Developing winning teams the Theo Epstein way

Theo Epstein is the President of Baseball Operations for the Chicago Cubs, crowned Major League Baseball’s World Series Champions last week, ending a drought of 108 yeas since their last victory. He is acknowledged as the driver behind their reinvention, with a unique strategic approach to identifying, recruiting and developing talent, which has resonance beyond baseball.

The Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in the tenth innings. The Cubs, who had been 1-3 down in the best-of-seven series, blew a three-run lead in the final game but came back after a rain delay to clinch the title.

At 00:48 in Cleveland, Ohio, Michael Martinez of the hometown Indians chopped a groundball to third base. There, Kris Bryant scooped it up and fired across the diamond to Anthony Rizzo. When the ball landed in his glove, the World Series was over.

A powerhouse of baseball’s formative years, the Cubs played in three of the first five World Series, triumphing in 1907 and 1908. But then came a huge reversal of fortune, as fans endured over a century of failure. Between 1910 and 1945, the Cubs won seven National League pennants, but lost each time in the World Series.

The drought was imbued with fresh intrigue in 1945, when a local tavern owner supposedly put a curse on the club. William Sianis, proprietor of the Billy Goat Tavern, took a goat to games at Wrigley Field, but he and his pet were refused admission to a World Series contest against the Detroit Tigers that year. According to legend, Sianis was so outraged he proclaimed the Cubs would never win another World Series.

Epstein was tasked with reversing this sorry narrative, and bringing a world title to the North Side. Previously, Epstein masterminded two World Series triumphs at Boston Red Sox in 2004 and 2007. The Red Sox had a championship drought of their own – 2004 was their first championship since Babe Ruth helped the team to a title in 1918. The 2004 victory left a mark on Epstein:

The morning after we won, on the way in from the airport, we passed a cemetery and there were dozens of Red Sox pennants and hats on top of the gravestones. Grandsons, sons and daughters went and made sure they knew. It was incredibly emotional.

Under Epstein, the Cubs finished last in each of their first four seasons, losing 94 out of 162 games per year on average. Yet much of that was by design, as Epstein looked to take advantage of rules regarding baseball’s amateur draft.

Each year, teams pick new players from high school or university, with the order of that selection process determined by win-loss record. The worse a team performs, the greater its chances of drafting a future superstar. Young players are also paid much less than existing players, affording teams far more flexibility on their payroll. This may seem like a perverse incentive to lose, but Epstein used this strategy to replenish the Cubs with elite young talent.

This season, after adding professional talent, Chicago finished with a 103-58 regular season record, good enough to secure their first division title since 2008. The Cubs then beat San Francisco and Los Angeles in successive post-season rounds to clinch a trip back to the World Series.

In the World Series, Cleveland won game one 6-0. The Cubs rebounded to even the series with a 5-1 win, before a tight third game for Cleveland ended 1-0. The Indians also took game four, a 7-2 win edging them within one victory. Just as people began to question the Cubs, they embarked on a winning streak. A Bryant home run sparked a big rally to win game five 3-2 and the Cubs won game six, 9-3 to tie the seven game series 3-3.

The deciding contest had innumerable twists, and displayed extremes of raw emotion that will never be forgotten. The final game went into an extra ninth, and then a tenth innings. A 17-minute delay followed the ninth innings due to rain, then Ben Zobrist smacked a tie-breaking RBI double in a two-run tenth that lifted the Cubs to an 8-7 victory over the Indians.

So what is the secret to Theo Epstein’s team building?  If there is a formula for his success, it is complex and multi-dimensional, but also remarkably unsophisticated in one essential way – when deciding whether to add a player, Epstein focuses most of his attention on an athlete’s personal characteristics rather than just his physical abilities. He values the person as much as the player. He calls it Scouting the person more than the player.

He comments, In the draft room, we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player. What are their backgrounds, their psyches, their habits, and what makes them tick?

He wants the right kind of people on the field. ‘Character’ is a vexed subject. Intelligence and physical skills derive significantly from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

The thing Epstein wants to know most about any potential player is how he has handled adversity. We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field. Because baseball is built on failure. The old expression is that even the best hitter fails seven out of 10 times.

The Cubs opened the season with 22 players obtained by Epstein, and had the best regular season record in Major League Baseball. A team deep in talent, the roster was a mix of youthful prodigies and wily, proven veterans. Epstein patiently and strategically built the mosaic that is the Cubs’ line up with one prescient acquisition after another.

Having made an assessment of character, Epstein then looks to science. His use of data analytics and algorithmic tests to measure players’ co-ordination is essentially using neuroscience to measure talent. He spends long days modelling data, following in the steps of Billy Beane.

Beane was the general manager of the Oakland A’s who famously fashioned his low-budget team into a surprising contender by using data analytics to find hidden gems among the players whom other teams had rejected. This was the dawning of the Moneyball era.

