I’ve always struggled to hire the right people. Often, candidates who respond well during the interview process turn out to be disappointing after they start. Within two weeks, I know I’ve made a mistake.
When I started Posse, I hired a team of 12 in the first year and appointed five directors. I remember looking around the table at our Christmas lunch a year later and realizing that every single person that I’d hired in those first 12 months had left, including four of the directors. So, I had a problem: Either I was terrible at picking people, or I wasn’t managing them successfully after they started. My new board started to ask questions. I attended a couple of management courses and hired a leadership coach. I learned several things I could do to improve our recruitment process and how I worked with new employees in their first few weeks. I also learned that even the best managers claim at best an 80 percent success rate. No matter how good I become, at least one in five new hires are not going to work out.
Recently we’ve been scaling up again, and I’ve hired a bunch of new people. All of the concepts I learned during my training have helped, and our group is strong, but until a few weeks ago, I felt uneasy. Had I nailed it this time? An ambitious start-up like ours will only succeed with an A-plus team. Steve Jobs famously said, “A small team of A-plus players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the situation, trying to determine the factors that distinguish an A-plus employee from a B-plus employee. Mr. Jobs spoke about trusting your gut – how you feel when you’re with the person. This may be great advice if you have his gut, but it doesn’t work for me. I tend to like everyone, and that makes it tougher.
We have some excellent players on our team. I look around my office as I write this blog, and it occurs to me that they all share three traits: drive, cultural fit and raw intelligence. These will be the things I look for as I continue to build my team.
What is their personal ambition and drive, and are they happy with their achievements at Posse? What do they want? The best employees arrive at the office full of ideas to share: They have been thinking about Posse at night and can’t wait to put their ideas into action. By contrast, B players just put in the hours. They smile but drop comments indicating that they are looking forward to Friday, or that Monday is not their favorite day of the week. Personally, I love Monday mornings – I have a full week to make stuff happen before we have to stop for the weekend.
I’ve found that one good way of assessing a prospective employee’s drive is to review their careers. One of the people I hired recently had done a lot of volunteer work in politics. It was obvious that this was her passion. She interviewed well, and I hired her. But after she started, all she talked about was politics. Posse was just a job to earn money; she could never be A-plus. An A-plus player is likely to have passions outside work, but not passions they’d rather be doing than being on the team at Posse.
2. Cultural fit
A thriving team of A-plus players feels amazing, everyone bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. The energy is electric. But it takes only one negative person — someone who doesn’t believe in or care about the vision — to bring down everyone else. It goes back to what Mr. Jobs said about trusting your gut. How does the person make you feel? The problem is, I find it hard to know how I feel about someone until I’ve spent quite a lot of time with them. I fall in love with everyone quickly but then fall out of love just as fast.
Recently, I’ve narrowed the field of candidates to two or three people that I like and then invited them to meet the rest of the team. I’ve done this five times in the last year, and twice the team rejected all of the candidates. Once, I overrode the team — I was sure he was the right person, and we really needed to fill the position. Within a month, I knew I had made a mistake. In team brainstorming sessions, where everyone would throw out crazy ideas, he’d sit in the corner and criticize. I know that teams need all types to work effectively, but negativity is a killer. Some people told me privately that they didn’t feel comfortable sharing ideas in a group format any more; they were afraid he’d criticize them.
3. Raw intelligence or talent
In the past, I’ve considered experience and connections when hiring. In fact, these are not relevant to a small ambitious business like ours; experience is often a bad thing. On several occasions, I’ve hired people from big-name companies, and they arrived at Posse expecting that things would work in a similar fashion.
Now, I can identify talent and intelligence during the interview process. One of the best people who recently joined our team was employed at a consulting company with which we were working. I had seen the quality of her work over a couple of months and knew she was a superstar. The other two great hires we’ve made have been previous colleagues of existing team members. If I don’t know the person, then I ask lots of questions during the interview process in which the candidate must think in order to come up with a creative answer. I also ask pure logic questions just to get a sense of how they process information and generate solutions.
In the past, I have not had a lot of success picking the best talent, but I have learned to recognize stars and hold onto them once they’re in. I’ve also learned to let go of mistakes quickly. I’m happy to report that our current team is pumping, which is good. We have major plans ahead.