Every day, my team comes across companies that miss opportunities with potential employees. Talent is and can be a strategic asset, but when you’re a fast-growing startup, it can be really hard to recruit, onboard, develop, and let go of people. Building and maintaining a world-class team is much harder than anyone told me, and I wish I knew to spend as much time getting tactical with the people side of things as I did with developing my offerings and positioning.
As an entrepreneur, you’re always juggling multiple tasks. Prioritizing is key, and your first goal should be to hire world-class team members. In the early days, it takes a lot of work to find them. The most talented potential employees may be too busy working or not great at self-promotion. I’ve learned the hard way that those who are good at self-promotion are often inversely correlated with being talented hires. Having a clear and bold vision makes it easier to attract talent, just like it does customers.
Your second goal should be to retain your team. Conflict is critical, but it needs to be productive. We need conflict, as it can promote deeper information processing, learning, and creativity, as well as prevent groupthink. High-performing teams cultivate constructive conflicts and mitigate destructive ones. When you’re busy with customers and you have a remote team, regular one-on-ones and check-ins can be hard to maintain. I schedule these and hold them sacred—just like customer and business development meetings. In the absence of feedback, we tend to assume the worst. I don’t want to be the bottleneck, so keeping my team moving with some regular time and strategizing goes a long way.
It’s important to keep in mind that some people aren’t the right fit. This has actually happened more at my startup than when I’ve had teams at large corporations. A seasoned entrepreneur once explained that high turnover is quite common in the early days, as there are so many rapid changes, and many aren’t comfortable with the amount of ambiguity or the pace of change. Subtle things like being explicit about the amount of change or giving people homework as part of the interview will let you observe how candidates would work in your company. My team and I are working on a are-you-a-good-fit document so people can self-assess in advance.
Many times I’ve been too slow to move on the people side of things. For example, there was an amazing candidate I wanted to bring on board, but she was expensive and leaving a good job, so it took me five months to hire her. But once she joined, my life became so much easier, as I could give her something I was juggling and she would own it. Other times, I’ve taken too long to ask someone destructive to leave. While I debated how to handle it, more customer mistakes were made and a few damaging comments said to core team members. I’m still fixing these problems six months after the fact. But every time I’ve directly asked a new hire how he or she was doing, or even directly stated to certain candidates that the job wasn’t the right fit, the company and remaining team has successfully moved to the next level.
Culture happens whether you focus on it or not. Having a big and bold vision for the culture and employees you want is as important as the product. And the more process you can build from the beginning, the better. We quickly moved to checklists for screening, interviewing, on-boarding, and developing, and we revisit them every time we make a mistake.
Building a company is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve put metrics in place and send out regular pulses so we can stay on top of how our talent is feeling. Ultimately, I’d love to have a website for people— just like I do for customers—to track things like sustainability. However, as one executive said to me, the data will never substitute spending time with people and having honest conversations. Creating the right environment for doing so is hard, but it will give you the foundation to have a broader impact on the world. And there are a lot of people who want to help your company do it. So let them.
Christy Johnson is the founder of Artemis connection. She has seven years of experience working with C-level executives, including almost four years at McKinsey & Company. Christy holds an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.