Does Hiring People Really Require Strategy?

As Thinktiv has grown our employee base over the past year (roughly 3x) we’ve faced some of the traditional challenges early stage businesses face.

  • Who do we hire next?
  • What is our specification for a role as we scale it?
  • What does senior vs. associate look like?

I’ve spent considerable time thinking about this over the past several months. It turns out I spent most of that time focused on the wrong thing. I was thinking about the individual skillsets we needed in the organization and how we were going to acquire them. It was a frustrating exercise because while the answer was relatively obvious, it wasn’t a good one. We need extremely talented product-to-market alignment thinkers. We need people that excel at analyzing external market landscapes using a pair of bifocals that allow them to uncover whitespace opportunities and conceive of a product solution that will win. A CEO colleague of mine, Rod Favaron (@rodfav) of Spredfast said to me “you guys have the hardest hiring problem to solve in the city.” I don’t know if that is absolutely true, but it’s certainly the case that it is prohibitively expensive to hire truly excellent senior/executive level product thinkers.

So – for a month and a half I was stuck. I’ve spent my entire career looking at organizational development similar to the way a baseball team builds its roster. The goal is to acquire players with different talents and put them in the correct spot in the lineup to maximize their impact on the game as a whole. The fast guys who get on base need the big sluggers to drive them in and the big sluggers need the fast guys on base to provide run scoring opportunities. It always seemed very rational and obvious to me to view the world this way. But, Rod’s comment got me thinking and made me realize that not only is my a thinking flawed, but, in fact, it’s forcing my team to evaluate the wrong skillsets as they think about new hires.

The flaw in that thinking is pretty simple: we don’t need Thinktiv to be stronger than the sum of its parts, what we really need is an organization that can function without the overhead of parts. Our Chief Strategy Officer, Steve Waters (@thinktivsteve) reviewed this post and said to me: "So you're saying we need Jason Bourne, not George Clooney and the Oceans 11 team?" This is a great analogy, and it's right on. In our line of business, we help early stage companies identify and develop a product thesis around what “it” will win in their marketspace. It is one of, if not the most critical decision an early stage company will make. It does not require a team of 6 specialists to make that decision. It requires an experienced product thinker with dozens if not hundreds of swings at the plate commercializing products of different types for different markets. This person must be engaging to listen to, inspire rigorous focus and literally, invent a business. We must coalesce all of branding, customer acquisition, product strategy and user experience, measurement methodolgy and go-to-market strategy and these into a holistic plan. Seeing as how early stage companies need to get to market in 90-120 days, you can see how building a team of expert parts is simply not a viable alternative. It’s nearly impossible to hire people that can do that – perhaps Rod is right.

If we can’t hire it, we need to grow it. That’s when it occurred to me. If it must be grown, we need to have a program to grow it. If we have a program to grow it, our hiring strategy should be evaluating people’s ability to succeed in our development program and not be centered on evaluating people’s level of competence at their craft.

This all seems very obvious to me in retrospect. But, I take comfort in the fact that in my 15-year career, I have not been a part of or worked with organizations that operate like this. I find the ‘roster of baseball players’ strategy to be the predominant strategy – and there are plenty of successful businesses that use it.

This means Thinktiv needs to institute and measure the effectiveness of heavy cross-training regimens and invest in our development program. We’ve already started, although I’m not sure my teammates know it. Several of them have been taken out of roles their craft qualifies them for and put into positions of extreme discomfort, exercising muscles they simply haven’t exercised before. It hurts a little bit. Some of it will be uninteresting or less interesting, some of it will be easy and some of it will be hard. I expect we will increase “personal mistake rate” on projects throughout the organization. This sounds like a great idea to me as that’s how we will invest in our people. It won’t affect our customers because we over invest in them, providing plenty of air cover for our teammates so that we continue to deliver the results the market has come to expect from us. In the long run, our customers will benefit. It will require fewer parts to manufacture better businesses. It will take some time, but we will refine our understanding of the type of person who will succeed in our cross-training program, and that’s whom we’ll hire.