How to Build a Leadership Team…and Avoid Befriending a Volleyball

Varun Mehta
September 1, 2020

Visualize yourself in the middle of the ocean. You’re a good swimmer, but the current is strong. You’re pulled under the water, then gasp for air as the current pulls you right, left, back, right, and left again. Suddenly, you see a familiar orange shape bobbing up ahead - a life jacket. You summon all your energy and butterfly stroke toward it, grab it, and hang on. 

Ok fine, it was more of a doggie paddle. And at the beginning of my time at Factor, this was how I built a leadership team. Each member was another life jacket I could hang onto, providing me the immediate, easy-access lift I was looking for. “This is fine!” I remember thinking as I fulfilled all that was required as the New Captain of this proverbial ship. Juggling all constituencies between our clients, the board, our 500 people around the globe or the nearly two dozen direct reports….the current was strong and my swimming was subpar at best.  

In retrospect, I was "fine" in the way that Tom Hanks in Cast Away was fine. And if anyone needed the right team, it was that guy. 

Tom Hanks cultivating camradrie in his film Castaway

I needed to do more than stay above water. I needed to find the group of people that were going to navigate Factor through the ocean so we would not only survive, but thrive. I discovered I didn’t actually need life jackets at all - I needed a crew that was capable of steering the ship.  

Mistakes were made. I did not always dig deep enough on the alignment of a candidate with Factor’s culture. Getting specific about the responsibilities and requirements of the role were at times things I glossed over. Letting my anxiety reign, I often looked for the closest and easiest life jackets I could grab versus ensuring we were aligning on the right role fore the individual and the right individual for the role.

I’m happy to say the leadership team at Factor has been built. The crew is aboard the ship. It took me some time to learn how to orient toward building a sustainable, effective team. Here are some lessons learned along the way: 

Fit is everything.

There is a particular alchemy to hiring, and the right person for the right role at that right time can turn a placement into gold. Spread your search broad and deep. Combine a person’s skill and desire to perform a role with a role that matches those skills and desires. If you know a person that fits that match, consider yourself lucky, and don’t be afraid to look beyond your contact list.  

The right hire takes time.

I leaned heavily on the existing leadership team to educate me on where Factor had been, where it was now, and what it needed. Reaching out beyond leadership to team members across the globe and across all levels gave me a layered, dynamic picture of what was essential. Learning what I needed took time, but it was essential to prioritize thoughtfulness over speed. 

Get mentored.

The leaders I admire most have regular contact with mentors. This is not for lack of experience, but rather due to an understanding that great leadership is not a solitary act. I leaned on my network of mentors for hiring advice. With their guidance, an understanding of how leadership might best serve Factor in its present stage began to form. 

Cultivate camaraderie.

Onboarding new leaders, I conveyed the needs of the company and worked hard to communicate what success looked like in their role. But orienting them to the team itself was something that wasn’t top of mind. When I realized the most impactful conversations were happening across the leadership team, it was like Tom Hanks building that first fire on the island. He had created the environment for the flames to grow. He could stop trying so hard to get them to catch. 

With these lessons learned, Factor’s leadership team is assembled. Three members of our team were with Factor upon my arrival. Sumera Hassan, Global Head of People, has a knowledge of our team with breadth and depth - it spans all of our offices and takes into account the infinite nuances of culture. As Chief Commercial Officer, Sandy Devine has far-reaching advocacy, and no matter what level a team member is at, Sandy wants them to be able to do their job better the next day. Chris DeConti, Head of Strategy, is an outside-of-the-box thinker (a cliché, I know, which is why I need Chris on my team). 

The members of the team who have joined us complement us and supplement us. John Dillon has a passion for shaping our vision and an ability to execute it, a rare quality in a CFO. Ed Sohn is a lawyer with deep roots in technology, design and innovation (another rarity), and as Head of Solutions, he has his ear to the ground for what’s next in legal. Roxann M. Erxleben brings sage-like wisdom to problem solving and creates foundations that make a vision achievable.

With all roles filled on Factor’s leadership team, I’ve been given the lift I was looking for, but it’s not the kind where I’m just staying above water. Instead, I’ve been hoisted up on the deck of the ship by the team around me. 

Each of us are clear on our roles and responsibilities, and our aspirations for Factor are aligned. All of us as individuals combine to form a team with a striking symbiosis. That’s what we should all be looking for when we build a team. Not the “best,” not the person you know, but the combination of people who are going to work in unison to steer the ship together. What we have at Factor feels special. There are others out there who could have done the job, but very few who would create this kind of magic. 

 And without them, I would be drawing a lot of smiley faces on a lot of volleyballs.