3 Mantras to Shape Winning Teams: Recruit Slow, Evaluate Fairly, and Fire Fast

Teamwork is the secret that makes common people achieve uncommon results.
– Ifeanyi Onuoha

I pay a lot to attention to the kind of people that I share my time with, both professionally and personally. It’s critical for me to surround myself with people of different backgrounds, ages, and beliefs, who challenge me intellectually and contribute to shaping who I am.

These are the three mantras I always have in mind when building teams.


1. When recruiting, no rush

Having the right team around is always important, but in a tech startup, it is critical. In a startup, you should hire slow and fire fast.

Here’s my step-by-step recipe for filling positions, assuming there is no lack of talent (scarcity of professionals requires a whole different post):

  • Publish the job offer in a major job site and let your network know through social media. Use your team as a loudspeaker to reach more people.
  • If you are lucky enough to get a reference from one of your employees, go for this candidate first. Nobody would recommend a jerk to the boss. Half of the job you need to do is done when you reach an applicant through a team member.
  • Interview referrals ASAP – don’t lose momentum. I’ve seen a lack of proactivity from the company cool down the recruitment process, and the chances to get the right candidate decrease.
  • If no personal referrals pop up, scan as many CVs as possible. Normal numbers would be around 60-70 appropriate résumés. At Appszoom, we don’t have an HR department, so we need to do this ourselves. But that’s cool, as it allows you to have a better idea of the talent available in the market, and even to adapt your position slightly according to the people you find.
  • Pick 10 to 12 people that might fit the position and ask them to run an online test. Design the test with care: it should require some effort, but don’t make them feel they are working for free. It should be something directly related to the position. In my experience, a surprising 20-30% of candidates applying for a job have not answered this e-mail with the test request.
  • Read the tests and call the ones that 1) look like they know how to do the job and 2) show a high level of effort and dedication. You might end up needing to interview 7-8 people.
  • As for the actual interview process, long story short: ask the candidates to hold as many interviews with the team as possible. With their future boss, with the CEO, with other team members in other departments, and, especially, with the team they might be joining. The opinion of the team is key to decide who comes on board.
  • Gather everybody’s feedback and make a decision. If you believe you have the right team, never recruit somebody they have not chosen. If you don’t believe in your team, then feel free to hire the one they want the least. 🙂

As a colleague once told me, the goal is to avoid getting PUREs on board (Previously Undetected Recruiting Errors) that you’ll have to dedicate resources to deal with down the road.


 2. Evaluate teams using the magic quadrant

I use this quadrant to evaluate existing teams and take action to make them grow. It has two axes: 1) How much people share the company’s values, and 2) How well people’s skills fit the job to be done.

VALUES MATCH People to train and create a development plan for People to retain and always keep motivated and developed
VALUES MISMATCH Fire Fire, even if they don’t understand why

Let’s start with the easy ones: people whose values don’t fit the company and who don’t have the skills to do their job. These people should know that they belong to this quadrant to give them the chance to change. But if they acquire skills extremely fast and show an honest change in terms of values, the job of the team leaders is to let them go ASAP.

Then, we have people who fit the culture but lack the skills to do their job at 100%. If your culture involves continuous improvement and learning, you should have quick learners around. Create a development program for them and let them lead it, as we do in our peer-review process. If you set specific goals and deadlines, most people reach their targets and grow.

The most challenging group of people is on the top right-hand side, who fit the company’s culture perfectly and excel at their job. Presenting engaging challenges, letting them explore new areas of expertise, and rewarding them by using them examples for others are just a few of the things you have to do with them. This is the core of a team you trust to lead your startup to success.

And last, but not least, the hardest ones to deal with: people who are excellent at their job and use their technical performance as a shield to keep behaving as they please, rather than how the team has agreed upon when defining the company’s culture. These guys deserve to know where they are, too, to give them the opportunity to change. However, in my experience, hardly anybody is able to honestly behave according to the company’s values if they’re not similar to what they believe personally.


3. Fire fast and fair

I believe everybody deserves at least three opportunities to change, no matter the circumstances. To have a real opportunity, the person needs to be aware of the present situation (the quadrants can be very handy to make yourself understood as a team leader). Giving proper feedback and setting clear expectations is the most candid way to give real opportunities when you need people to change. 

Before you start setting a plan to give someone an opportunity: you should only invest all this time and effort if YOU trust in this person’s capacity to change. If, from the very beginning, you believe this is a waste of time, it will be, no question. It might be better just to let the person go immediately. A false opportunity is a lot worse than no opportunity at all.

Let’s assume we do give someone an opportunity. In my experience, three months are normally enough of a time frame to see if the person shows signals of change. Here’s a step-by-step process for such a case:

  • Tell the person that the team needs him to change. State specifically what’s wrong and give feedback in a structured manner.
  • There might probably be different reactions to this conversation: anger, denial, surprise… Give the person time to react and follow up on the conversation in a couple of days. Sometimes people just need time to process what’s going on.
  • If you have stated the potential consequences clearly, the person should declare if this is an opportunity he wants to use or not. Sometimes this conversation is just what people are hoping for to start a search for a better match somewhere else.
  • Write a plan together. Your job is to set the expectations:
    • What the person’s purpose is within the organization,
    • What the expected outcome will be in three months’ time (with weekly/monthly milestones), and
    • What the criteria for success will be.
    • His job is to write down a plan of concrete actions he will accomplish in the following weeks to check for meeting your expectations.
  • Finally, give real time feedback every time you have the opportunity – both when it’s good news and when it’s not good news. If at the end of three months, the person has not fulfilled your expectations, asking him to leave shouldn’t be a surprise.

Letting people go is always hard. But there are two things I always keep in mind to help me do this part of my job when I have to: 1) The peace of mind that the person has had a real opportunity, and 2) knowing that by asking somebody who doesn’t fit to leave, we leave room for a talented person to join and make history with us.

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