Searching for the 'x' factor

What elite sport and jazz music show us in our search for the 'x' factor when building teams


"We need someone with the 'x' factor – someone special that will bring something new to the team."

"Ok, but can you be more specific? A person with very different experience to the rest of us, or is there certain skills you are after?"

Sound familiar? A CEO, board member or team leader seeks to describe to a colleague the person they would like to recruit.

This often used phrase is easy to criticize, leading to many a raised eyebrow and grasp of the chin in a bid to ascertain how to go about finding such a candidate. Where to start?

Perhaps the first step is to recognize that by definition the "___" factor is that mysterious, undefinable quality which the individual is able to exhibit with a degree of consistency. In his book Legacy, former New Zealand rugby sevens coach and current Samoa rugby sevens coach Sir Gordon Tietjens uses the phrase frequently as he describes the process he went through to put together winning teams. And win they did. He was noted at one point to be the most successful coach based on win percentage in any professional sport. Simply phenomenal. Clearly he had an undefinable quality in his makeup that enabled a continued pursuit of success and an unprecedented ability to convert that pursuit into results. So is the 'x' factor measured by win ratio?

I was full of anticipation for the mention of a certain player in among Sir Gordon's discussion of those with the 'x' factor. Tomasi Cama was a magician of a player who could conjure something special for both himself and his team mates. He had 'x' factor by the bucket load and used it to great success over a number of seasons within the parameters set in the New Zealand rugby sevens team to achieve their stated goals. Sir Gordon's view of him? "...the most wildly unpredictable player I think I have ever selected."

So far our clues towards the 'x' factor are shaping up to be the measurable ability to create and achieve success, paired with the unpredictability to leave competitors guessing and team mates achieving. But what else?

Those tasked with the hunt for such people in business often look to the creative industries, those with a track record of innovation and entrepreneurs. Aside from the search itself, how can one create the conditions to allow people to show their true self during an assessment or interview? Dare we say, to perhaps show a little of their 'x' factor in the process you wish your candidates to go through in order to secure their spot on the team.

Jazz music is often written on manuscript with the opening defined: The chords, notes and rhythm clearly set. Yet there is then a part of the piece where the chords may remain; for example, shown in the bass part of the script, but with the treble section left blank. The musician can maintain the rhythm required of the piece, say with their left hand when playing the piano, and improvise with the right hand.

In Sir Gordon's rugby sevens program, all of the players had to be incredibly fit with no exceptions. He emphasized that "culture and conditioning" were the foundations. He tested and reinforced these continually (the rhythm) while creating training and gameplay opportunities for creativity and that which can't be defined (improvisation) to be demonstrated by his team.

Elite sport and jazz music have much in common in being structured to enable improvisation within the desired parameters. Business could too. Instead of processes designed to ask the candidate to verbalize the points in their experience that meet the requirements of the role – in fact delivering in verbal form the cover letter and CV they have already delivered in written form to get to this very interview – the lessons of other fields would guide us to take a different approach.

First, to clearly set the requirements, goals and rhythm. Second, to be confident that the person can meet these. Third, to enable them the time to improvise, express themselves, and maybe even demonstrate that successful unpredictability we crave: Maybe even show us the 'x' factor.


Legacy, Sir Gordon Tietjens. Penguin Random House New Zealand, 2017

Use three talent pools to become an agile  outcome driven company small

Read next:

Use three talent pools to become an agile, outcome-driven company