As Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith of the A-Team used to say: “I love it when a plan comes together”. Don’t we all? But so often it doesn’t (quite) or it’s two steps forward, one step back. Why?

In the business world, most business leaders and investors will agree that ultimately the quality of the leadership team will be one of the biggest factors for the success of a venture. A phenomenal team, or an A team, generally ensures an exceptional business achieves its potential and even relatively mediocre ones do pretty well. Yet there often seems to be a surprising reluctance to make radical changes to upgrade the team when it falls short, nor is there enough clarity on the typical characteristics of an A team.

A while back I was speaking at a CEO event for Real Business and we asked the 100+ audience to put their hands up if they felt one or more members of their team were not up to scratch. To my amazement, most of the room put their hands up. When we asked only those who were doing something about it to keep their hands up, the hand count dwindled from nearly a hundred to a handful. Yet these businesses were ambitious to grow?

I know from personal experience it’s a tough call to say: “You are the weakest link, goodbye” but it is better to do so kindly rather than suffer the consequences of underperformance and indecisiveness. Like most leaders, I wanted to be liked and it took me a while to realise it’s better to aim to be ‘an iron hand in a velvet glove’ and whilst you may risk your popularity you will generally be respected more for it by your colleagues. In the early days, one of my PE investors used to describe weaker members of the team as ‘enthusiastic amateurs’. This was not a reflection on experience but on their potential to excel. It hurt, but the truth is he was right!

As a business leader, you have to be like the conductor of an orchestra. Nobody expects you to play every instrument exceptionally well, but your role is to bring the very best out of the best talents you can attract and develop.

Too often, not enough work goes into what the characteristics of an A team are. To help you build the best team in the first place, I’ve asked around and here are my favourite top 10:

  1.      A credible leader with a compelling vision, passion, energy and persistence
    Who recognises his/her own strengths/weaknesses and fills the team with diversity (gender/age/background/experience) to complement them. An authentic sense of purpose helps enormously.
  1.      Have lived the challenge and the pain first hand
    In particular, where it relates to the compelling issue(s) their business addresses and have shown how they tackle obstacles. This requires deep sector knowledge.
  1.      Bring positive energy to the room to inspire others
    No energy vampires – a bias for action.
  1.      Coachability/willingness to learn
    A sense of curiosity and openness to new ideas.
  1.      A focus on team objectives, not their own
    A willingness to address the facts, putting emotions aside when required. The approach has been described as rugby/cricket (team) rather than golf (individual). It’s no good using team language but playing an individual sport! (This applies to compensation too).
  1.      Minimal hierarchy
    Everybody really must have a voice and the quieter ones should be encouraged to contribute.
  1.      Culture and values underpin behaviours
    Non-adherence is not accepted, even for high performers.
  1.      Clear two-way communication channels
    Embracing the use of emotional intelligence.
  1.      Adaptability
    Recognition that the balance of skills and experience in the team will need to change over time as the business/market develops.
  1.     Healthy tension
    A challenge process which discourages “group think”. I particularly like Edward De Bono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ and getting team members to role-play different hats to their usual ones as part of the decision making process.

I don’t profess to have got all of this right myself – it’s a journey of continual learning. This is hopefully a useful framework to assess your own organisation’s leadership team and do please share your thoughts on what you think makes an A team. Join the conversation on Twitter at @growth4good.

[I’d like to thank Siobhan Clarke at  and the Partner/Director team at  for their contributions to this blog].