The challenges of talent and teams

Five principles that make it easier to assemble the right group of people

By Mary Sobon

If you ask entrepreneurs what is absolutely critical to success, they will answer resoundingly: People! And if you ask entrepreneurs what the most challenging and frustrating part of their business is, they will answer resoundingly: People!

Attracting and developing a first-rate team will never be easy, but here are five guiding principles to make it easier:


Clear vision and values attract the right people

If you can’t share the goals and values you have for you company, you can’t attract likeminded people. Tim McMullen, founder and CEO of marketing agency redpepper, has always had an advantage in recruiting – great culture.

“Money is one piece of recruiting,” he says. “People value the intangibles at least as much as the cash — the nature of the work and the work experience itself. You have to know what your intangibles are.”


Common values, different perspectives

Entrepreneurs tend to hire people like themselves, ending up with companies that feel a little lopsided. But opposites do attract — and drive performance — as long as you share a vision and values. Clint Smith, founder and CEO of Emma, surrounds himself with people who challenge his thinking. He notes, “There’s not a lot of value in having people around who tell you what you already know.”



‘The Growth Ethic’

There’s a dilemma baked into startups: The people you need right now are probably not the same people you will need in a few years. So while some turnover is healthy, you want to keep a solid core of talent. You do this by hiring people with two things:

• The ability to take a business effort, own it and grow it;
• A track record of personal and professional growth.

Smith finds that progress in Emma leapfrogs when a leader takes a current challenge and “grows” it in terms of opportunity and solutions. “The key,” he says, “is to find people who can take a request and move it further down the road than you thought, and do work that is even better than you hoped for.” Emma now seeks evidence of this in their interview process.


You can be rich or be king. Hire accordingly

Noam Wasserman captured this challenge in “The Founder’s Dilemma,” which says entrepreneurs come in two forms: They either want to be Kings — where the top priority is to have control and make an imprint on the company — or be Rich, in which the top priority is to build systems that results in scalability and profitability. According to his research, entrepreneurs often end up as neither because they insist on trying to build a company that can scale while still wanting to run every part of the show.

Wasserman focuses on finance, but knowing what you want also has a real impact on how you build out your team.

Focused on being “rich” and building scale? You need people who:

• Build and get energy from effective and repeatable formal process and systems,
• Live comfortably with some degree of hierarchy,
• Can be specialized as soon as possible. Generalists don’t scale.

Want to be “king” and keep running the show? You need people who:

• Are nimble and can balance a lot of priorities — based on your needs,
• Are natural communicators,
• “Get you” and intuitively understand how you think and can translate that into action.

Of course, all entrepreneurs have some of both qualities but your cannot build your team focused on both business models.

McMullen wants to stay deep in the work and have as few “rules” as possible. His days are spent in brainstorms, client work and teaching his people. His team is skilled in collaboration and innovative problem solving. Talent for him means people who are fearless, curious and rule breakers.

By contrast, James Fields, founder and CEO of Concept Technology, is building a company so that the team can — by focusing on process and metrics — find and measure its success without him in the middle of things. His team excels in decision-making and execution. Talent for him is discipline, expertise and precision.

Both companies are amazing places to work — and very different.


Talent recruiting — process and priority

Few entrepreneurs actually have a thoughtfully designed recruiting and hiring experience. Most start the effort when they need someone and wing it as they go.

By contrast, a smart recruiting effort never stops. Emma Director of Talent Sara McManigal will tell you, “You can’t start from square one every time. It will just kill you. We spend a lot of time in the community just getting to know talent. That really shortcuts the process when we are ready to hire because so many people know us and like us and will help us.”

Emma’s interview process is evolving from loosely structured conversations into a real performance test. Every interview has a clear objective, a deliverable and “homework.” McManigal is looking for evidence of actual performance and for fit with Emma. Experience claimed on a resume, and even an awesome interview, are simply not enough to judge talent and fit.

Fit is critical. Smith says one thing he would advise every entrepreneur to do is get smart on tools like personality style assessments.

“You need to understand two things about people,” he says. “Whether they can do the work at the level you want, but also how they will do that work. Understanding work style is important.”

Concept Technology is also attracting some of the very best tech talent in the city using an eight-step screening process. It may sound complicated, but the targeted time from first interview to offer can be as short as four days. It moves superfast and illustrates both a candidate’s technical skills and how they are likely to treat clients and teammates. In other words, it proves skills and fit.

While they’re very different people, every entrepreneur I talked with shares one belief — that attracting and developing talent is a real skill requiring real dedication and hard work. In a world where the battle for talent is becoming increasingly fierce, it may soon become the most important one.

Mary Sobon is a principal at M2 Consulting in Nashville.