Levels of Talent
I realize that most of my recent posts are around the common thread of “things I’ve learned scaling a startup” – this, of course, holds true to that expectation.
There are a set of common adages related to talent – hire slow + fire fast, don’t screw up culture, don’t cut corners. One of the interesting concepts, however, is matching the caliber of talent you have with the skill level necessary for that role – now and in the future. This thinking was inspired by experience and by Scaling Up Excellence and the accompanying course.
Let’s try and visualize it as a graph of skill level/time.
As a company scales up, the skill level needed for roles usually increases. Example: Developers are initially tasked with quickly throwing together prototypes, whereas later on they’ll be tasked with ensuring that enterprise customers have their complex integration, security, and compliance needs met, along with scaling a database of millions of records. Your first customer service rep is told “talk to customers” – whereas your tenth CS hire is a VP who can handle follow-the-sun territory assignment, multiple levels of escalation, and hiring another 50 people onto the team.
One could argue that your needs and skills grow exponentially, hyperbolically, etc – let’s stick with linear for now.
Your initial thoughts might lead you to think to fill the role at hand based on present-day needs. But unless you are truly steady state, or the role is so specialized that change is strangely unnecessary, the company’s needs for that role increases in level. Also, it’s highly doubtful that you’d hire someone who had no drive or ability to grow themselves, save for a super-senior executive who was at the zenith of their career.
In an ideal world, you’d hire someone who matched the skills that the company needs, now and forever. This can and does happen, but one must always be checking in – are we investing enough into this person? Are they growing into an ever-changing role? Or is the role, and the team, being held back because you’re limiting yourself to yesterday’s skills?
You may also decide to go for an experienced hire. Your four year old startup, who, up until now had been getting by with a string of interns for its marketing, now seeks to hire a VP who has handled multi-million dollar budgets, teams of 30+, and driven demand gen for much later stage companies. If you can attract (and afford) such talent, awesome – but are they the type is still willing and able to roll up their sleeves and crank out a blog post?
The rising star. You’re taking a bet on someone with less experience, but is a hungry hustler with more passion than anyone else you’ve ever met. If there’s something they don’t know, they’ll fake it until they can get home and spend all night learning everything they need to crush the task at hand. This can work, and work really well, but it’s a risk, as the star may burn out too soon.
Of course, I’ve simplified things greatly. When hiring, you may hire someone who has the promise of a senior leader, but doesn’t work out. Or you may hire someone and they’re great for a few years, but then clearly hits a wall in their own growth. There are many different variations. The key takeaway is to treat both the needs of the company, and the skills of your employee, as always changing, converging, and deviating.
So what do you go with? I believe some of the best advice I’ve received is never direct advice, but rather the conveyance of a framework or at least series of questions to guide how one approaches a situation. We’ve been through all of these situations, and responded differently depending on the various factors. But asking the right questions of yourself usually leads to a clear outcome.