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[Interview] Omar L. Harris, Author Of “Leader Board”

Omar L. Harris is passionate about leading teams, high- performance coaching, and inspiring more people to adopt the servant leader mindset. A 20-year veteran of the global pharmaceutical industry, he now resides in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he is General Manager of Allergan PLC. He’s also a bestselling novelist and author: his newest book is Leader Board: The DNA of High Performance Teams. We got the opportunity to talk about the power of teams, and why it takes more than company standouts to drive real success.

As Harris says, the strength of a high-powered team greatly eclipses the performance of any individual. The secret is knowing how to hire to create it.

In your experience as a GM, do you think teams are more important than high performing individuals?

First of all, thanks for the opportunity to speak on this subject to your readers at YoungUpstarts! There is a theory of A players that has become sort of an organizational driver for the past 40 years or so. This A player theory is seductive to senior management for 2 reasons: 1) They consider themselves A players, and think they have achieved their positions due to their individual talents; and 2) It is far easier to focus on a few talented employees than attempting to develop the entire people-base of an organization.

I look at it differently because positive psychology and strengths-based management principles teach us that everyone is talented in a unique way. The role of managers should be to help their employees uncover these unique talents, and then combine them with other equally unique and talented individuals for the most robust result. This does not happen as most managers are still unaware of the power of these principles — and are far more focused on achieving results than developing people. But all individuals have the power to be high-performing individuals who, when combined as a team, will perform far better than any one person.

What was the impetus for your book, “Leader Board”?

I had the idea back in 2005, when I was the product manager on a high performing team in the US. I knew there was something unique about the way our leaders put us together and aimed our collective talents at our very ambitious goals. But at the time I was an individual contributor, and not a team leader. So I needed to grow into a leadership capacity myself and test the practices we’d established in other enterprises and cultural contexts before feeling comfortable that the advice would help others. I started writing the book in 2015 after becoming General Manager of a 900-person operation in Indonesia. As I was writing and consolidating the ideas and principles, I was also implementing them at scale at an enterprise level. I know what works from direct personal experience.

Explain the process of writing Leader Board: why did you decide to create fictional leaders?

I am a novelist first and foremost: I published a bestselling novel, One Blood (under my pseudonym, Qwantu Amaru) back in 2011. So I wanted to put my narrative talents to good use. Second, I was inspired by leadership fables by authors like Cristina Wodke and Patrick Lencioni — I felt like this was a relatively fresh approach to a business book. And finally, I really wanted to demonstrate through the story how some of the principles could be practically implemented, making them far more accessible.

Talk about the work of Bruce Tuckman, the psychologist who came up with a framework for developing teams. How has he influenced your own work?

Bruce Tuckman was an amalgamator of ideas, much like me. His seminal paper is really a summary of a bevy of group psychology work that had been done over a period of years. The genius in his work is that he found the thread that connects how people connect and perform tasks together. I’ve worked on countless teams in my career, and once you learn Tuckman’s model you can literally see a group forming, storming, norming, and performing. As a leader of teams and now large organizations, I can quickly diagnose issues within groups and address them decisively — which helps us all achieve our reason for working together in the first place: organizational success.

Do you think teams’ function in the same way in a larger organization as they do in an SMB?

To each employee of a company, the company is filtered through the lens of a single individual — their manager. Therefore, an organization’s size is far less relevant than the capability of the organization’s managers to align their teams, develop their people, and harness their collective talent.  I think it is much harder to right the ship in a larger organization than in an SMB when teams begin to have dysfunction, because each manager must be addressed and improved to improve the overall company. Conversely, in a small company, each manager has a much larger impact on the chances for success.

Can you talk about the concept of servant leadership versus power-based leadership? So many in business are used to wielding power to get results. Why is this such a problematic approach?

Power-based leadership has its root in the military. It made sense in a male-dominated corporate world, where most employees had some degree of military experience and a high degree of respect for rank, file, and hierarchy. That world doesn’t exist anymore. Yet the pursuit of personal power in organizations is still an ideal some aspire to. However, the moment we got rid of the corner offices and moved into open space, we should have also discarded the management principles that went with those structures. Work has transformed significantly, and therefore requires a different ideal. We need more of those who aspire to leadership because of the good they feel they can do for others, rather than the good they selfishly wish for themselves.

You’ve got some really interesting points about how to recruit and interview the best talent for any given organization. Can you talk about interviewing methods to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak?

The fastest way to form a high-performance team is to slow down the recruitment process. Therefore, I’ve developed a multi-step process that minimizes the chance of a bad hire. It starts with making sure the right talents are attracted to a given position by writing a very clear job description, with even clearer entry and exclusion criteria. HR will screen candidates for the needed competency and experience, and then a values-fit panel will look beyond a candidate’s role fit and gauge their level of match for the culture of the organization.

Afterwards, a business case presentation can be used to put the candidate through their paces and expose them to more of the teammates they will be working alongside. Throughout this process I am looking to assess experience, competence, and values. Lastly, I conduct an interview to dig deeper into a candidate’s degree of work ethic, heart, optimism, and maturity, the attributes I value most in my colleagues — an acronym I call W.H.O.M. I have learned over time that the people who will integrate and contribute much faster to the company’s performance are those who work hard, have shared passion and enthusiasm, are solution-oriented, and mature enough to overcome inevitable disappointment and conflicts.

In terms of a great team player, what does the ideal candidate look like?

Great team players put team goals above personal glory. They understand that when the team wins, everyone wins. They are actively engaged by the mission and purpose of the team and are willing to work diligently and overcome all obstacles until success is achieved. Also, they are highly aware of their unique capabilities, skills, and talents, and know when and how to bring them to bear for the good of the team. Thank you so much for the interview — you asked excellent questions!

To learn more, visit www.omarlharris.com.

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Daniel Goh is the founder and chief editor of Young | Upstarts, as well as an F&B entrepreneur. Daniel has a background in public relations, and is interested in issues in entrepreneurship, small business, marketing, public relations and the online space. He can be reached at daniel [at] youngupstarts [dot] com.

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