March 30, 2024

Building the perfect team

I was on a skiing holiday last week. While in the mountains, I helped a friend analyze an organization he wanted to buy. Two of my clients called me about hiring decisions. A new entrepreneur explained his needs for his organization.

Let’s distill some points for building a perfect team. Building a team nearly always means hiring new people. But often, you can find the building blocks within an existing organization.

Attitude and Ability beats Experience

New founders and conservative organizations often make the mistake of looking for the same job description in a resume as required for a job. I repeatedly found the best people for a job when I wrote the job description, starting from the desired abilities of people and skipping the desired experience section.

At lastminute.com, our head of content was a university graduate with no experience but an Oxford degree and a phenomenal way with words, which became evident within 5 minutes of any chat with him. Absolute genius. I’ve sadly never seen him since, but whenever I am at an airport bookstore, one of his books will be displayed.

A very analytical and disciplined person could equally well work in accounting, quality assurance, or search engine marketing, but likely not in design.

At Sustainable Aero, Lisa, our head of events, also took over our payments and receivables. Her reliability, resilience, and attention to detail are at play in both functions.

Takeaway? – Broaden your inner horizon of who could do a job.

Always hire the best you can find

The saying ‘A people hire B people, B people hire C people’ is commonly attributed to Steve Jobs. My biggest success stories in hiring people came from when I was not afraid to hire people I feared were better than me.

This came from working at lastminute.com in 2000, where super-experienced managers and entrepreneurs were willing to work under some twenty-something former business consultants. At Qype.com, I was working with a COO, CMO, CTO, and even developers who all later individually built companies that exited in double or triple-digit millions.

Energy, Intelligence, and integrity

I love raw intelligence in people. But one quote by Warren Buffett, which he repeatedly said when I was in Omaha, always rings in my ears: ‘Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.’

Judgment

When first-time founders hire a management team, they often look for specific functions to cover. But in reality, you want to hire someone who can make decisions you don’t have to worry about. This is true whether you have a fast-growing organization or wish to reduce your workload. Look less for specific experience in your top managers, but look for someone who can make significant decisions under uncertainty.

Promote within

There is a constant complaint that it is hard to find good people. The larger your organization is, the higher the likelihood that you already have great talent hidden within its layers. I once restructured a large media organization where the ‘head of something’ layer was universally inferior to the person doing the actual work. You often find this in IT departments. But restructuring is probably a different post.

Purpose

I find it easy to attract great people because I always have a sense of ‘we are special,’ which I can convey clearly. I don’t get involved in a business without that. Elon Musk excels at being special – according to him, without him, humanity is doomed. You don’t need to go that far. When we built Qype.com, we wanted to organize local information and make it easier to navigate urban environments and find the good stuff, as well as help the good entrepreneurs attract more clients. Avocado store, which was the first eco marketplace in Germany, was 10 years ahead of its time and had a clear sense of purpose built in. Even at 9flats.com, which I started as an Airbnb clone, had a strong sense of purpose: At that time, Airbnb, had zero customer services, we had the first customer protection agreements, and we had more knowledge of the local European needs.

Any new potential hire who speaks to you and your team should clearly receive the signals that you are on a mission and that this is different. This will drive many people off. But the right ones will stick.

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Stephan Uhrenbacher

Coach for entrepreneurs, founder, speaker and author

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