We all have a mindset as we approach our work that colors everything and everyone around us. Most founders I’ve met are ambitious, driven people who push hard to get their company to the next level. They look for it, they hire it, and they value that trait in others. They want someone who is a force…like they are. Who is incredibly ambitious…like they are. What could go wrong? What founders and early stage companies often don’t see in their hiring, is that once you start constructing teams, you’ll need another type of employee to build high performance that will go against many of the things you may have been looking for early on. Here’s how to check your thinking, and lay the foundation for a team that skyrockets growth.
Early on, founders seek people like themselves because every individual will be tasked with wearing so many hats. You don’t have a marketing or customer service “team,” you may have one person devoted to each – if you’re lucky. Early employees need to be people who are leaders, and that’s a dynamic that every founder understands and knows how to hire for. These are the people who will lead the teams and departments in your company as it scales. You may even hire a few of these to fill each area of your business as it’s growing. They do the tasks now, but these are individuals who are definitely seeking to move up and snag top posts. It’s fantastic to watch that hunger as they grow and scale their areas…but as they build, you’ll need to consider a new dynamic. You can’t just hire leaders, people who want to move up, and those that are always gunning for the next promotion. If you do that, no one will be happy in their role for long, and the stability of the department will wane with turnover or obvious frustration.
So when do you make the shift from hiring ultra-ambitious people to more stringently focused subject matter experts? Once you are in the place to flush out and evolve your teams from a skeletal structure (where you have your leadership in place, and one or two early hire individuals doing a specific function – likely also very ambitious people), it’s now time to build the stability and consistency that will be the foundation of each team. You have a leader, you have one or two ambitious individuals under them who know what they’re doing, now set the foundation.
Make no mistake that the people initially heading up your skeletal structures and working within them should be experts as much as possible, but they are ones who may be looking to continue evolving professionally in roles or position with continued hiring. The heads of your skeletal structures likely have their sights on not only heading up this team, but perhaps leading a few teams in that area as you grow. Others in that initial skeletal group might rise to be the leadership of that specific team. You build in leadership legacy that can and wants to rise, but establish the pillars of service delivery will fortify your company moving ahead.
When you are a leader and surrounded by professionally ambitious people in the early stages, it’s more than who you are, it’s what your bias tends to be when you look for others to join you. It’s part of what’s called “affinity bias,” a dynamic where you are tempted to seek out individuals “like you.” If you do this exclusively in your hiring throughout all stages of your development, it will be a major mistake in team building. Affinity bias makes us more likely to gravitate toward people we perceive to be similar to us in a variety of ways – but in this instance, it can impact our judgment as we hire, and take our eye off the ball in bringing aboard the skills and stability we really need.
The truth of it is – some of your best company employees will be individuals who love what they do, are high performers in their job, but have no desire to do anything else. (gasp, I know!) If they are being hired for a role, they don’t have aspirations to be anything other than that role – but, make no mistake, they want to be the very best at that particular role that a person could be. These individuals provide a foundation of excellence and stability to whatever team they are a part of.
When I spoke to Kim Scott about this, the author of Radical Candor, she calls these individuals “Rockstars,” and that’s a perfect name for them. While they don’t wish to be anywhere other than exactly where they are, she sees them as the foundation to high performing teams at places she’s worked like Apple and Google… it’s a fantastic term for what I’d seen as well across industries. These people are indeed Rockstars – they just aren’t often seen that way because, well, they’re not like you as a founder. Not everyone wants to start their own company, be in leadership positions, or strive to be in the C-suite…some people just really love being a mobile developer, and they’re striving to be the best mobile developer out there. You want that person on your team too.
As a performance coach, I often get a glimpse into what top teams look like from the people I am fortunate to work with. I teach founders and executives how to thrive and excel in high pressure, high stress, incredibly competitive environments. When talking with these individuals about their teams, what I’ve found is that the people that build the greatest value for their businesses aren’t always who you would expect. Sure, they value those that are driving the company forward in vision and relentless professional ambition, but they also come to recognize that having high performers who love and want the role they’re in – and nothing more – gives the company stability and reliable standards of execution that drive a culture of excellence. As much as we might relate to the person who is gunning for that next promotion or to be the next COO, scaling companies often undervalues the very people who have the potential to make our teams consistently outstanding – week after week, month after month. Look out for affinity bias as you grow, and build incredible teams.
Dr. Julie Gurner is a doctor of psychology and nationally recognized executive performance coach to individual and corporate clients primarily in technology and finance. Follow her on Twitter: @drgurner