For all of those struggling to hire for your startups – it could be worse!
“He’s my best sales guy. He makes his numbers quarter after quarter! But everyone dreads it when he comes into the office.” My friend was on the verge of tears – it was clear that he was going to have to do something about his sales guy, if he didn’t want others to quit. But he was worried about his star salesman would react and he was not looking forward to it.
We’ve all faced this issue of what to do with that employee – the trustworthy finance guy, who upsets your team members often over trivial amounts; the brilliant technologist who cheeses everybody off with his superior attitude, or the HR manager, who despite the many years she’s been with you, who’s not pulling her weight any more. The timing is rarely right to confront them and the longer you put it off the worse it’s likely to get. We also worry about how we got here and how best to handle it so we retain them without too high an emotional cost. If you are like me, then you put it off for a better time, which rarely comes.
Hiring people is always one of the top 3 problems I hear managers or founders talk about. Implicit in this of course is that matter of hiring the right people. Yet, even after we’ve hired the right people, as neither organizations nor the people stay constant, we run into all kinds of issues. Gil Amelio, who was an inspiring leader (and CEO) at my first employer National Semiconductor, taught me a very simple framework to both talk about this and to aid action.
Attitude and Effectiveness Successful organisations look at not just at proven capabilities and experience that would make a prospective employee effective, but also their attitude and fit with your organisational culture. He used the familiar four quadrant framework, with effectiveness along the y-axis and attitude (or cultural fit) along the x-axis as shown in the figure below.
Quadrant 1 – Neither the right attitude nor effective These are the easiest folks to deal with – they are basically hiring mistakes you’ve made. Ideally you’d not have anyone in this quadrant or if you do, you’d fix your hiring process to minimize recurrence. Lou Adler, author and CEO of the Adler group in his recent article titled “There Are Only Four Types of People — Are You Hiring The Right Ones?” terms these folks Type 1: Those you should never hire!
Quadrant 2 – Have the right attitude but are not effective Usually this is a sign that these folks are in the wrong job. They may have been effective, even in the same job, but no longer are, because the jobs requirements have evolved or they haven’t. Or you’ve placed them in the wrong role. The ineffective sales guy may bloom in a business development role or inside sales job. The trick is to find them a role that they can be effective in. If your organisation is big enough, you may have one or more such roles – sometimes the right role may not be within your department or even company, in which case its best to help them find the right role, whether inside or outside your company.
Quadrant 3 – Have the right attitude and are effective These are your stars – the people who perform consistently and lead from the front. The trick with these folks is to ensure that they are constantly learning and growing. Folks in Quandrant 3 can fall into Quandrant 2, when your company and your needs grow fast and they don’t grow as fast. These are the folks you want to be hiring and your company and its processes should be geared to finding, attracting, retaining and growing Quadrant 3 folks.
Quadrant 4 – Don’t have the right attitude but are effective This is the hardest group to deal with. The obnoxious sales person my friend had to deal with, the supercilious technologist or rude finance guy we met all fall into this quadrant. Two things make it difficult to effect change with these folks –
Organizations suffer the most, because most of us don’t know how best to handle Quadrant 4 folks. The first step is to recognize not only the existence of these four quadrants but that people can move within the quadrants. This is most commonly seen from Quadrant 2 to Quadrant 3 (more effective) through skilling and occasionally to Quadrant 2 from Quadrant 3 (less effective) when the job needs grow and person doesn’t.
I’ve found talking about the four quadrants and even mutually agreeing with your team members where they see themselves and where their peers or you see them helps immensely. This way when it is time to have the hard conversation, you both have a framework and vocabulary that can help keep the conversation professional. In my experience, almost always folks in the Quadrant 4 will have to be let go. We’ve had the occasional technical person build out their interpersonal skills and make the move from Quadrant 4 to Quadrant 3.
Let me know how this works for you.
“Your father? Why?” I asked.
“That way I can honestly tell my friends, who want me to take another job, that my father insisted that I take this one.”
Despite the decade long boom, mini-busts and other bumps along the way, the Indian information technology job market and prospective employee behavior has remained as consistent and confounding as ever.
