Want A Great Team? Focus On Talent, Not Hiring

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You Can’t Spell Media Without “Me”

Editor’s note: Guest contributor DJ Patil is the Chief Data Scientist at Greylock Partners. He previously worked for LinkedIn as their Chief Scientist and Chief Security Officer. DJ can be followed on Twitter @dpatil.

One of the questions most founders always ask is about the key secrets to hiring.  What they need to understand is that there’s a big difference between “hiring” and “talent”.  I’m continually surprised how rarely I see people put down their strategy for talent compared to hiring. It’s so prevalent, in fact, you’ll often see on a company’s priorities a bullet of “hiring”.  And that slight shift in wording fundamentally sets up the wrong dynamics.  Hiring, is a sub-bullet of talent and if you’re focusing on hiring you’ll be quickly setting up a revolving door.  However, if you’re focusing on talent, you now can create a strategy to build a great team.In my experience of building teams in academia, government, and industry at different sizes, I’ve found three critical questions that help an organization create that shift to focus on talent.

1. Would we be willing to do a startup with you?

This is the first question we ask ourselves as a team when we meet to evaluate a candidate. It sums up a number of key criteria:

  • Time: If we’re willing to do a startup with you, we’re agreeing that we’d be willing to be locked in a small room with you for long periods of time. The ability to enjoy another person’s company is critical to being able to invest in each other’s growth.
  • Trust: Can we trust you? Will we have to look over your shoulder to make sure you’re doing an A+ job? That may go without saying, but the reverse is also important: will you trust me? If you don’t trust me, we’re both in trouble.
  • Communication: Can we communicate with each other quickly and efficiently? If we’re going to spend a tremendous amount of time together and if we need to trust each other, we’ll need to communicate. Over time, we should be able to anticipate each other’s needs in a way that allows us to be highly efficient.

2. Can you “knock the socks off” of the company in 90 days?

Once the first criteria has been met, it’s critical to establish mechanisms to ensure that the candidate will succeed. We do this by setting expectations for the quality of the candidate’s work, and by setting expectations for the velocity of his or her progress.First, the “knock the socks off” part: by setting the goal high, we’re asking whether you have the mettle to be part of an elite team. More importantly, it is a way of establishing a handshake for ensuring success. That’s where the 90 days comes in. A new hire won’t come up with something mind blowing if the team doesn’t bring the new hire up to speed quickly. The team needs to orient new hires around existing systems and processes. Similarly, the new hire needs to make the effort to progress, quickly. Does this person ask questions when they get stuck? There are no dumb questions, and toughing it out because you’re too proud or insecure to ask is counterproductive. Can the new hire bring a new system up in a day, or does it take a week or more? It’s important to understand that doing something mind-blowing in 90 days is a team goal, as much as an individual goal. It is essential to pair the new hire with a successful member of the team. Success is shared.

This criterion sets new hires up for long-term success. Once they’ve passed the first milestone, they’ve done something that others in the company can recognize, and they have the confidence that will lead to future achievements. I’ve seen everyone from interns all the way to seasoned executives meet this criterion. And many of my top people have had multiple successes in their first 90 days.  There’s nothing better than being in a large meeting with one of the newer people on the team and hearing person A say, “Who’s that and why are they here?”. Person B, “That’s —- who did —- project.”  Person A, “Wow”.

3. In four to six years, will you be doing something amazing?

What does it mean to do something amazing? You might be running the team, leading the division, or the company. You might be doing something in a completely different discipline. You may have started a new company that’s changing the industry. It’s difficult to talk concretely because we’re talking about potential and long-term futures. But we all want success to breed success, and I believe we can recognize the people who will help us to become mutually successful.

I don’t necessarily expect a new hire to do something amazing while he or she works with us. The four- to six-year horizon allows members of the team to build long-term road maps. Many organizations make the time commitment amorphous by talking about vague, never-ending career ladders. But professionals no longer commit themselves to a single company for the bulk of their careers. With each new generation of professionals, the number of organizations and even careers has increased. So rather than fight it, embrace the fact that people will leave, so long as they leave to do something amazing. What I’m interested in is the potential: if you have that potential, we all win and we all grow together, whether your biggest successes comes with my team or somewhere else.

Finally, this criteria is mutual. A new hire won’t do something amazing, now or in the future, if the organization he or she works for doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. The organization must provide a platform and opportunities for the individual to be successful. Throwing a new hire into the deep end and expecting success doesn’t cut it. Similarly, the individual must make the company successful to elevate the platform that he or she will launch from.  The goal in the end is to create the next PayPal, or LinkedIn, Mafia.

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