You Cannot Be Serious

I tuned into a recent BBC documentary that follows the fortunes of a group of Scottish entrepreneurs. One advisor was asked to define ‘entrepreneur’. His answer was long on enthusiasm and short on sense: ‘If you think I am one, I am one’.

I wondered what the reaction might be if a doctor in a hospital documentary defined themselves in similar terms. Or take another profession: to become a lawyer requires the aspirant to study for years, but to become an ‘entrepreneur’ you simply need to believe you are one.

But perhaps this narrow line of thinking reflects something of a norm. Many business schools offer add-on courses where start-ups are a topic to be mastered in a week. Incubators and accelerators offer the same ‘sheep-dip’ philosophy.

If only building an entrepreneurial business could be packaged and codified so easily. The reality, of course, is that entrepreneurship demands rigour over time. Identifying new opportunities, making the ‘right’ decisions, and managing growth present challenges that take years of experience and reflection to perfect.

Rather than seeing entrepreneurship as just ‘something to have a go at’, we would be well served as seeing it as a profession in its own right. In this universe, it becomes a core business school discipline; it becomes an activity that can be learnt rather than being mostly a matter of luck. Successful serial entrepreneurs are not merely people who have a knack for winning the lottery over and over again.

Jessica T, Internships, and Life at RIG

Jessica Tayenjam studied Modern Languages at Cambridge University. She speaks French and Spanish fluently and has lived and been educated in the US , UK, and France. Jessica started as a RIG intern. Today she runs RIG’s internship programme. She was interviewed by RIG Principal, Shields Russell.

SR: You run the intern programme, so let’s focus for a moment what it is like working at RIG. So tell me this: you could have had your pick of jobs, so why did you elect to work at RIG?

JT: I had the experience of working in the civil service and that was not for me: too bureaucratic, and it took too long to make a difference and make things happen.

Being a good Cambridge girl, I then had three options: banking, law, or consultancy. The first two were easy for me to rule out: 15 hour days and the general opprobrium of the world at large held little appeal, and my family is already riddled with enough lawyers.

So by the process of elimination that left consulting. As ones does, I diligently I submitted my applications and was lucky enough to get a handful of interviews with consultancies. The bigger firms seemed largely concerned by whether a language student could do maths and with the level of my Excel skills.

RIG didn’t ask me any of those questions. They were more interested in who I was and what I could bring to the company. For that reason, I chose RIG. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that one of consultants looked like Robert Pattinson.

SR: How has what you do at RIG changed over time?

JT: Roughly speaking, my work has evolved from doing what I was asked, to getting other people – colleagues and clients – to get things done, and now to thinking about what we should do, and why, and how. We are in a continuous cycle of problem-solving and execution. I used to be a bit player – now I play the whole circuit.

SR: Does working in a small firm present special challenges?

JT: You have to get along with everyone. There is no padding. You will be held accountable and need to hold other people to account, from ‘Why haven’t you washed your mug, Shields?’ to ‘Why haven’t you delivered for your client?’

SR: There is a gender imbalance at RIG that we are trying to address. Is it an important issue for you?

JT: Yes, definitely. Diversity in all its forms – not just in terms of gender – is a strength, as it gives us a range of experiences and opinions to draw upon. This is important because we don’t want to be a firm that just thinks or acts in one way.

SR: We use interns as a low risk way of sourcing and of assessing talent and fit. As the person responsible for running the process what are you looking for in the first instance?

JT: Obviously there is a basic threshold that all serious candidates must attain: they have to be smart, they have to communicate and present themselves well in their application, and they must be diligent.

Beyond that I am looking for people who have something interesting to say in their cover letters. I seriously doubt any university student has a ‘passion’ for consulting (as many claim to). I’d rather hear about something they genuinely are passionate about, and how they can transfer the skills learned there to the work environment. I think it is important for candidates to be involved in and care about something beyond just their academics.

SR: The most important thing about one’s first job is the opportunity to learn and build competence. How does RIG go about this?

JT: It is not a backroom training exercise. You are a key team member in a live client situation. We learn most at risk. There is no one to carry you, so you have to pull your weight, but it also means your contribution has the potential to be significant.

You get the opportunity to follow your interests, but you have to play your part in creating that opportunity. For example, I have developed an interest in B2B2C companies, which I probably know more about now than anyone else in RIG, and I pursue this interest in our client acquisition and marketing activities.

But it’s not all perfect: we need to be better at growing teams and defining team roles. We are a work in progress.

SR: Finish the sentence – People who do well at RIG are…

JT: Smart, open-minded, dynamic, adaptable, and hard working.

SR: People who would not enjoy RIG are …

JT: Unopinionated, timid, and find the idea of being a self-starter a bit of stretch.

SR: What interests do you have outside of work?

