Dateline: Santiago, Chile
Startups are made from people. It is teams that build products — and sell them. Ideas don’t build or sell anything.
Yet many entrepreneurs mistakenly focus their attention on their product, their marketing, or their sales strategy rather than first ensuring they have the best workers.
Anybody who has built a startup past the first stage of development will attest to the difficulty and complexity of recruiting and motivating a talented team, and most do so only half-consciously.
Part of this failure stems from the metaphors we are accustomed to discussing our organizations.
As Gareth Morgan writes in Images of Organization, “all organization and management theory and practice is based on images, or metaphors, that lead us to understand situations in powerful yet partial ways.
When we realize this, we learn to recognize that our favored ways of managing and organizing often lead us to miss out on other ways of managing and organizing… [and] must always be aware of the inherent blind spots that inevitably undermine our effectiveness.”
In no area of organizational life is this more apparent than in building a team.
Modern industrial society has conditioned us to think of a team like a machine, and we use machine-related language to describe how a team is functioning (think “well-oiled machine,” for example).
This leads us to view the relationship of means to ends mechanically. If our goal is X, then X-1 is a failure and we might describe our means as being “broken.”
In organizations, people are the predominant means by which we achieve our goals, and thus it follows that the failure to achieve a goal will cause us to think that our team or some of its members are “broken,” and hence in need of being “fixed.”
But our fixing of people diverges from the way we would even fix a machine.
Nobody really believes that a broken automobile engine can be fixed by banging it with a sledgehammer, or that a dysfunctional computer can be repaired by throwing it against a wall — and yet quite often this is precisely what we do to “fix” our people problems.
We threaten them, cajole them, yell at them, assuming that this corrective action will lead them to perform better.
The root problem, however, must be solved at the beginning of the process rather than after the fact.
We must ask ourselves why do we hire employees? What is our purpose in each hiring decision?
Most employers hire to fill a role or function that is needed.
They say “we need somebody to do marketing — let’s hire a marketing guy!”
This replaceable parts, job description approach to hiring is again a function of our mechanical metaphors.
Entrepreneurs can hardly afford such an approach to building their team, as many functions need to be filled by fewer people due to the extreme resource constraints under which entrepreneurial endeavors operate.
Moreover, few job candidates are even aware of their full range of potential skills.
We humans are quite multitalented and have a wide range of interests. It is a mistake on the part of employer and employee alike to examine only formal job experience or education as a way to determine the role and fit within an organization.
This requires employers to really get to know their prospective employees as people.
Employers don’t like to do this because they are lazy. If you are a hiring manager at a big company, you are lazy and you don’t have a real incentive.
Entrepreneurs may also be lazy when it comes to hiring, but they have a tremendous incentive.
Consequently, people hire by resume and “profile,” that is, they hire people based on what they think a good candidate for a particular function might look like.
A good computer programmer must look like a good nerd. A marketing guy should be boisterous and well-dressed.
Except these “profiles” are patently inaccurate.
Some of the best marketing minds I have ever worked with have been introverted and quiet types. The best computer programmers … well, they have always been nerds, but not always looked like it.
This brings me to why I want to hire more Colombians.
So many Colombians I have met and worked with typify the four traits entrepreneurial teams need the most — regardless of the function to be performed or the role to be filled.
The best workers are energetic
Energetic people are curious, observant, and always making things change. They aren’t content to sit and wait to be told what to do.
Startups can’t afford to have people who only do what they are told — too much work to do, too few people to do it.
This means that nobody can be a full-time manager. It doesn’t mean that there is nobody managing and organizing, but rather that they merely have to set the direction and assess the progress — not follow-up on every little task and detail.
Energetic people are also necessary to create the dynamic environment startups must have to thrive.
When customers, journalists, partners, investors, etc. come to visit your office, the feeling they have when they are there is more important than how well your meeting with them goes.
What you tell them, what you choose to show them, matters far less than what they perceive subconsciously.
If your office feels dead, the best sales pitch in the world is unlikely to convince anybody.
The best workers are resourceful
Energetic people look for problems to solve, resourceful people look for new ways to solve them.
Entrepreneurial endeavors by definition exist under extreme resource limitations. The traditional ways of solving problems cost more time and energy than entrepreneurs can afford.
These constraints force them to innovate.
Resourceful people examine their landscape, the turn everything into tools for solving the problems they face and imagine ways to use those tools that doubles their impact.
The best workers are multidisciplinary
The traditional educational system trains people to become specialists.
The hackneyed phrase about the “jack of all trades, master of none,” is one of the most damaging things we can tell children.
In our deeply interconnected and chaotic world, broad knowledge and what is usually decried as “generalist” skill is more important now than ever before — and it’s only going to escalate from here.
Pursuing proficiency in multiple disciplines, especially if they aren’t closely connected, forces a constant shift between various lenses through which one views the world, meaning less tunnel vision and a lower probability of getting trapped in domain dependence.
Most Colombian university students study at least two different disciplines, setting themselves apart from most of their peers in the rest of Latin America who are sent down a single, narrow educational path from almost the beginning of their advanced schooling years.
The best workers are friendly
Nobody wants to work with or for a mean person or somebody who has no sense of humor.
One can be always business and not take themselves too seriously.
A smile and laughter go a long way to overcoming interpersonal struggles, combatting the inevitable difficulties that arise in any new enterprise, and bonding together in unity to pursue the goal.
Friendly people who relate to others are the lifeblood of any organization. You cannot build, grow, or sell anything with Eeyores and grouches.
Never forget: life is about people. Business is about people. It’s all just about people. When you forget that, you put yourself ever closer to failure in your business, but worse, you have already failed as a person.
Focus on the people, and work will seem less like work for everybody — and given how many hours we spend doing it, we could all enjoy such a change.