Thomas Brooke

Team Building Is Like… Surfactants And Defoamers

The opposite effects of surfactants and defoamers in paint provide a great analogy for hiring and building successful teams.

When you are formulating a coating, you need a surfactant or wetting agent to ensure the coating spreads over the surface. But the nature of how surfactants work, reducing surface tension, tends to create bubbles; hence the need for a defoamer. The two opposites must be balanced to create a workable coating. And of course, they both interact with the polymer resin, as well as other additives. They contribute essentially opposite characteristics to the coating – yet you need them both. The tension and balance between the two is the difference between a successful coating and pretty much a disaster.

Human nature has some similar variables. Strong strengths in one area go hand-in-hand with weak weaknesses in another. A healthy, effective organization needs a balance of many different personality types, but they all have to work together effectively for the business to be successful.

When it comes to hiring, it’s important to remember that if you have a surfactant – a high-flying, high-energy sales person to get “coverage” in your market, for example – you will probably need a defoamer – a solid account maintenance person (account management, customer support, tech service or other similar title depending on your organization) to solve problems, smooth and nurture ongoing relationships. The two are different, and generally will not do each other’s job well. Making your top sales person handle the ongoing minutiae of the accounts they have brought in will quite possibly kill their motivation (and their sales momentum); and requiring your customer service or account management team to sell and close new business often causes significant stress. But together, each doing what they are good at, they can be highly effective.

There isn’t a one-ingredient coating; but a series of highly specialized individual components, carefully formulated to work together effectively, can be combined to create almost any performance characteristics you want. Just because a surfactant may cause foam doesn’t make it “bad” – it is just the nature of how it is effective in doing its primary job of wetting. Yet many hiring managers make the mistake of looking for mutually exclusive personality traits in one individual, or view the natural flip-side of a key skill as a weakness to avoid. They focus on trying to avoid weaknesses, yet that frequently eliminates candidates with exceptional strengths.

Successful teams are like successful coatings – a carefully-chosen combination of specialized components, sometimes with opposing characteristics

For example, we recently worked with the President of a small company who wanted someone with an “entrepreneurial mindset” for a new role that was being created as part of a brand-new initiative for the company. There wasn’t a road map and the person would have to develop ideas from scratch and scrounge resources internally to get what they needed. Yet the President really struggled to see that the same person who would be willing to take on that kind of risk, think on their feet and make decisions on the fly might not have the perfect corporate career progression on their resume. He wanted the wetting characteristic of the surfactant but not the foam. He turned down several very strong entrepreneurial candidates out of concern they might not stay with the organization or might be disruptive to some long-term, underperforming but basically dependable people they would have to interact with on an ongoing basis. While the concerns were valid, it’s important to recognize that the very nature of the role he initially contemplated is one that suits someone who wants to build, not someone who wants to maintain – so there’s a strong probability it will take a different person to run that business once established than it to set it up in the first place.

That’s not to say the other characteristics are not important to consider. If someone is a high flier in terms of individual performance but too disruptive to the business, that is not a solution. The key is in looking for the primary strength first – the core, essential characteristic that will cause someone to succeed in attaining the main goal you are hiring them for – and then seeing if you can live with the other characteristics, rather than doing it backwards by trying to avoid weaknesses first, which will probably eliminate some people with real strengths from ever being considered.

In the case above, the President just didn’t truly want what “entrepreneurial” really implied, when he met the entrepreneurial types who were ready to make this new idea take off. We ended up placing a very nice, reliable, diligent person in the job who will not rock the boat and who will probably stay until he retires if given the chance. He won’t light a rocket under the new initiative – but for this company, the price of potential disruption or instability was one they didn’t want to pay. The successful candidate’s steady progress is everything they needed.

Don’t be afraid to hire for specialized strengths just because other characteristics go with them: you can, and should, pro-actively “formulate” other parts of your team to counterbalance in order to end up with an effective organization. But at the same time, be aware of the fact that one characteristic may go hand-in-hand with another that you don’t like so much, and ask yourself how important it is to have that desired trait if it comes with potentially problematic side effects.

Understanding the consequences of individual material properties leads to strong formulation, and understanding individual personality characteristics and drivers leads to strong, cohesive teams.

"Great partner on several international searches."David Wolf, Former VP International Sales, Carboline

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