06/13/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2012

The Art and Science of Building Mission-Driven Teams

In today's knowledge-driven economy, the human capital dimension is critical and building a great team takes both art and science. Unfortunately, you only learn by doing and making mistakes so avoiding the pitfalls can be hugely valuable.

I have started and built four companies, the last two of which were highly driven by social missions. All told, I've probably made 50 or more senior management hires and have learned some hard lessons in the process.

So with that as background, here are my seven biggest takeaways for building successful mission-driven teams:

1. Why Are You Here? One of the most important questions to ask a candidate is why are you here? It's a simple question and it gets some very telling answers. How candidates answer this question will tell you most of what you need to know about how strongly they feel about your mission and your company. I always probe to see how much research they have done to get ready for the interview. It is often shocking how many folks don't do much.

2. Hire For Intelligence and Passion. The two things I look for with any new hire are their passion and their intelligence. Passion gets you through the tough times and provides the motivation to work hard. Intelligence is essential for problem solving in an increasingly data-intensive executive environment.

3. Hire for Positive Energy and Fire the Malcontents. It only takes one bad apple to poison the well, especially in a mission-driven company. Conversely, a management team that is imbued with positive energy can take on any challenge. I've learned the hard way that you need to remove the cancer as quickly as possible if you have a team member who is negative, not embracing the mission, or is constantly putting folks down. And be warned, malcontents like to "share" and the bad karma will spread. The biggest error is in seeing the pattern and expecting things to change. If somebody is negative by nature, they are not going to change. If your nose is beginning to twitch, then run, don't walk, to the HR door to start the process of making a go/no-go decision.

4. Don't Overly Rely On References.
I have had numerous false positives with reference checks, even if they are back channel. The only ones that really count are folks you know personally and relatively well. Many folks are afraid for liability reasons to be candid about a candidate's negative qualities.

And when doing references, try to get a full 360-degree view of folks who have worked under, above and alongside the candidate. I once had a potential employee who was a charismatic leader but did not play nice with peers. Her references were all subordinates who raved about her. When we dug around to find folks who had worked side-by-side or above, the picture changed dramatically. A great question I always ask is "what is the worst thing you could tell me about this person"? This forces the reference to get off the sugar coating message.

5. Use Outside Assessment Services. I never hire a member of the management team who has not gone thru an extensive assessment with a third party. It is not gospel but it provides another set of hard data that either supports or does not support the picture that is developing of the candidate. If it does not support then you either need to dig deeper or re-examine your assumptions. And the professionals who do this kind of work also will conduct their own interview and because they do this for a living they are quite good at sleuthing out the reality.

6. Track Record Matters. If you are looking for somebody who is going to succeed, then interview folks who have had some success. Look at the types of teams they have been on. Everyone has also had a stumble or two and you learn a lot (or more) from these too so probe on lessons learned from mistakes. How folks talk about their mistakes can be telling.

We had a stellar candidate whom we asked about mistakes. When she walked us through them, each example was somehow attributable to somebody else. This perked up our ears and the more we probed, the more we found that the candidate did not take responsibility for mistakes, only successes. Bad sign. We passed.

7. Healthy Ego Matters. Strong "A" players are quietly confident but deep down are humble. They are good listeners. They don't need to win every argument so they can have their idea probed and questioned. But at the end of the day, healthy ego is at the root of all great candidates. Conversely, I have never had a failed candidate where the issue did not ultimately sit in a weak ego. It can be arrogance, or insecurity that can lead to poor listening skills, or always needing to win the argument. Or it can be overconfidence and inability to assess risk.

Any management team, but especially mission-driven ones, needs to have a level of strong cohesive spirit or it really screws up the culture. And culture is a key part of creating an environment that breeds passion so there is a certain virtual circle. At the end of the day, recruiting a group of talented individuals that comes together to form a great team is both art and science and you need to use both to get the desired result.