JT: I play rugby, I am a compulsive cleaner and a tidy nut (organisation is me), and I love to cook and travel.

SR: Would you say any of these interests have carry over into your work?

JT: For sure – I favour people who are team players and have little time for people who are not and who are reluctant to commit. Team spirit and a positive attitude are traits I value, and I appreciate people who are also willing to step up and lead the team when needed.

SR: What is the biggest lesson you have learnt at RIG?

JT: Always get Shields to buy lunch.



What I Know About Hiring and Firing: Part 4

In this fourth installment of this series on hiring and firing in growth companies, I look at the importance of ‘developing’ job profiles.

4.       Sweat the role

The hiring process is one with broader implications. Effective hiring starts with an attempt to define the role.

That is not to say that the hirer must be hostage to the role defined.  In the context of a start-up, role creep is simply adjustments made for learning and for talented individuals that make you think again. No two individuals will execute the same role in exactly the same way.  Find the “right person” and you will find yourself adding specific responsibilities and reassigning others.

What the hirer must bear in mind is the overall structure within which the role resides. That structure is largely determined by the company’s business model. The organising principle simply states that the optimum organisational structure is the one the best enables the company to ‘create, deliver, and capture value’.  For entrepreneurial ventures (businesses under construction), this is the point of departure that must be periodically revisited as hiring accelerates. Once the business logic for a function is firmly established, focus down on the role.

In start-ups, roles are widely defined. As the business develops, the span of roles contracts, and more specialisation is required.  To be the best ultimately demands recruiting and/or developing specialists.

Start by trying to define the key outputs of the role. These will determine the responsibilities of the role and inform how performance will be measured.

Second, try and be clear about how these outputs are to be delivered. Map the processes. Even where these maps are sketchy, they provide an invaluable source of discussion with the candidates. What will differentiate a strong performer from a weak performer is their method and the process they follow ( though they won’t talk about it in such terms). Interrogate their experience: explore how they might tackle the challenge given your particular circumstances.

The great challenge, of course, of hiring in a start-up scenario is that the basic premise of recruitment cannot be fully adhered to.  Recruitment is basically about finding a fit (i.e. between a desired set of capabilities and an individual who has demonstrated these capabilities in similar circumstances).  Hence the importance placed on the job profile by recruiters. A detailed and “knowing” description of the profile is ideal.

And there is the rub: in the start-up scenario job profiles, like the organisation itself, are often works in progress. Rather, the preoccupation is an on-going search for what works and can scale. The need therefore is not for a perfect fit for an imperfect, partially defined role; it is for an individual who can pioneer, work out, and define the role. That is how start-ups flow: from roughly and broadly defined roles, through first attempt, partially defined roles, to well-defined roles. People who are well suited to start-ups love these pioneering rolse.  People from larger organisations, used to operating within tightly defined job parameters, rarely do.  That is why in the early evolution of the organisation,’ big’ to ‘small’ so often ends in failure.

Click on the links to view part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.


What I Know About Hiring and Firing: Part 3

In the past two weeks, I have been sharing my insight on the recruitment challenges of growth companies. In part 3 of the series, I discuss the benefits of promoting internally:

3.       Promote don’t hire

As the organisation grows, new roles and positions must be created. These generally fall into two categories.

First are those roles that demand some specialist competence and experience that is not found within the existing workforce.

Second are those positions that are essentially more senior management roles for functions that already exist, albeit in emergent form, and where some basic competence already resides in the organisation. In this context, consider promotion over hiring.

Ambitious, self-starting, driven young individuals are drawn to start-ups precisely because there is an opportunity to assume responsibility, pioneer a role, and simply ‘do stuff’. The self-learning opportunity is immense. Passion trumps experience. These individuals are what make start-ups tick. In many ways, they define the culture. They should be encouraged and rewarded.

In many cases, they may already be fulfilling the part, if not all, of the role you envisage. Give them the role before you give them the title. When they demonstrate the ability, talent, and energy to go further, promote them. That is the reward for working in a start-up – to gain more experience faster.

Find them mentors that can support them in tackling their most critical challenges. Look for mentors in your ‘circle’, and that includes tapping members of your board. While they won’t play the role themselves, ask them to suggest someone in their network. Get them to pull a favour. Mentoring works. Use it.

The fourth part of this series will be published next week. Click here to view part 1 and part 2.

What I Know About Hiring and Firing: Part 2

Following on from the first installment last week, I share my second observation on hiring and firing for founders and CEOs of growth stage companies.

    2.       Recruitment as a core competence

The hiring challenge intensifies as growth accelerates and greater demands are placed on the organisation. The interval between new hires shortens. Hiring is prioritised on the back of success. Key positions must be created and filled. Hires must be on-boarded ahead of projected growth.

