The Case for Hiring Potential


Fostering an environment of growth

I’ve been working in the industry for a while now, and in that time I have had the opportunity to work for and with some amazing people and some not so. I feel most fortunate to have had the opportunity and experience of interviewing, hiring, and growing a team in a startup like environment so early in my career.

Being that I was one of the team founders, I was uniquely positioned to help craft our team culture and create an environment that excited. Actually, we all were really excited about the prospect of molding a team and creating an environment that fostered innovation at a pace our parent company had never seen. One of our first team events was attending the Wisdom Conference session with Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, on Compassionate Management. I am also a huge fan of Simon Sinek and his work on what it means to be a true leader from a biological and evolutionary stance.

Reading books and attending seminars make not a good leader. Synthesizing the principles and the knowledge bequeathed to you and integrating them into your own personality is only the first step to becoming a great leader. You have to actually lead and practice those principles; personalize and apply them to your own life.

How do you find the right people?

As is the case with many start ups, we couldn’t hire fast enough. Our quality bar was high, and working on a stealth product didn’t help attract candidates. We wanted to create something that our industry had never seen. We couldn’t afford to hire solely based on relevant or prior work experience. So we turned to potential and culture as our gold standard.

We didn’t invent the idea, nor did we perfect it. Many companies have approached hiring in the same way. We interviewed for skills, potential, and cultural fit. The second two factors are very subjective, so how do you evaluate against it? “Stripe” came out of nowhere and turned the payment processing field on its head, and did it with an amazing team. In a talk, Stripe said their make or break factor for hiring was one simple question. “If this person was working on the weekend, would I come in and work with them?” It is the question like this that helps you quantify and evaluate candidates against the subjective aspects.

By distributing the hiring principles across multiple interviewers, we were able to establish a measuring stick and keep evaluating each candidate against it. By asking strategic questions to probe thought process, and allowing the interviewee to take the conversation forward, we were able to understand their potential. By asking them personal questions, and putting them through short series of “stress tests” we could see what they were made of and if they were a cultural fit. Culture is also a thing that should excite a candidate. By describing how we worked, and how our team bonded together we would either elicit excitement, apathy, or disinterest.

How does this foster growth?

Before moving forward, I would like to state that the above do not and should not translate into hiring “yes men”. It is imperative to bring people with different experiences, backgrounds, and genders into an environment unified by one mission and culture, in order to foster not just growth but creativity.

Hiring friendly people, or ones that believe in the same things as you may not seem to directly create an environment that fosters growth, but looking at it through a sociological lens; it makes all the difference.

When individuals are surrounded by people who they can relate to, then they feel safe. If they feel safe, then they are willing to share information. If they can utilize their colleagues to fill in knowledge gaps, they wont be afraid to get out of their comfort zone and make mistakes. They will learn from those mistakes and share it back into the collective pool of group knowledge, which will feedback into the cycle.

This might be an overly simplistic view of the inner workings of a team, but none the less, it proves the logic behind the rational. Hiring people who believe in a common cause and get along with each other creates a culture in which they challenge each other and grow from one another’s collective experiences.

How do you help your people grow?

I once watched an interview with Satya Nadella in which he was asked “what was one the things about becoming a CEO that he did not expect.” His reply was simple, everyone knows what a CEO does, the boring business stuff, but how does a CEO fit in with their employees? He said that a CEO’s primary obligation to his employees is curating the culture, sustaining it and giving it direction and then making sure that the right atmosphere is struck.

As a leader, it is your job to curate that culture. Help your people grow by challenging them, and protect them when they fail. Understand what they want to accomplish for themselves, and see how you can enable them to reach those goals. Ensure that they have an environment that they can thrive in, and know that they are protected. Let them know that you are only a human, and that you can make mistakes as well, but you own your mistakes. Be transparent in your decisions, but protect them from anything that might unravel the culture.

Wrapping it all up

You can read as many books as you can get your hands on, or attend as many workshops and seminars on being an effective leader as you can, but at the end of the day, you are a team. You are not as weak as your weakest link, but you are as strong as the collective group. Finding people who can be more than just colleagues but friends helps ensure that the environment you work in is a safe one. If you have that base, as a leader, you must be the catalyst to create a culture of growth by fostering growth within your team, and by challenging them and protecting them when they need it.

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