribute to win, but the most likely way teams lose is casting people in the wrong roles

Given my Nature and Nurture, I’m so naive and idealistic that I’m surprised I didn’t end up homeless (i.e. giving everything away, assuming people won’t take advantage of your desire to do good, etc). Thankfully, I’m blessed to be surrounded by people who bring me back to reality. But, I try not to lose those ideals, but adjust my tactics. 

Idealism Needs Boundaries

I used to meet candidates or chat with new recruits and tell them “they could do anything,” that I saw they had “runway” and WatchMojo was a “platform” for them. I meant it, and truth be told, I am blessed that 97.8193% of my recruits over the years did indeed merit that compliment. I’ll share the tale of the tape, below.

Supplemental Army

In parallel, I have assembled a broader, supplemental army of freelancers whom I’ve always viewed as the extended family. That’s not to say they viewed me as family, but even when we were insolvent and losing money, I would ensure we paid freelancers Net 0 (so to speak) especially given how poorly the industry treated freelancers.

The following is not intended in any way to be disrespectful, it’s solely intended to convey that everyone plays a part, everyone is valuable, but people are different and as a leader you need to accept that, adjust for that, and build a playbook (vision) and game plan (tactics) to reflect that. A great coach will never put a lineman in the receiver slot, or expect his safety to protect his quarterback.

There’s a Reason Tony Robbins isn’t a [traditional] CEO

Tony Robbins can get on stage and say anyone can walk on fire, but in business, sports or the military, that can be deadly. Because I wanted to build the best version of each of my employees, I sometimes overlooked that reality. Casting talent is nuanced, in terms of

  • full-time employee vs freelancer
  • on-site vs remote
  • capacity to lead
  • whether they are A/B/C players and so on
  • ability to problem-solve
  • skill set
  • hunter or gatherer
  • experience level
  • education background
  • introvert vs extrovert
  • manage people or products (we nuance “managers” from “coordinators” because not everyone can manage other human beings, and that is ok, since they may be great at products)
  • But in nutshell, even amongst A-players, reality is scarcity exists even across “strata” of “types”

Eagles vs Turkeys

One day in an executive meeting, to make my point to my managers, I said “turkeys don’t become eagles.”

What can say? I like analogies. It was a morning meeting, but I will presume that my team thought I was drinking Wild Turkey or high as an eagle. I assure you I was neither.

The point I was trying to make was that

  • an eagle can go hunting for prey, but the eagle itself will never feed anyone.
  • Meanwhile, a turkey cannot in any way be counted to go hunting anyone, but it can feed an army.

To that end, eagles and turkeys describe types of contributors; one isn’t better than the other. You can have A/B/C/D players amongst eagles and turkeys. Both are valuable, provided they are positioned to suit their strength. Miscasting means starving your forces. In some ways, it’s the difference between hunter and gatherer.

In that meeting, I was telling my lieutenants not to make the mistake I did when I thought turkeys could become eagles. It cost us money, though you can always make more money. But it also cost us time, which you can’t make up. More importantly, by entrusting the wrong person for the wrong role, it caused friction amongst the A-players and came at some reputational cost to me, when the departed never took responsibility for why they failed to succeed and grow the way the emerging leaders and A-players did. When you strive to be the most respected and trusted person in your “sport” and people disrespect you, it’s normal for it to bother you. On some levels, I would blame myself for those who failed, but eventually, I absolved myself and found closure. It’s impossible to go to war (and business and sport is war) and come back without any casualties or losses. It was a maturing process, long overdue. I became a better athlete when I drowned out the noise and focused on the game. In that sense, I got the last laugh as our culture and performance dramatically improved as each unhappy camper left.

Tale of the Tape

Over our fifteen year journey, I’ve probably hired some 70 full-time employees with no outside financing. Considering what we pulled off, it’s a helluva ROI on talent. I still work with the same 4 co-founders (and married to one; before we launched!) and lead the same core nucleus of 10 employees for a decade. We have some 40+ full-time employees on the team today. Losing thirty soldiers over a 15-year period as an industry was totally disrupted by revolutionary forces, a new medium emerged and we emerged as one of the leading brands of said medium is one for the ages!

And, in the context of human resources management, retention HR managers would kill for – an average of two “casualties” per year! Though admittedly, about half of those came at the tail end of our WM2020 phase where we expanded like crazy to avoid “dying” (to me, that makes our record even better). But, happy campers don’t complain while the internet amplifies the unhappy and disgruntled. It’s all good, considering how young and inexperienced most of our recruits tend to be and the reality that creatives don’t really want to work in a “9-to-5 office job.” Frankly, while there is a source of truth in all complaints no matter how incomplete or unfair, there is a virtue in each alleged sin. One full-time B-player grew disgruntled upon finding out we treated A-player freelancers better (in their point of view, it was an apples-to-oranges comparison). If you give a B-player ten chances and instead of stepping up they slide into C-player territory, as a leader you have to let them go. I didn’t because I never liked letting people go. But retaining such members doesn’t actually help the cause.

If I had to further break things down, of the thirty who are no longer with us, over 15 years:

Frankly, having hired so many so quickly for so many embryonic projects, I was relieved when some would seek greener pastures (especially if they were unhappy and weren’t going to evolve into top performers, regardless of whether they were eagles or turkeys).

Silver Lining

Thankfully it wasn’t fatal, because I was idealistic but not stupid or reckless – until my team could determine who the turkey and eagle were; let alone send the turkey to hunt or use the eagle to feed my team.

Admittedly, that I write about this means I care about it to some extent; as I’ve said, humans’ intentions are driven by their insecurities. But seeing a handful/dozen of inexperienced employees resign from under-performing “platoons” wasn’t even on page 1, 2 or 3 of my “problems”. I frankly wish them well and occasionally check up on them to ensure they’re doing well, in a good state of mind and so on. My larger incentive today is to ensure that younger driven idealistic entrepreneurs like me don’t set the bar so high for themselves and be distracted by what is a normal consequences of building something from scratch. Indeed, over the years, we’d survived:

and had come through better and stronger, as a testament to our persistence and resilience.

You Have to Invest and Re-Invest All The Time

That morning with my executive team, I capped off our chat by using another analogy, that of a GM managing payroll, saying we didn’t want to have “unused cap space” and should recruit accordingly, but adhere to hiring slow (& firing fast).

But, when hiring and developing talent, don’t make the error of mistaking a turkey for an eagle, or vice-versa. Again, you need both eagles and turkeys (provided there’s a culture fit). Not all of the people you think can do more/bigger/different stuff can; very few can make that leap. But if those people are doing their specialist job well (no matter how small it may seem), don’t rock the boat and leave them alone to do that, go look for a new person to pursue those new/bigger/different tasks.

In society, you need turkeys, you need eagles… but turkeys don’t become eagles, and eagles won’t become turkeys.

Main image of eagles and turkeys credit: George Skene, Orlando Sentinel.