The recession helped managers find better candidates given the overall market slowdown. Now, the challenge of candidates who’ve accepted your offer actually showing up is likely to reappear. It almost seems as though we have a cultural inability to handle the simple matter of accepting a job or quitting one in a forthright manner.
A hundred years ago the nationalist poet Subramanya Bharati wrote of domestic help and the stories they’d make up for absenteeism: “It was the 12th day since my grandmother’s death” and “there was a scorpion in the rice bowl and it bit me with its teeth” were two of the more outrageous – some say creative – excuses.
Present day job seekers (and changers) have dwarfed Bharati’s imagination with their far greater range of reasons for quitting or not joining after negotiating — often hard — for a better deal.
“I want to work only on communication systems” (or Java or some other flavor of the month.) This from a boy who can barely spell his name. Or, “I plan to go to business or graduate school.” Those are among the most common (and rarely truthful) reasons I’ve heard.
Two of my perennial favorites, even when not true, resonate since they build on the cultural reality of the family’s still influential role in a candidate’s career decision.
“My (future) father-in-law wants to me to work for a multinational corporation” or
“My father wants me to join the family business.”
Of course, none of this can hold up a candle to the candidate who just plain disappears. Emails are not responded to, phone calls are not returned and old-fashioned registered mails are returned undelivered.
Talking with folks who work for us and with peers elsewhere helped identify a number of reasons for this behavior.
“I felt they’d pressure me and I wouldn’t be able to say no.”
Or, “I didn’t want to lie, which is why I didn’t return the calls.”
Or, “I had another offer and was just shopping.”
Or, “I was too embarrassed.”
A surprisingly large number of reasons seem to be about a prospective employer not losing face or potential dire consequences with their present employer. Which makes me wonder about our hiring practices!
As a reader of a previous column suggested, rather than merely wring our hands, here are three things I feel each of us can do to change this.
This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal as My Father-in-Law Wants Me to Work for a MNC & Other Fables online.
Her father is in the lobby, waiting to meet you,” I was told. I wasn’t sure I had heard right, so when I stepped out into the little passage that served as the “lobby” of our start-up, there was indeed a gentleman, probably in his late fifties, waiting there. Granted it’s not every new employee’s father who travels 2,000 km to meet her prospective employers, but as a start-up you should expect the unexpected. More importantly, be prepar ed to do the unexpected to find, hire and retain the right people.
Read the rest here.
In every entrepreneur’s life, there comes a moment when a bulb goes off, “Darn! We are a real business.” You’d think that having embarked with much thought (or for some of us with little thought) on the path of entrepreneurship, learning that you are a real business wouldn’t surprise you. Of course, such a realisation usually occurs when the problems of running a real business put in an appearance.
When you first start your business, it all seems more fun than work — figuring out what you want, whom you are going to make the journey with, whom your customers are and what they want and if you have raised capital, what prospective investors want. Notice, but for the first day, you haven’t had time to think about yourself.
However, soon each new day seems to bring up a number of issues, ranging from life-threatening cash-flow problems to stumbling product development, stuttering sales and marketing and the inability to hire good people fast enough. We will look at each of these issues, and how best to address them over the next few weeks.
Let’s begin with the good news – you are not the first entrepreneur to go through this. The bad news is that this knowledge does not make it any easier to get through this period. As with adolescence that every one of us has had to go through, companies too go through an equivalent phase. Only this seems to appear a lot sooner for entrepreneurial firms and, at times, more than once; as with any hormone-laden teenager this will be a time of monumental emotional ups and downs for your company and you.
The one thing that can help you navigate your way through these emotional rapids is having great people on board with you. I spoke of business being all about people earlier and this is truest in such times of corporate hormonal sloshing. Hiring, retaining and motivating great people is far easier said than done and fixing hiring mistakes always takes far longer than we’d like. The truth is companies that learn how to do this well are the ones that grow and prosper in the end.
Hiring even in the best of circumstances is time-intensive and can be emotionally draining. Nevertheless, it will be hard to over-emphasise the importance of hiring well. Brent Gregory, Fellow at Synopsys, and an ex-colleague said it best, “You can let 10 potential good hires go, but you don’t want to make one bad hire.”
