Having a team of high potential people is the greatest asset you can have to build a startup business. When you pitch investors, the first thing they’ll usually look for is the team, yet many founders lack experience in both finding talent and criteria on which to hire. Although hiring is one of the most important jobs a founder can do, many don’t take it seriously enough. Simply going out for drinks and chatting is not the way to hire a rock star team.
Startup growth is challenged by finding the right talent to grow the team, yet too many founders hire on gut-feel and regret it down the line. All startups should have a set interviewing process, check candidates based on hard and soft skills, but also based on how they fit in with the team and the culture.
Many startups hire people when they don’t know what they need them for. This weakens the team culture. The people you hire directly impacts how and when you take your business to the next level. But to find the right fit, hiring employers need to ditch the long-held belief that experience trumps all. Instead of looking for what a candidate has previously achieved, you should consider high potential – what applicants have the ability to accomplish.
For me, core competencies that are indicative of potential include business acumen, composure, compassion, passion and ability to deal with ambiguity – in startups, the most critical skill is the ability to think, operate and learn on the fly. If you can create a team full of passionate individuals who can operate and learn in an agile manner, want to achieve something together that makes a difference in the world, you’re going to have a higher chance of success.
Using this new paradigm, focus on hiring for high potential instead of experience, as in my view, past performance is not an accurate proxy for future success in a startup – the environment requires different attitudes and behaviours.
So how do you identify and predict high-performing potential? Douglas Ready, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, has undertaken research on high-potentials. His results showed that the top 3% to 5% of talent can be defined as ‘high potential’, with intangible factors that truly distinguish them from the pack, as follows:
A drive to excel High potentials are driven to succeed. They are more than willing to go that extra mile and realise they may have to make sacrifices in order to advance. Sheer ambition may lead them to make hard choices. They are explorers and take on the challenges of leaving their comfort zones in order to advance. They fit the startup culture with these traits.
A catalytic learning capability The high potentials identified by Ready possess what he calls a catalytic learning capability. They have the capacity to scan for new ideas, the cognitive capability to absorb them, and the common sense to translate new learning into productive action. High potentials are always searching for productive ways to blaze new paths. Again this reflects the day-to-day reality of startup life.
Dynamic sensors Successful high potentials have a well-tuned radar that puts a higher premium on quality results. Beyond judgment, high potentials possess an instinct for timing, to quickly read situations, and a nose for opportunity. They have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. They are anticipatory.
They are willing to endure hardship Work isn’t always easy, there are times when a customer is grinding away, and they need someone to stay late to render assistance. High potentials make self-sacrifices at that moment, they don’t walk away. The never enough mentality delivers focus to generate a buzz and goodwill to dig in when it matters.
A knack for seeing the bigger picture. Folks with high potential tend to be engaged at all times and show an interest in learning beyond the immediate scope of their role. They are curious about the organisations’ goals and wish to help in achieving those outcomes. In their mind, they see their own success as being directly tied to the success of the organisation.
The perspective, direction and clarity in thinking, behaviours and attitudes that a high-potential brings, highlighted above, clearly matches the traits of startups. In addition, from my own experience and research into startups I’ve worked with in the last eight years, I would add five further attributes:
Focus on soft skills ahead of hard skills. Shift the focus onto the ability to offer insight, their style of engagement and tone of voice in conversation, evidence curiosity, and propensity to lead. Do they fit with, and can articulate, your cultural values? Hard (technical) skills can be taught.
Look beyond what you see in front of you today, and envision a picture of tomorrow. The question is not whether candidates have the right skills, it’s whether they have the potential to learn new ones. Don’t evaluate candidates just for today, look at their potential alongside the future vision of the startup, and potential as a long-term asset.
Learning agility. This is a key one. Think about it, how long it can you wait from appointing someone you assess has high potential, before they start to show you this? In a startup, weeks matter, so look for folks who are quick and effective learners. This aptitude for rapid development reflects levels of curiosity and determination, essential attributes for everyone in a startup team. For a high potential who shows ability for quick learning, give them stretch assignments – let them realise their potential in demanding projects.
I’ve looked into this further, and studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to learn from experience is what differentiates successful high potentials from those who fail to grow. Those who do so have strong and active learning patterns from key job assignment learn faster, not because they are more intelligent, but because they have more effective learning skills and strategies. They were learning agile.
