Make Yourself Useless in Your Company

“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” — Harvey S. Firestone, founder of Firestone Tire & Rubber Company

To have any chance at greatness, leaders must have high-performing, low-maintenance teams.

At a very practical level, it’s your job to help the amazing people you’ve hired become great leaders.

Do not view them as underlings or boots on the ground. See them for their talent and potential. Let them live up to their ability to deliver amazing results with little (or no) involvement from you.

Build a team that delivers better results than you, without you.

To do this, you need to invest time hiring, teaching, coaching, challenging and providing feedback. When you help people grow, they gain the confidence and skills to manage day-to-day business without you.

For you, this spells freedom. You’ll be able to spend your time on your company’s big picture strategy and long-term growth. 

It’s remarkable how often leaders get trapped hand holding mediocre players.

Sometimes it’s because they hate hiring, so they’d rather live with the devils they know. Others let personal loyalty cloud better judgment.

No matter the reasoning, you’ll be forever limited unless you do what it takes to surround yourself with A-players who are truly exceptional in their fields, and a culture fit with your company.

People think "A-players" are four-leaf clovers, but that’s not my experience.

You just need elbow grease, and a proven hiring methodology to find the best of the best. Then it’s your job to keep challenging them, and investing in their growth.

Believe you can have a full team of A-players. Then accept nothing less.

Pick your useless date.

Choose the exact date you plan to be completely useless to your business. This is the day you will be free to step out of the day-to-day operations, or sell the company entirely. Envision yourself walking out the door.

It’s crucial to pick a specific date so you can clearly see yourself moving on. Without it, you’ll remain enmeshed in the business. You won’t push yourself to build a solid, self-sustaining team.

Whether you actually leave is not the point. The point is to build a company so strong it would function effortlessly without you.

Here’s a simple performance rating system to help you get clear on where you are today:

A-player: fits the culture, and always delivers exceptional results with little or no management. An absolute pleasure to work with, and you wish you could clone them.

Potential A-player: appears to be an A, but has been in the role less than six months. Looks promising but it’s too early to be 100 percent sure.

Toxic A-player: excellent performance, but regularly causes friction and drama as they don’t fit the culture.

B-player: a culture fit with spotty performance. 

C-player: doesn’t fit the culture or deliver results.

My website is filled with extensive tools and exercises for evaluating your team.


A to stay.

Follow the motto: “You have to be A to stay” in your company. This is neither impossible nor ruthless. It’s just common sense.

A-players are your greatest assets. They produce more results than two or three B-players, so invest what it takes to find and keep them.

Don’t fall into the habit of neglecting them because they are so self-sufficient. It’s vital to have your pulse on how they are doing at all times because:

A-players have two dangerous tendencies: boredom and overwhelm.

They will be bored to tears if you don’t let them handle increasingly difficult challenges. That’s why a favorite question for A-players is, “Are you challenged enough? Too much?”

Having said this, most A-players will not cry uncle when they’ve exceeded their limit. If you push them to the point of overwhelm, they may cut and run.

The key is to strike a delicate balance. Keep them challenged. Make sure it’s sustainable.

Help your "B-players" become "A-players."

While the majority of your effort should be spent hiring and grooming A-players, your B-players deserve the chance to move up the roster. they are a cultural fit and that’s a significant starting point.

Often B-players just need development, confidence boosting, or a tweak to their role so it’s more in their sweet spot. You may convert them to an A through coaching, mentoring and/or training.
Whatever you do, don’t set them up for mediocrity by forcing them into a sour spot. No one will benefit.

The key to transforming your B’s to A’s is to help them see their gifts, and accept their weaknesses. Just because someone wants to be in a management role doesn’t mean they should be. If their true gifts are as a technician or individual contributor, that’s the only way they will ever be an A-player.

It’s your job to identify how people can thrive, and guide them to be their personal best.

Manage out the "C’s."

People often get messed up by putting too much energy into C-players, diligently trying to help them improve. That’s what you call throwing good money after bad. Do not be soft with your C’s.
Even if they somehow manage to improve their performance, you’ll never force them to be a cultural fit.

Give them a fair shot, of course. Make sure you’ve clearly communicated the culture of the company, and the expectations of their role. If they still can’t measure up, set them free so they can find a place where they are naturally an A-player.

Be ruthless about hiring.

Most hiring is way too casual, amounting to chit chat and a wild leap of faith. You probably wouldn’t get married after some pleasant banter over cappuccino. Don’t hire people this way either.

Too many hiring decisions are made on great first impressions, but this has little correlation to actual skill and talent.

If your hiring process is deep, methodical and unsentimental, your chances of landing A-players skyrocket. You know how deeply you know someone after you’ve taken a long trip together? Yeah, that’s how well you should know your candidates.

Seem impossible? Not at all. That’s the level of familiarity you get with a super-thorough, ruthless hiring methodology. Don’t let your HR people resist you on this. They may dismiss the idea of using a methodology at first because it’s unfamiliar. But the proof is in the pudding.

My final word of advice: before you draft that offer letter, put your candidates to work.

If someone says they are an expert in conflict resolution, bridge design, blog writing or programming, let them prove it to you. This simple and obvious step in hiring is often missed. Seeing people in action is a sure way to separate the talkers from the doers.

So yes, hiring A-players takes time and scrutiny. But it’s far less painful than hiring mediocre people and cleaning up the mess later.