Most of us, especially early in our careers, tend to focus on skills and competence when hiring. In times of great demand, we may end up lowering this talent bar, which is a mistake many an entrepreneur has come to regret. It is vital to first test for cultural fit and team skills – domain skills and competence are critical but insufficient indicators of a good hire. Paul Hawken, founder of Smith & Hawken, goes as far as to say, “Hire the person not the position.”
This may seem radical at best or naïve at the worst, particularly for those of you who are hiring for highly technical positions. All too often, interpersonal and team skills get overlooked when hiring for specialised jobs and the organisation invariably pays a high cost due to the resultant cultural and interpersonal conflicts that arise. This is truer still when hiring for senior or leadership positions.
As an entrepreneur, you should be personally involved in hiring the first 50 or even 100 people, as they will go on to build the DNA of your organisation. It is critical to get a large number of people, including the interviewee’s future peers and direct reports to interview a prospective candidate. Many companies make the error of hiring folks based solely on face-to-face interviews.
Hal Rosenthal, author of The Customer Comes Second believes in “placing candidates in situations beyond the normal scope of their work or in environments away from the work place – sports, driving or informal gatherings.” I have found taking a prospective candidate to the company volleyball game often reveals a lot more than two hours in a conference room. And for every hire, from the mail room boy to an executive director, always ask for and check references. More often than not you’d be glad you did.
People – Letting go
In a previous article, I spoke about how hard it is for most entrepreneurs to let go of a paying customer. The only thing that is harder is admitting that you have made a hiring mistake and letting go of that person in a timely manner. Despite the best hiring practices, you occasionally end up hiring the wrong person. Wrong, because mutual expectations were misunderstood; or the incorrect assumptions made by either party about attitude, competency, culture, the job or working in a team. Usually, the causes of such a mismatch are less important than rectifying the situation, at the earliest. No one enjoys firing or letting go of people – especially in small start-ups where there are few secrets and you get to know a individual at a personal level. This is the very reason for rapid corrective action.
The smaller your company, the greater is the need for zero tolerance of any violation of core values by a team member or worse yet, for being a deadbeat. More than the shock of termination of a poorly hired individual, the cost of delaying decisive action is far higher due to the loss of morale, the damage to your credibility as a leader and the overall emotional toll other employees pay. The upside of definitive action is that it communicates your values and beliefs in a manner no number of posters or lectures can and reinforces the expected behaviour in your organisation.
Once you have built a team of fine individuals, hiring them would seem simple compared to keeping them happy and growing them with the business. Studies show that when a person joins a new job, he or she does so with high morale and much motivation to make a difference.
The onus is upon you to ensure that you do not demotivate them or undermine their morale.
The best way to achieve this is to provide clarity of purpose for both the organisation and the individual, provide them the tools and resources to do their jobs and remove the roadblocks or regulations that would hinder or disempower them.
For an entrepreneur who never met a problem that he didn’t love to tackle and solve himself, it takes some practice to let go and allow others to get the job done. This requires trust and confidence in your people, which, if you have done a good job during hiring, should be easy.
It is also important to create a learning environment, so that your team stays fresh, is challenged continuously and, in turn, creates a self-reinforcing milieu of teamwork, sharing and continuous learning.
Finally, ensuring that recognition and appreciation are a way of life in your business, will cement the whole team.
It’s worth keeping in mind Paul Hawken’s words about the people you want on your team, “… it makes no sense whatsoever to hire any but the best people you can possibly find. Your employees shouldn’t admire you. That is kid stuff. You should admire your employees.”
(The writer was founder and CEO of Impulsesoft Pvt Ltd, which grew from a boot-strapped organisation of two people to a global leader in Bluetooth wireless stereo music prior to being acquired by SiRF Technology Inc in 2006. Srikrishna, who has an MS and a PhD from the University of California in Berkeley, has more than 18 years of experience building and marketing semiconductor and software products. He writes for The New Manager on the travails and triumphs of being an entrepreneur. He blogs at http://designofbusiness.blogspot.com)
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.
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!
“What would keep you with our company for 10 years?” This is a question I pose at every interview I conduct. Whenever I ask this question to a prospective employee I am greeted with a wide variety of responses — the younger the job candidate, the more incredulous is his reaction.
I can hear the wheels turning in their head as though they are thinking, “You can’t be serious — are you?” A few of them are honest enougah to say, “I feel that’s a life time. I don’t know where I’d be two years from now.”