A key strategic issue facing all CEOs is determining what competence is ‘core’ and what is ‘peripheral’. Core activities are those that directly contribute to the company’s competitive differentiation. Building capability in these areas translates into a distinctive performance advantage delivered through efficient collective execution. Core capabilities matter, and hiring, along with people development, are the pillars upon which all capability building rests.

Easy to say: hard to do.  Start by seeking out smart practices (This will be the subject of a later blog post). Look at companies that hire well. Ask them how they do it. Non-competing companies will happily share practice. Look at the abundant literature.  Formulate your ideas into an end-to-end process that you feel reflects your culture.

Then start the process of improvement.  Review the process after each hire and keep learning. Source feedback from successful and non-successful candidates, from HR experts, from Board members, and from colleagues.  Ask for feedback or advice and you will generally receive it. Innovate around the process in a way that reflects and develops your values and your culture. Only in this way will a fit-for-purpose process evolve.

Above all, when you get it wrong (and you will), avoid the frequently trod path of blaming the hire. Be self-critical. You hired the person, and if it turns out that there is a mismatch between the person’s capabilities and the demands of the role, then it is your judgement that is in question. You designed the process that generated the data points that informed your judgement. Revisit the process and get value from your failure.

Part 3 of this series will be published next week. To view part 1, click here.

What I Know About Hiring and Firing: Part 1

In this four part mini-series on recruitment, I will share my insights into the hiring challenges of growth companies.

As a body of ideas, I make no particular claim to originality. Rather, I hope that the filter of my experience of working in and around entrepreneurial ventures for over 15 years will inform my perspective with insights that are borne of experimentation and practice.

My search has been one that always seeks to balance ‘the art of doing’ with a ‘scientific approach’: to inject some science into art and some art into the science.

My thoughts are written with founders and untested first time CEOs in mind. Theirs is an incredibly challenging role and chief among their challenges will be ‘hiring and firing’.

Ensuring that the coffers never run dry is a fear-inducing imperative. And yet, of all the issues that a CEO must tackle, people issues can be the most agonising and the most difficult to act upon decisively and with the intended effect.

As the company grows, people management comes to the fore. The company is its people and ‘growing’ the company almost invariably means growing the number of people as well as ‘growing’ the people themselves to meet the challenges of growth.

1.       Don’t delegate ever

As a general rule of thumb, as a company grows, the CEO must delegate. Failure to do so will create a ‘cartwheel’ organisation that will stymie growth.

For the CEO, the critical questions are about ‘what to delegate’ completely and ‘when to delegate’. Yet when it comes to hiring, the answer is simple. Don’t. Ever. Hiring is simply too important to delegate.

Consider this: the earlier the stage of the company, the more critical each new hire is. If you are a small five person team, the new hire will represent  17% of your team. An attractive opportunity for the new employee:  a critical, foundational decision for you.

This person will become part of the fabric of your organisation and will influence and shape it for better or for worst. A great hire will add expertise and will balance your team.  A poor hire will add little and leave weaknesses unaddressed.  Sub-optimal hiring equates to a brake on the development of the organisation and loss of opportunity.

Look out for the second part of this series to be published next week.

The 'differentiated' sales force

As technology advances and the manner in which technology is consumed changes, traditional software sales jobs are fast becoming an anachronism. The selling of largely standardised solutions using a direct sales force has been replaced by an internet-based, self-service, sales-less model in which marketing comes to the fore. Recommendation and virality create and drive demand. The change is marked.

If you are running a direct sales team today then you are in the business of selling higher value solutions with a degree of complexity. The sales force is no longer merely the execution channel; they are a constituent part of the solution’s differentiation. Sales skills alone are not enough; they must offer the prospective customer expertise. This value-add is integral to the sale. Sales consultants must become ‘consultants’ in the true sense of the word. They must have domain expertise and problem-solving skills that are valued by the customer. They must be ahead of their customer’s thinking. They must be able to challenge and educate the client. Value is created though collaboration. While the technology at the core of the solution must remain scalable, the skill in creating a dialogue around the client’s needs and configuring an attractive solution is not. Building this type of differentiated sales force requires know-how and investment.

This type of shift is significantly changing sales management from management of a sales force that can articulate differentiation to one that is in itself part of that differentiation. This is a significant evolution that impacts selection, training and development, and sales practice. Where it is not practical or desirable for all the knowledge required to execute a sale to be contained in one individual, team selling (an anathema to the traditional software sales manager) may emerge from being the exception to being the norm. Incentive and remuneration structures will change to facilitate this. Where developing specialised domain knowledge is a core competence, a ‘hire and fire approach’ (always an excuse for poor management) makes no sense. This world of sales demands the brightest and the best. Those that have both IQ and EQ in abundance.