I was meeting with two students who were struggling to get their team working. The majority of their team members were failing to do their part—from non-contribution through non-participation all the way to complete absence. The two students I was meeting with were left having to handle the entire project.
Each semester, across multiple courses that I teach there is a semester-long team project. A typical class ends up having between 6-8 teams of 5-6 members each. Every so often one team or another ends up having a team member not prepared to carry their weight. This understandably leads to unhappiness certainly and occasionally conflict within the team.
At the beginning of each term I tell the students what’s expected of them, and why being a contributing member of a team is not only the right thing, but one that’ll help all of them learn and grow. I also tell them that resolving conflicts within the team is their responsibility, one they’ll face soon enough in the workplace. Whilst I’m available to both lending a sympathetic ear and if required coaching, I state that my expectations are that they’ll do the work to resolve matters effectively.
Whilst student age & stage (freshman vs senior), culture and occasionally gender all lead to issues of mismatched expectations and behavior, coaching around giving and receiving feedback, particularly the use of “I”messages, has typically been enough to resolve matters satisfactorily.
It was when I proposed a script that had worked in the past, one of the two students spoke up, “If I can suggest something…” When I acquiesced she outlined a set of steps and effectively coached me on what she felt might be a better way to handle the situation.
And indeed it was and we implemented it. I was blown away by the experience to recount what happened to my wife, daughter and colleagues at work. And I realized I might as well share this with the young woman as well. Which I did.
The three step process she followed were:
Sought permission Started by saying “If I can suggest something…” non-threatening, seeking permission & buy in (she had no way to know how the “old” professor might be willing to take inputs
Call to action/reason She suggested a direct call to action, with a darn good reason to explain it to the rest of the team without anyone losing face or getting their back up “you should call a meeting,” (CTA) under the guise of “discussing our upcoming pivot” (reason, not due to anyone complaining about team dysfunction)
Anticipating potential objections She also made specific suggestions for discussion topics and even the beginnings of a script forthe proposed meeting. “I observed only a couple you presenting in class last week, and one of you was absent… etc.” These served to overcome any potential objections I might raise in not following my default methodology of expecting students to resolve things on their own.
In hindsight, unlike me she did not over sell it! As one of my customer’s coached me, she “stopped digging once she hit oil!”
I’m grateful that I get to work with such amazing young people. And also glad that I was receptive enough that day to recognize a good idea when presented and smart enough to listen!
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)
(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 24, 2008)
A few months ago, I wrote about the need for communicating early and often and a recent article by Toni Bowers, Senior Editor, TechRepublic titled “Say what you mean, mean what you say” highlighted the sore need for clarity in these communications, even if done early and often! The readers’ comments to that post, due to their specific nature were extremely illustrative, reinforcing the core message of how critical clear communications are, particularly when it comes to individuals and dishing them unpleasant news.
Less than ten days ago two of my long-time colleagues, sat me down and after some initial politeness (“you have issues rather than you have a problem”) they got down to their core message “We don’t believe you handle unpleasant stuff well, what do you think?” Talk about a topic for reflection! The reflection has made me particularly receptive to Toni’s post and the discussion thread thereof.
Toni’s core message is –
Be direct and specific when giving feedback, particularly relating to problems
Don’t be heartless but use simple statements that preclude misinterpretation
Key points the commentators added include
Communicate expectations up front (my early and often mantra) to avoid misunderstandings
Don’t tell the team they have a problem, when you want to communicate to a particular person – do it one-on-one
Be open and interested to find out reasons for why you are where you are (ask and listen, not just talk)
As with all good advice, once stated it seems simple and self-evident. The fact that more of us don’t practice it consistently only points to the need for periodic reminders. Which brings me to the whole running water and rock metaphors of many Zen koans. The Buddha said (with regard to cultivating virtues) diligent practice will work like a “… small stream being able to pierce rock if it continually flows.” Alas this is true not just for virtues but for bad habits like poor or no communication, a constant stream of which can wear down the enthusiasm of even the most motivated team member.
Even one dinosaur brain manager or toxic teammate when not dealt with direct and clear communication can start a tear in the fabric of your organization’s culture. Subsequent failures of communications, however small, only grow this tear till soon all we’ll have left will be shreds! So whether rock or fabric, our organizational culture needs continual renewal through simple, clear and sustained communication – to grow and prosper!
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.
Over the last several years, I have written about startups, entrepreneurship and business in general in the Hindu BizLine and Wall St. Journal. I have compiled these for easy access in the column below.
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