The good news is that over the years I have heard a few interesting responses ranging from “I don’t know about 10 years, but I can tell you why I’d stay five years or so,” to “I have just spent the last 12 years in one company, so here’s why I’d stay…” The answers for their staying at one job any serious length of time are usually — good people, good work, and continuous learning. These are what make them stay — freedom, support and flexibility are why it is easy to stay.
With the same certainty that I ask this question, most job candidates usually end up asking me one definite question “What more are you going to be doing?” The senior candidates usually pose this as, “Can you tell me what else is on your roadmap?” The younger ones are more direct and want to know “Are you going to do anything beyond Bluetooth?” or “Will I get to work on Java or MIDB or Layer 2 protocols?”
Simple and natural as these questions are, I find myself often having to bite my tongue and not ruin the whole interview with an acerbic retort, such as “We intend to do only one thing and do that really well, before we’d consider doing more.” To understand my own seemingly irrational response, I have tried to reflect on why this is such a point of contention for me.
Diversification – not always
The knowledge industry and particularly the information and biotechnology businesses themselves are relatively young and the typical employee in these firms even younger. The great enthusiasm, eagerness and a can-do attitude that marks their youth is accompanied by great impatience to perennially move on to the next thing.
They seem unaware of the old saying “Plough well and plough deep” and the rest of us, as managers and employers, in our anxiety to recruit employees, appear to be doing far too little to champion this message.
It would be wrong to blame this all-too-common desire to go wide, as opposed to deep, solely on the young. The social phenomenon at play here is one of perceived risk and its management.
There is a strong belief that, as with personal investment portfolios or national reserves, diversification is not only good but also necessary. It would be hard to argue that diversification inherently is wrong — but what is good for money or asset management is not necessarily good for a technologist or knowledge worker.
Natalie Goldberg, the American writer, quotes her Zen master Katagiri Roshi as stating “If you go deeply in one thing, you know everything else.” The thought is not only non-intuitive but provocative as well.
Lest you misunderstand Katagiri Roshi, it is worth clarifying that his assertion that, by being the best writer/runner/plumber you can be you know all there is to know about singing/biking/engineering, focuses on the how we acquire knowledge, not what. In other words, by becoming the best C programmer or VHDL hardware designer or customer support engineer, you can learn about yourself, how to learn and how to apply what you have learned. Now to do anything else, however different, is now only a matter of applying this knowledge to the specifics of the new thing you are trying to learn.
I realise how true Roshi’s statement indeed is when I take even a cursory look at the great engineers I know of and admire. Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist and a teacher par excellence of physics epitomised this concept of diving deep.
Feynman’s Nobel Prize was for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics, a field few outside the rarefied atmosphere of theoretical physics would easily understand — yet he has written the most lucid and immensely popular introductory physics textbooks that college freshmen use. His simple demonstration and explanation, on what went wrong with the O-rings of the space shuttle Challenger leading to its accident, only reiterated his deep understanding of his chosen subject, solid state physics.
Nearer home, Robert A Pease or Bob, as he’s called (\rap as he signs himself) has been a fixture at National Semiconductor for 30 years now as an analog designer. Bob arguably has spent most of that time working on ‘one’ thing — how to make analog circuits and make them better. Yet as a prolific writer — he’s a highly respected columnist at Electronic Design, sought-after speaker and as an engineering mentor he has few equals. A living example of how doing one thing unbelievably well pays off in spades in multiple dimensions.
As managers we (and those of us who are also parents) understand how difficult it is to communicate effectively what we know to be true and correct. Doing so in a manner that is both comprehensible and palatable to the other person is yet more difficult. So to all those prospective employees I interview, I try to explain why we are looking for people who want to dive deep in one domain — why we feel we have yet to explore (not to mention profit from) Bluetooth sufficiently before we look to things beyond it. Why becoming an expert in a single domain can create great generalists, but like the proverbial rolling stone — shallow knowledge in a wide swathe of subjects does little for them and is of no interest to us.
Much as I’d like to say that I am successful in this evangelical endeavour clearly there is a long way to go for me, for the prospective employee and for all of us as an industry.
This article first appeared in the Hindu Business Line dated January 21, 2008