Focus on People & Everything Else Second

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It’s a simple, yet powerful idea. For the entrepreneur aiming to build a successful and sustainable company, the most important thing to focus on is people – hiring (and firing!), leading, and engaging great people.

Why is putting people first most important? Because the best people come up with the best ideas; build the best products; figure out the right markets; hire the best people and so on…

Start with the best people, and build the company from there. I don’t think you can do it in reverse.

It’s All About the People

Consider recent history and the last two years of successful technology IPOs. In almost every case, the founding teams share two characteristics: they’re extraordinary people, and they’re still active in the company. Extraordinary means that they operate differently, that no problem is too hard, and that no challenge is too great. Extraordinary leads to long term commitment to the idea, and to the team. This ensures longevity.

The “product first” mantra certainly has its fans. But I don’t know how you get the best product without first having the best people to create it. It’s not even worthy of a chicken vs. the egg discussion. Great people make great products. Mediocre people generally build mediocre products.

And this does not mean that the CEO is always the founder. That might be right in some cases and it might not in others. The trick for founders and leaders is to have the self-awareness and selflessness to know when the company might be better served with someone else as a CEO.

All that said, even if you believe in product first, here are a few things to think about in building a people first company.

The Audition

The first step is hiring a great team. And hiring great people is hard. How do you figure out in a few hours if someone is great?

The idea behind the audition is simple.

  • If you want to test someone’s programming abilities, have them write some code.
  • If they are going to sell, have them give you a pitch to sell you something.
  • If you believe in the importance of a person’s ability to communicate have them audition and do a presentation.

The audition provides an effective way to see if someone is great at what they do.

Relational Competency

Start-up culture is a topic for many more posts, but what’s most important is that you decide what kind you need to be successful. Clearly define it in a way that focuses on common goals but not commonalities that could create a mono-culture.

Also, don’t get sucked into the idea of culture as a set of perks – think of it as how you want to the team to make decisions, what kind of leaders you want, and how you want to treat people.

And once you know what you need, lead and recruit a team that authentically embodies your cultural goals.

You’re Fired!

Just as important as hiring great people is firing under-performers. It’s hard to fire people. They may be friends, they have families, they try hard, and yet they have not been successful.

But firing people is one of the most important things you can do to put people first. If you have an under-performer or someone who is not a cultural fit, that one person usually has an outsized negative impact on all the people in the company with whom they interact. And as a result, it demotivates the other people that are working hard and makes them wonder why the issue is not being dealt with.

Treat people with dignity, give them an opportunity to improve with regular feedback and goal setting, but when you know it’s time, don’t delay. Usually everyone else on your team already sees the problems and is wondering why you’re not doing something about it.

Engage vs Retain

Leading and engaging is about setting a direction, a vision, and goals that a team aspires to achieve. It turns out that one of the keys to an employee staying at their job is knowing and believing in the vision for the company, and staying closely connected to it in their daily work.

That’s very different than trying to retain someone. Think about what retain means – “to hold in place.” If you have a team that you’re trying to hold in place, this implies a tension and a tendency for them to want to leave.

Adopt the point of view that it’s your job to make sure each day every employee chooses to come to work at your company. They can easily choose not to and and if they do, you’ll understand why engaging them is a much more effective approach than “retaining” them.

Easier Said Than Done

Putting people first isn’t easy. It’s often easier to focus on getting the product out at all costs, converting that last customer to hit your goals, and lots of other day to day tactical things that are often quite urgent and sometimes important.

But take a look at your calendar and see much of your day and week is spent putting people first. I found that between recruiting, engaging, and leading teams, it ended up being 50% of my time or more. And when it was less, I usually ended up being a less effective leader and the company suffered.

It’s not easy, but in the long run putting people first and strategy second, will help you to build and scale a sustaining and successful company. At least, that’s my experience.

Credits : Joseph Ansanelli

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