Back in Boston, Epstein won two World Series, in part by digging deeper into data, drawing on the burgeoning field of sabermetrics (named after the Society for American Baseball Research). Sabermetricians examine the various statistics a baseball game produces, with an eye toward figuring out which skills and outcomes really determine who wins and loses.

Epstein cut a deal with a pair of data scientists interested in studying the neural pathways that govern the act of hitting a baseball. They got access to his team, and he wound up with a ground breaking new evaluation tool – a nuanced algorithmic test to assess a player’s dynamic hand-eye co-ordination, reaction time, and inhibitory control, which is the ability for the brain to start an act and then stop it when it gets new information—like, say, laying off a breaking pitch.

When a batter puts the ball in play and it results in an out, what really made that happen, and how can we quantify it? Now most MLB teams ask those sorts of questions; yesterday’s winning insights have become today’s common practices. The Cubs focused on drafting and developing hitters over pitchers because the data makes clear that young hitters are a much safer bet to develop.

Epstein mines statistics to evaluate talent, forecast player performance, and model game strategies. It’s what led him to sign several players whom other teams had released. Gathering stats on college players going back thirty years, Epstein ran regression analyses to isolate the qualities that predicted success in the pros. Armed with those findings, he drafted a succession of future stars.

During the initial rebuilding years, when the MLB team offered little to cheer, news of these prospects provided succour. Fans were encouraged to bypass the first team and focus on how the kids were tearing it up. Five years after Epstein promised Chicago a winner, the Cubs were ready to make their move. The kids started coming up, and they could play.

It meant taking a step back at the major-league level for a few years, trading some established players for some younger, lesser-known prospects, but Epstein’s hiring science was an unmistakable signal of seriousness and commitment.

Having assembled the squad, next on his radar was to apply the same analytical approach to training and development techniques. Epstein compiled The Cubs Way, a detailed catalogue laying out his approach.

Hitters would be trained to be selectively aggressive, watching for particular pitches to drive. Pitchers would prepare according to a precise protocol designed to promote durability and prevent injury, prescribing when and how they should throw between games.

Also within his development plan is a focus on mental skills, including a series of strategies to help players cope with mental stress and improve their mental performance – in elite sport, after physical fitness and motivation, players are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team makes more good decisions.

Epstein believes that he can advance his team’s performance when they train to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and not machines. Analysing the data is one thing, and actually using that data to inform and influence organizational decisions is another.

If you could choose to be a fan of any team for any season in the recent history of baseball, you would choose either the 2004 Red Sox or the 2016 Cubs. Both turned enduring legacy of failure into glorious victory. Maybe you’d prefer the catharsis of your own team beating your long time nemesis, but for me as a neutral, it’s really one team or the other. And somehow, the same man built both teams using an analytical approach.

To be perfectly clear, ‘analytics’ doesn’t mean ‘numbers’. It means cutting through the noise, nonsense and subjectivity of people recruitment and development where we all have unfounded bias. It means having a reason for every decision you make, and that reason being something other than ‘because that’s the way it’s always been done’.

It doesn’t mean eliminating conventional wisdom, it means questioning it. It means getting as much data as you can, but data is just a fancy word for information. The Cubs don’t focus on stats at the exclusion of other forms of information  – there is always more information to be had, and more information is always useful. The battle was never between the quants and the gut-instinct types, it was between the curious and the incurious. The curious have won.

The Cubs’ championship melds analytics and scouting information, that sees no contradiction or controversy in using data of all types to inform its decisions. It is the inevitable harmonic perfection that every organisation in baseball and business is heading in that direction.

If you’re a Cubs fan, it’s time to party like you’ve never partied before. But if you’re a fan of smart people doing smart things and pushing the boundaries and trying new strategies in a never-ending quest to secure a competitive advantage, you should be rejoicing, too. Epstein’s holistic approach – focus on character, apply data science to selection, adopt precise physical training techniques and develop mental skills, especially decision making – can be applied to building the smartest team in your business.

Talent is critical to business performance, and companies need to understand talent-related insights to make informed business decisions. Yet most enterprises still base talent decisions on the intuition and experience of hiring managers and HR professionals. Few can offer systematic evidence to support their hunches.

Epstein has shown that a use of blended work force data analytics can produce better talent decisions, and better talent decisions improve results. The ‘datafication’ of talent is a leading analytics trend today and has the potential to change the game forever.

Hiring an outstanding crew: lessons from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.

I’ve previously written about Shackleton’s leadership qualities in my blog, and the first leg of his epic James Caird voyage in his escape from the South Pole:

Two weeks on from putting to sea and finding respite on Elephant Island, he began the second leg of his journey, 100 years ago yesterday, when the James Caird was launched from Elephant Island on 24 April 1916, headed for South Georgia in the southern Atlantic Ocean, a distance of 800 nautical miles.

