Last night, at our advanced entrepreneurship techniques class at MIT, I heard a really catchy phrase called the E. I. E. I. O. Hiring Test from co-lecturer Jim Baum, who is one of my favorite celebrity CEOs in the Boston startup landscape.
The original topic of the class was customer acquisition cost, life time value and other basic concepts surrounding the business model of a new startup. Along the way, we somehow started discussing what constitutes excellent execution.
Execution requires a great team. Both of us started waxing lyrical about the “first, who” principle: it’s all about the team and the people you hire into your startup. Jim then shared this easy to remember mnemonic to help pick new hires to join the team.
- E – Enthusiasm. Look for people who are passionate, excited, and energized about their work.
- I – Intelligence. Look for people who are smart. This one is self-evident.
- E – Experience. This one is sometimes overrated – it is not unimportant but it should also not be the only factor in considering a new hire.
- I – Integrity. This one is immutable – if the person doesn’t have integrity, stay away from them!
- O – Organizational fit. Hire for cultural fit – there is no place for dysfunctional team dynamics in a fast paced startup.
That about sums it up on the important things to look for, not only for hiring but for ongoing talent development.
If I was to force-rank these characteristics, I would go in this order:
- Organizational fit
For a startup team, the enthusiasm and passion is half of the equation. If you get the right person who is really smart, is a great cultural fit, and appears to have caught on fire about your product or overall mission, and they happen to be on the young and hungry side, that’s cool. Far better than finding someone who checks every single box on the experience checklist, but is as passionate as a dead fish about the work content. With a little time and care, you can always teach a passionate person a new domain, or a set of new skills they need in order to succeed in their job. But you can never teach someone who is ambivalent about your company to feel the passion.
When interviewing candidates, really probe into why they are interested in your company, and the job opening they are interviewing for. Are they genuinely invested in your vision and mission? Do they buy into the products or services you are developing? Are they attracted to the work content? Or are they just looking for a nice paycheck as a stepping stone to their next gig? By all means, do still make them code on the whiteboard and grill them on their technical skillset, but finding a candidate who aces a live programming test Google-style is a necessary but not sufficient condition for finding a great hire.
I have come full circle regarding my hiring philosophy. When I first moved into engineering management and started recruiting years ago, I placed a disproportionate level of focus on experience. Ironically, once I gained experience as a hiring manager, I have come to truly respect the wisdom of a best-athlete based hiring approach. The best hires are ones who take the job because they fell in love with the company, the product and the people. The best hires are rarely the people who see the compensation package as the most important determinant in their decision making. If all they are looking for is the best package, they will be continually scouting the market for an even better deal the whole time they will be with your company. Do you really want that person on your team?
Now I don’t want to be a downer on experienced folks. If you can find someone who is all of these things, AND they have tons of relevant experience, then you’ve won the lottery! Put out that offer letter NOW! If, instead, you have an urgent need for some specific area of expertise, but can’t seem to find someone who is a good fit, there is a second way: you can place them as contract hires to bridge the gap.
This approach works for individual contributor positions – e.g. a database administrator for Oracle, a LIST programmer, a professional with FDA regulatory compliance experience, a bio-mechanics expert who can analyze skin dynamics. It obviously doesn’t work for leadership positions who are critical in building up the team and getting the company to gel. For those, it is far better to hold out for the right person than to place the hire quickly and be faced with a situation that needs correction a few months down the line.
One last thought on organizational fit. I have one basic principle on hiring, firing, team building, and talent development: I expect all team members to treat each other with respect at all times, without exception. Being smarter/better on some technical axis does NOT give anyone the right to lord over other people on the team. A technical rock star who behaves in disruptive ways is a cancer in the workplace. The work output of the individual might look great on paper, but the performance and effectiveness of the overall team will go down the drain, together with any startup mojo the team might have posessed prior to their arrival. Instead of working on customer development and building your business, you will be obsessed with personnel issues every single day. If you meet a candidate who fits this description, stay away. If they present like this at the interview, imagine what they would be like when they have acquired a bit of clout in your organization.
Once you have a destructive person on staff, there is nothing to do except to engage in a corrective process, where you work with the individual one on one, in an attempt to coach them to change their behavior. Everyone has the potential to rise to the challenge if they are provided with timely and constructive feedback, delivered in a compassionate and respectful manner. Everyone deserves a second chance. However, realistically, if the person truly believes certain other people are beneath their notice, and that they are too good for some of the work, most of the time they will also not respond to intervention attempts. Then you will be faced with the unpleasant task of correcting a bad hiring decision and dealing with the post-firing aftermath. Far better to weed these types of candidates out at the screening stage.
Hiring your first team as a technical founder can be a daunting task. It is a learning experience every step of the way. Learning to prioritize the human side of the equation at least equally with the technical assessment process is a new concept, but very worth learning. That is the only way to build a fantastic team who will get behind you and help you realize your vision.