Startups need high potentials with openness, willingness to learn, and flexibility to execute complex strategies. Startups need folks who are curious about the situations they find themselves in, willing to learn and experience new things, and have high ambiguity tolerance and innovation coursing through their veins. The concept of ‘learning agility’ has been used to describe individuals who possess such skills.
Learning agility is viewed as a key indicator of potential, with seminal research from Lombardo & Eichinger, who identified four key facets of learning agility:
- Mental agility refers to individuals who are comfortable with complexity, examine problems carefully, and make fresh connections between different things.
- People agility refers to individuals who know themselves well and can readily deal with a diversity of people and tough situations.
- Change agility refers to individuals who like to experiment and can cope effectively with the discomfort of rapid change.
- Results agility refers to those individuals who can deliver results in first-time situations by inspiring teams and having significant impact.
Building on the importance of learning agility, my final three attributes to high potentials relates to seeing the purpose behind the intrinsic motivation of high performers. I took this from Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and the role of intrinsic motivation, the kind that comes from within yourself. Translating high potential to high performance is the essential growth and transition you’re looking for in your startup hire, and it’s the ‘do it for yourself’ inner drive that makes entrepreneurs make a start in the first place.
Pink identified three elements of the motivation formula we can find in high potentials – autonomy, mastery, and purpose – as to why folk find themselves pursuing achievement in something new to satisfy an innate internal desire:
Autonomy Our self-direction is a natural inclination. Pink asserts we’re all built with inner drive, some folks are just in a higher gear than others. I’ve never been passive and inert, I’ve always gone hell-for-leather and go the extra mile as standard. Apparently this is because I have what Pink calls ‘autonomy driven motivation’. I’m curious about what I can achieve as a challenge to myself.
Mastery We want to get better at doing things. It’s why learning a language, new sporting technique or a musical instrument can be so frustrating at first. Mastery is the desire to get better at something that matters. Firstly, it is a mindset, in that we believe we can get better. Second, mastery is a pain, in that it involves not only working harder but working longer at the same thing. Finally, mastery is an asymptote, or a straight line that you may come close to but never reach.
Purpose People who find purpose in their life unlock the highest level of the motivation game. Pink says that it’s connecting to a cause larger than yourself that drives the deepest motivation. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and into work without groaning and grumbling — something that you just can’t fake.
Purpose provides a context for autonomy and mastery. It addresses the situation that even when we get what we want, it is not what we need. It’s connected to the drive to be different. Purpose-oriented people view work through the lens of personal fulfilment and contributing to other people’s lives, according to the ‘Workplace Purpose Index’ a new report from Imperative, https://www.imperative.com/#/ a career platform and consulting firm, and New York University.
For these employees, purpose is not about a specific cause, job, or company. It is a mindset. They’re the 28% of the workforce the study describes as purpose-oriented, and they will be the most valuable employees you can hire into your startup.
Across a range of measures, purpose-oriented workers outperform those who focus on money, advancement and competition – the majority of the workforce. You can find the survey here, and how entrepreneurs can hire and retain purpose-oriented employees.
Of course, you want your recruits to be engaged in what your startup does, but engagement is paternalistic, beginning with the premise that work is medicine and engagement is something companies do to sugar-coat it. The data on engagement hasn’t changed despite what companies have been doing to encourage it, but the science tells us that people who are more purpose-oriented are more engaged.
So, if you have two candidates for a role in your startup, regardless of what the job is, you want to choose the one with a purpose-orientation. Hiring with a focus on purpose will do more for a culture than the most poetic mission statement. A purpose-oriented worker is always going to find purpose, but to what degree depends on the culture an entrepreneur is building.
One of the key things for purpose-oriented workers, it is not about the organisation’s image or mission, but the day-to-day in the job, the impact they can have, and their relationships. You have to make clear that purpose matters to success. A lot of entrepreneurs come out of broken systems and want to show that companies don’t have to be that way. If you look at tech, they are some of the best companies to work for according to employees on Glassdoor. This is because entrepreneurs are creating something as well as rejecting something they don’t want. Purpose is a great way to build something your own way.
High potential isn’t easy to observe, it is often drowned out by the less obvious attributes and behaviours that characterise people’s capabilities. However, based on the research from Douglas Ready, Dan Pink’s three attributes and a real focus on ‘purpose’ as highlighted by the work from Imperative, we can distil the dna of high potential to make a difference to our startup.