With five companions, Shackelton’s objective was to obtain rescue for the 26 men stranded on Elephant Island after the loss of Endurance. Polar historians regard the voyage as one of the greatest small-boat journeys ever undertaken.

The James Caird was named by Shackleton after Sir James Key Caird, a Dundee jute manufacturer and philanthropist, whose sponsorship had helped finance the expedition. Surviving a series of dangers in tumultuous seas, including a near capsizing, the boat reached the southern coast of South Georgia after a voyage lasting 16 days.

Shackleton’s choices for the boat’s crew were Frank Worsley and Tom Crean. Shackleton was confident that Crean would persevere to the bitter end, and had great faith in Worsley’s skills as a navigator, especially his ability to work out positions in difficult circumstances. For the remaining places Shackleton took John Vincent, Henry McNish and Timothy McCarthy.

The wind was a moderate south-westerly, which aided a swift getaway, and the boat was quickly out of sight of the land. Shackleton ordered Worsley to set a course due north, instead of directly for South Georgia, to get clear of the menacing ice-fields that were beginning to form. Shackleton established an on-board routine: two three-man watches, with one man at the helm, another at the sails, and the third on bailing duty.

Success depended on Worsley’s navigation, based on sightings attempted during the very brief appearances of the sun, as the boat pitched and rolled. Navigation became, in Worsley’s words, a merry jest of guesswork, as they encountered the worst of the weather. Nevertheless, they were still moving towards their goal, and a dead-reckoning calculation by Worsley on 6 May, suggested that they were now 115 nautical miles from the western point of South Georgia.

On 7 May Worsley advised Shackleton that he could not be sure of their position within ten miles. Late on the same day floating seaweed was spotted, and the next morning there were birds, including cormorants which were known never to venture far from land. Shortly after noon on 8 May came the first sighting of South Georgia.

As they approached the high cliffs of the coastline, heavy seas made immediate landing impossible. For more than 24 hours they were forced to stand clear. On 10 May, when the storm had eased slightly, Shackleton was concerned that the weaker members of his crew would not last another day, and decided that whatever the hazard they must attempt a landing. Finally, after several attempts, made their landing. The voyage of the James Caird would be ranked as one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished.

As the party recuperated, Shackleton decided he, Worsley and Crean would cross the island on foot, aiming for the station at Stromness. Early on 18 May they began. Since they had no map, they had to improvise a route across mountain ranges and gaciers. They travelled continuously for 36 hours, before reaching Stromness.

The advent of the southern winter and adverse ice conditions meant that it was more than three months before Shackleton was able to achieve the relief of the men at Elephant Island but finally, with the aid of the steam-tug Yelcho. commanded by Luis Pardo, the entire party was brought to safety, reaching Punta Arenas in Chile on 3 September 1916.

Lessons have been drawn from Shackleton’s leadership in planning and executing his expeditions, and how it can be applied to modern business thinking. On the Endurance expedition, it was his ability to assemble an outstanding crew that stands out. Shackleton was surrounded by a team of outstanding individuals, each of whom had a key role to play in the voyage.

So, lets look first at the key Endurance personnel, roles and responsibilities on the expedition, and then the recruitment strategy and process Shackleton implemented to form his team.

Deputy: Frank Wild, Second in Command, was responsible for the day to day operations of the expedition plotting routes, actions and decisions on all aspects of the ship, including responsibility for the crew welfare.

Wild was an inconspicuous figure, yet there was something in his presence that inspired confidence. Wild was left in charge of the men on Elephant Island for the 18 months of isolation.

Wild had a rare tact, wrote Shackleton and the happy knack of saying nothing and yet getting people to do things just as he requires them.

Operations: Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance and ultimately responsible for assessing the direction of the ship to the Pole. A native of New Zealand, Worsley ran away to sea at 16, apprenticing on a wool clipper.

Worsley was a master navigator, and the success of the James Caird journey to South Georgia is largely due to his efforts when he navigated 800 miles of dangerous seas. Worsley died in 1943, aged 70 years, his ashes were scattered at sea.

Financial: Tom Crean, Second Officer, and responsible for the expedition’s budget. Born one of ten children in County Kerry, Ireland, Crean was tall and tough as an oak. He had been to the Pole twice ahead of Endurance, with Scott on both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions.

For his courage during Shackleton’s 1909 South Polar journey, Crean was awarded the Albert Medal. Crean made the James Caird journey to South Georgia and joined Shackleton and Worsley in the crossing of the island. He returned to Ireland and opened a pub called the South Pole Inn, still there today. He died in 1938.

Creative: Frank Hurley was the Endurance photographer. An independent-minded Australian, he gained a reputation for stopping at nothing to secure a memorable photograph.

