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Sam Prochazka reviewed dozens of CVs for the manager of customer service position at his company. Or maybe it was hundreds.

“I honestly lost count,” Prochazka said.

That was four years ago, when Prochazka and his partners were setting up, an online mattress company based in Alberta, Canada. They knew the success of ordering beds online hinged largely on happy customers — and that meant a call centre run by a sympathetic and pragmatic leader.

One of the better applicants was a woman with years of experience in customer service. So Prochazka performed a simple test, scouring her application for errors, as he does for all applicants. He found just one misspelled word, which he asked her to correct, then to resend her CV. Prochazka believes this “test” is a good way to see how potential hires will handle a problem.

“She sent me back an email that said, ‘Well, I sent it to my parents and my co-workers and they didn’t see any problem with it’,” Prochazka said.

If that’s how she responded to a prospective employer, that’s probably how she would respond — dismissively — to customers, he thought. Worse, she was interviewing to oversee the customer service department, and the team she’d set up would follow her lead in how she dealt with problems. Prochazka recalled: “As soon as that response came in, it was game over.”

Prochazka’s approach to hiring may seem tough, but research has shown that a company’s success often hinges on how well it can set up teams of employees.

Think constellations, not stars

Teambuilding hasn’t always received such attention. Until about a decade ago, most of the focus was on simply hiring the right individual star players.

Sure, that’s still important. But research by a pair of Harvard University professors in 2004 found that a vast majority of the success of teams is determined by how well they were set up at the start. They found that things like a clear direction and a supportive environment often dictate whether teams would hit their goals.

Yet this big-picture approach is not always easy at the pace we work and grow companies today. Maybe you’ve been asked to set up the new Beijing office in a week or hire a pool of research and development staff in a hurry.

“When you talk about collaboration between members of a team, there are a lot of factors that are unpredictable,” said Sujin Jang, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD graduate business school in Fontainebleau, France. But there are factors you, as a manager, can control — even if you’ve gotten off to the wrong start.

Hiring smart at the start is obvious. Then you’ve got to give those new employees a clear sense of what they need to accomplish — together. They also must understand the strengths of other team members and how to lean on them to help each other and themselves. If one team member is a budgeting veteran, for instance, the other team members can benefit by handing off number-crunching to the expert.

Getting those right gives you a 50-50 chance at building a team that succeeds, Jang said. Up next: the initial team meeting, which will also be a major factor in determining if your team can meet its goals.

“That first meeting goes a long way in getting co-workers to understand one another and what they’re capable of doing,” Jang said.

This is made all the more difficult because employees are increasingly spread out across multiple locations, talking only by phone or video (and that takes some delicate management to manage from afar to begin with. Jang suggests looking for people who have a more cosmopolitan mind-set, who understand how to work and relate across cultures.

Finding well-travelled employees is especially important if you need people familiar with the fine art of cross-border communication, for example the abrupt style common in northern Europe, the polite banter of the UK, or the straight-to-business approach in the US.

That’s the mix Prochazka needed for his online mattress company, considering the business would be spread out between Alberta, Vancouver and the US.

“We knew the first people hired had to be absolutely perfect, so we took the ‘hire slow, fire fast’ approach,” he said.

Prochazka eventually found an ideal candidate for his head of customer service. In fact, he’s had only two employees in that role in the past four years.

Prochazka credits those managers with helping his mattress business achieve a return rate of just 3%, well below the 10% average return rate for online retailers of home goods. More than that, the company has even gotten favourable reviews from people who ended up returning a product.

“We see that as a huge success,” Prochazka said.

Maybe his company could have succeeded with the applicant who didn’t know the difference between “there” and “their” on her CV. But it’s a good bet that Prochazka’s meticulous approach to teambuilding is exactly what leads to success.