The Entrepreneur Life

Tag: Attitude

Hiring for Skills, Talent AND Values? One Story

In a recent Forbes article, Nathan Bennett and Stephen A. Miles state,

Repeatedly we hear from executives that the talent pool is not nearly as challenging to navigate as is what we have come to call the “values pool.” We suggest that, […], the real shortage facing companies in the future will be less about finding individuals with the knowledge, skills and abilities to do the job than about finding individuals whose personal value system provides a fit with the company’s values and mission.


Photo Credit: –Mark– via Compfight

Anyone who has run or worked in a startup knows how true this is. In our own startup Impulsesoft, at the very beginning (circa 1999) there was no such separation of values and talent. When you are less than eight people, everybody better be able to pull their own weight – but then again the reason you do a startup (at least the reason we did) is to work with people who share your values and vision. It’s when you try to begin hiring beyond the first few – the core team, the importance of values becomes real apparent. We went through four distinct phases in our startup –

[i] can we get anyone else to even join us?
we got started without a lot of forethought or planning. We even got our first customer signed up, before we bought our first computer. Now there was the minor matter of actually doing the work. It dawned on us then that with no money, no office and no clear grand strategy could we even get anyone else to join us. We talked a good story I can tell you that – but when our first prospective employee’s dad showed up to check us out, we knew we had a challenge on our hands. However values were paramount at this phase, as we felt we had the talent to get the job, any job, done!

[ii] lets focus on bringing only these three/four folks on board
Once we had our share of new college grads (NCGs) come by, wisdom bloomed. We were not going to be able to do it all – hustle customers, write proposals and actually write code – let alone direct the still not-steady-on-their-feet NCGs. By now we’d been talking to ex-colleagues who shared our values and skillwise walked-on-water; they saw that we were not yet dead and realized there might be something here after all. Suddenly we had a core team, that was incredibly talented and well aligned.

[iii] how fast can we hire hands & bodies and bring ’em on board?
Suddenly we were a real business, with customers signed up for products we hadn’t built yet, and paying customers expecting us to support them with prototypes we had shipped as product. The software managers wanted more coders – the hardware folks more designers and everyone wanted more testers – we just went crazy trying to find the “talent pool” – if you could walk, string a set of C code together and didn’t drool excessively, we hired you! Even the talent bar probably got shaky in this phase.

[iv] what the hell where we thinking in phase [iii]
When products still didn’t work as advertised and customers were no happier, having paid up even more money and our own managers ready to kill some of their staff, we began wondering what the hell had we been thinking? The questions now were how do we let go of these folks and get folks with the right values and attitude even if we have to teach ’em the right skills? The lesson we learnt was that though we had hired talented folks, they had come up real short in both attitude and vision alignment. Our hiring process about which we had become quite proud (It’s hard to get hired at Impulsesoft, we’d say) had become too much talent focused and too little value focused in phase [iii]; the fact that I am writing this today means we learned from this and while it hurt us, it didn’t kill us. But then again that’s the sort of lesson that stays with you.

Bennett and Miles are right – only the future is here NOW!


Service – it’s a mindset

For over ten years now I have tried not to miss the Palo Alto Library book sale, that’s held the second Saturday of every month. In the early days I’d go berserk picking up every book that I could lay my hands on (at $1 for hardbacks and 25 cents for paperbacks could you blame me?). In December when I was in San Jose, I took a much more leisurely stroll through the sale. Besides a pulp novel for the plane ride, I picked up only one book, “The Customer Driven Company” by Richard C. Whitely. Little did I suspect how appropriate this book was going to be to my ride home. I guess when we are ready, the lessons seek us out.

It began at Chicago – despite some 200 flights being cancelled earlier that day, my flight to Paris was going to be on time! Thanking the travel gods, I ran to get into line for my check in. Once I got to the counter, is when my troubles began. To save you the gory details, the litany of woes from here on out included:

  • They didn’t have a vegetarian meal for me – worse yet the lady couldn’t care less – when I showed her my printed itinerary with the AVL tag on it, she said “That’s Delta’s computer system – its not in ours” (it was a code share flight). Then she coolly went on to call out for the next customer!
  • In Paris, they board all of us (still with no AVL), and after nearly an hour on board, announce they have a problem with the potable water system and engineers are trying to fix it. An hour later they say there are still trying and we should stay put. An elderly gentleman, walks up to a flight steward and tells him that he is diabetic and asks could he have some orange juice. The steward responds (I am not making this stuff up) “We have water – if we gave you juice, we’d have to give everyone juice.” Finally after four hours (during which the flight crew was found snacking and drinking juice in the rear) we are asked to deplane – all 350 of us – and head back to the transfer counter
  • The only silver lining at the transfer counter (we get in line around 3PM) is that all passengers are treated with truly equal disdain without discrimination on the basis of skin color, nationality or gender. By 5PM we are actually given some bottles of water, juice and sandwiches arrive at 6PM. The plight of the folks who were unfortunate enough to be travelling with kids was truly appalling. Each passenger was being re-routed (next day, same day through Dubai, or via Frankfurt). The miracle was even at this point, NONE of the passengers were yelling or screaming. By mid-night there is a near riot, when the remaining passengers are told they may have to stay over yet another day. Till the time, I got my own ticket re-routed to London Heathrow and then onward to my final destination, no airline official had explained to any of the waiting passengers what was being done – let alone apologize for the inconvenience to the customers. The irony of standing in line reading “The Customer Driven Company” seemed lost to any the crew members.
  • Beyond all these indignities, what stayed with me was the surly nature and utter indifference of the crew even in the normal flight, going out to San Francisco from Paris and on the way back from Chicago to Paris. It made me wonder what is it that makes, an entire crew and later ground staff, in essence a statistically large sample of the organization behave without any semblance of a customer service mindset.

I have been travelling across the Pacific (ANA, Cathay, Malaysian, Singapore, Thai) and the Atlantic (Air India, American, Delta, Lufthansa, United) for more than twenty years. In the last five years, I have travelled a minimum of five times a year internationally and put in my share of hops on Jet Airways, Kingfisher, Ryan Air and Southwest as well. This makes me a reasonable judge of the service levels for air travel. While by no means is poor service the sole prerogative of my (via) Paris trip, surly and inconsiderate cabin crew has been seen on Delta, United and occassionally even on Thai – the French experience was on an altogether new low. A casual browse through the Internet shows that my experiences are by no means unique.

Every airline has problems, often caused by things way out of their control – however, how they respond to it is totally in their control. This is true for every business and in our own lives. Truly successful businesses, Singapore Airlines and Nordstrom jump to mind, lay great emphasis on having a customer service mindset. And this shows how they respond especially when things don’t turn out they way they are supposed to. As someone who has travelled with two kids multiple times across the Pacific, I can personally vouch for what a world of difference a customer service mindset can make even when the kids are sick and throwing up, the TV doesn’s work and your special meal is no where to be found. A graceful smile, an apology, an understanding nod, maybe an extra blanket or pillow go a long way to not only making a passenger comfortable even in adverse circumstances but convert them to a lifelong customer. You’d think this would be simple – alas even good companies that knew how to do it well even on a short haul flight across California (such as AirCal, PSA) lost it when they were acquired by larger airlines and of course the trans-oceanic flight history is littered with its share of horrow stories (can you say TWA)!

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