It’s Your Job To Improve Your Team

At this year’s NVCA meeting, my partner Jason Mendelson (who was the chair of the event) interviewed Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter. Dick is an awesome CEO, awesome human, and awesome interviewee. Among other things, he’s hilarious, and PandoDaily wrote a fun summary of the interview in their post What CEOs could learn from comedians.

Dick had many great one liners that fit in 140 characters as you’d expect from someone who is both the CEO of Twitter and was once a standup comedian. But one really stuck in my mind.

It’s not your job to defend your team. It’s your job to improve your team.

Upon reflection, all of the great CEOs and executives that I’ve ever worked with believe this and behave this way.

Every time I make an investment I believe it is going to be an incredible success. I don’t know any VC who invests thinking “eh – this will be mediocre. When you start the relationship you believe it’s going to be massively successful. The same is true of hiring an executive. Dick made the point that the cliche “only hire A players” is completely obvious and banal. CEOs don’t run around saying “hey – let’s hire C players – that’s what we want – C players.” Everyone you hire is someone you think will be an A player, by definition.

But, in the same way that every VC investment doesn’t become a 100x return, every person you hire won’t turn out to be an A player. After a few months, you start to really understand the strengths and weaknesses of the person. And you see how the person interacts with the rest of your team. This is normal – there’s no way you could know any of this during the interview process.

The not so amazing CEO or executive immediately falls into a mode of trying to defend the person, or the team, to the outside world (board, investors, customers) and other members of the team. I’ve heard a remarkable number of different rationalizations over the years about why a person or a team is going to work. And, when I press on this, the underlying response is often simply “give us / me / them more time.”

Instead of defending the team, the amazing CEO will respond with “yup – we need to get better – here’s what we are doing.” And then they’ll add “what else do you think we should do?” and “how can you help us improve?” This type of language – accepting reality and focusing on improving it, rather that defending it, is so much more powerful.

Of course, often the answer is that to improve a team, you have to eliminate a person or move them to a very different role. This is hard, but it’s part of the process, especially in a fast growing company. Someone who was incredible at a job when the company is 50 people might be horrible at the job when the company is 500 people. Nothing is static – including competence.

This is true of CEOs as well. We can all be better at what we do – a lot better. It’s easy to fall into the trap of defending our own behavior when someone offers us feedback or constructive criticism. The walls go up fast when someone attacks us, or we fail. But if you switch immediately from “defend” to “improve”, you can often get extraordinary feedback and help in real time. And sometimes you have to replace yourself, as Jonathan Strauss at did recently and explained in his tremendous post Replacing Oneself as CEO

I loved working with Dick at FeedBurner – I learned an incredible amount from him. I treasure every minute I get with him these days and one of the biggest bummers about not being an investor in Twitter is that I don’t get to work with him on a regular basis. It was joyful to listen to him and realize that there is another wave of people at a rapidly growing and very important company that are learning from him, as he works to improve his team on a continual basis.

  • I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — growing a business and managing a team — and it strikes me that being good at it requires the same kind of learning discipline that being a good programmer takes. I’m lucky to know a couple of people who have been successful CEOs and are willing to mentor, but generally CEOs are so busy I think it is hard to find. (Obviously the right investors help here. 🙂

  • Austin

    Telling employees to “hire “A” players” is indeed banal…but largely because it doesn’t convey what the leadership really means by that statement.

    Translating, it means: “Make it a point to hire people who can do your job better than you can.” Quickly followed by: “How else can you move up in the company if your replacement isn’t onboard?” Needless to say (almost…as it actually does need to be said), left to their own devices fearful employees *will* hire B and C players if they’re not secure in their role. They certainly won’t hire someone more capable than themselves if they feel underperforming-ish.

    There’s more. Both VCs and company leadership need to hear that seasoned, yes, “older,” workers can often do any number of jobs in the company better than the incumbents can. Fact. And giving into the fear that “they” will be shown up is focusing on fear, not on improving the team.

  • Austin

    Dick Costolo giving a 2012 commencement speech:

  • What is an “A” player anyway? It’s all subjective and a person might be an A player in a skill you recognize but if you’re blind to other skills you wouldn’t recognize that they are an A player in that area. I’ve very rarely found anyone that I couldn’t coach into A player status in some area.

    Its important to hire people that fill the gaps and complement current staff. Too often I see companies where people hire replicas of themselves. Introverts hiring introverts. People who don’t have good organizational skills hiring people who can’t manage their time to save their life.

    One sign of a great leader is someone who recognizes their own challenges then hires people who can excel in those areas.






      • Great analogy, FG. Your next book: Superhero Startups?


          MAYBE A CHAPTER.

      • If Hulk can work on a team, anyone can with the right leadership

      • RBC

        Hey FG, just came across this comment on Disqus and wanted to give you a shout of encouragement on the book/tshirt kickstarter campaign. A few friends of mine are also working on fulfilling their kickstarter and it is hard work. Good luck – the world needs your zingers!

  • DJ

    Just curious, have you seen any companies using personality and/or culture tests that produce reliable results?

    • Yup – lots of them. One of my favorites is RoundPegg.

  • That guy made great points about aggressive and creative people. It’s mostly ignored like that shit never happens when it’s going on all the time. It’s our ability to ignore or refuse to acknowledge that this happens to really good people that makes it worse. Like sticking you head in the sand ever works.

    People think that by discussing depression that it somehow taints them or makes them weak which is of course totally Bullshit.












  • johnfein

    Dick C. is obviously a rare breed. An incredibly small percentage of CEOs have both this sense of accountability and the skills to execute (e.g. make their team better). I believe that’s because there are just not that many leaders out there with the diverse set of skills that the Dick Costolos of the world have: leadership, creativity, humility, ability to analyze problems as well as people, and knowing the best methods/solutions to employ. More evidence that it’s best to hire senior leaders with diverse skill sets/experience vs. specialists.

  • Hmm. Never thought of this but give me/us more time begs the question: “To do what?”

  • Good stuff in here. 2 parallel thoughts come to my mind:

    1. A startup is about growth, and that includes people growth. If someone doesn’t grow with the needs of the startup (including the CEO), then the fit is no longer there.

    2. If you start to hire B players, they will hire C players and it de-generates from there.

  • Very true. As a CEO I always believe in people who can inspire me and have diverse talent. That’s when you known you’ve got the best guys on-board. And that does a lot to the CEO in the long run.

  • D Meyer

    Thank you for reminding me that humility is a very important trait of a successful team leader.

  • Michael Lynch

    Great stuff. This has made the rounds at Envysion, Inc.