His stunning photographs of the Endurance expedition are largely what his reputation rests on today, but he was also a noted WWI photographer. His Paget process photographs of the war are among the only known colour images of the conflict. One evening he came home complaining of feeling unwell. He sat in his chair, had a cup of tea, fell asleep and never woke up.

Special Resources: Charles Green was the Endurance cook. Food played an important role with special diets essential, but Shackleton also used the gathering of the crew at meal times as a key part of his leadership, creating a spirit of camaraderie.

Green joined the Endurance at Buenos Aires, replacing the ship’s original cook, who had been sacked. He cooked imperturbably on the ice floes, and on Elephant Island. When he finally returned to England in late 1916 found that his parents had cashed his life insurance policy and his girlfriend had married someone else! Green died in 1974, aged 86.

Communications: Lionel Greenstreet, First Officer responsible for the official log of the journey and communicating with the crew. He had experience in the merchant service before joining the expedition on the spur of the moment, 24 hours before Endurance sailed, when her original First Officer elected to volunteer for war duty.

Greenstreet saved the log of the Endurance and carried it with him at all times until the subsequent rescue. During WWI he served as captain of a Royal Navy tugboat, and during WWII, served on rescue ships. He died in 1979 at the age of 89 – he was the last survivor of the Endurance expedition.

Human Resource: Dr. Alexander Macklin was the doctor and brought many new ideas to the medical care and attention of the crew using new equipment and technology. In medical school he discovered Nansen’s Furthest North, which ignited in him the desire to become an explorer.

During WWI, Macklin served as a doctor during which he won the Military Cross for bravery in tending the wounded under fire. Macklin joined Shackleton for the Quest expedition and was with Shackleton when he died; to him fell the duty of performing a post-mortem on his friend.

Staffing: Alfred Cheetham was Endurance’s Third Officer. Born in Liverpool, he was a long-time sailor, and had served aboard Morning, one of the vessels sent in relief of Scott’s 1902 expedition. After serving as Third Officer of the Nimrod, he served aboard Terra Nova during Scott’s fatal 1912 expedition.

A small, cheerful man, he was an integral part of the Endurance epic, keeping the sometimes troublesome trawler hands crew under control. After the Endurance expedition, Cheetham served in the Royal Navy, and was killed just weeks before the Armistice. Cheetham had been south of the Antarctic Circle more than any other man, spending nearly four man years there – still a record today.

So that was the oustanding crew, what about Shackleton’s recruitment strategy and process? Shackleton’s initial advertisement in The Times set the tone: Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success.

Life on polar expeditions isn’t for dreamers. Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest place on earth, covered by a layer of ice three miles thick. The mean annual temperature is -70°F, what type of men wanted to go there? Shackleton was clear in his mind the sort of men he wanted for his crew:

The men selected must be qualified for their work to meet the special conditions. They must be able to live in harmony for a long period of time, without outside communication. It must be remembered that men whose desires lead them to the untrodden paths of the world have generally marked individuality. Character and temperament are as important as ability. I have to balance my types, their science or seamanship weighs little against the sort of chaps they are.

Clear in his mind the sort of men he wanted, what were the key elements to his recruitment strategy?

Build your crew around a core of experienced men Recruit experienced workers to establish a professional environment, they will support younger staff when the going gets tough. Recognise the value of expertise, whatever the age of the individual, and balance your team’s experience and age.

Chose the best management team Surround yourself with the best people you can in senior positions, who share your views of leadership and with whom there is absolute mutual trust, respect and loyalty. Pick people who compliment your management style without being yes-men.

Loyalty, cheerfulness, strength and experience are key qualities for your leadership team. They will have more contact day-to-day with your staff than you, and whilst handling issues and providing advice to the staff, are also your eyes and ears.

Recruit people who share your vision Shackleton made a mistake on his first polar journey by hiring individuals who didn’t fit the bold, risk-taking culture of exploration. For the Endurance he recruited a captain with bravado in spades, he was bold, a little eccentric – a mad-hat just right for the job.

Be different. Shackleton conducted unconventional interviews to unearth unique talent. He sorted applications from candidates into three piles – mad, possible and hopeless. His interviews were freewheeling exchanges, brief but intense. Shackleton believed the touchstone for a man’s spirit was his personality, and his interviews went deeper than experience and expertise, asking questions that revealed a candidate’s personality, values, and perspective on work and life.

Recruit those who had the expertise he lacked Shackleton was not a scientist but that was the purpose of the journey, so he recruited people with superior education and expertise. He liked his key men to be tough, clever and inventive. Hire those with talents and expertise you lack, don’t feel threatened by them as they will help you stay on the cutting edge.

Shackleton built and sustained his crew by constantly reinforcing a personal connection with all his crew individually. His approach to recruiting and leading people provides food for thought we can adopt and apply to business today, offering guidance for hiring your own outstanding crew.

Recruit high potentials who have a purpose for your startup

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, 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.