Why Startups Stumble – Avoiding the Fatal Five – #4 Picking the Wrong Team


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You know the saying “it’s a poor tradesman who blames his tools”, and the same is usually true in business. Unless deception has been involved, it’s not your employees fault if you hired them to the wrong role or beyond their abilities. And the reality is that with our workplace laws, once you’ve made that choice, then “I made a bad decision” is potentially no excuse before the law if you want to fire them.

For this reason, one of my fundamental rules in small business is “be slow to hire and quick to fire”. Once they are on your payroll, you potentially have a major and crucial stakeholder locked in to your business development processes the whole way through your startup phase and beyond.

So spending a long time hiring – running every possible test and interviewing multiple times will help weed out the unlikely performers simply by applying the maximal amount of scrutiny to them through the hiring process.

I see so many employees hired on the strength of a single traditional format interview, but you have every right as hirer to include any kind of formal testing you want in the process, so long as it complies with the relevant anti-discrimination law.

If written communication is a strong focus of the role, you are almost crazy not to include some sort of formal testing for this. Written communication is an important component of most modern workplace roles, but how many job selection processes have you been through where the only sentences you ever wrote were on the cover letter that went straight in the bin?

So I strongly recommend applying some sort of formal written test in the selection process. At the end of the first interview, task them with writing a short formal communication to cover a hypothetical business scenario. This is probably not a selection criterion you would make your primary one, but in my experience it can often inform that decision perfectly.

Several times I can think of where I’ve been able to drop one or two candidates that were otherwise in the mix, based on an exercise like this, and was able to do that while holding solid evidence in my hand it was the right decision.

The problem with bad individual hires is that even one of them can severely negatively impact an otherwise high functioning team. The reasons why teams might tend to perform below par is a whole other essay in itself, but usually I like to say it comes down to one of three core reasons.

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How Teams Fail: Lack of Coordination

Team coordination can be a difficult concept to measure, and when it breaks down it can be for a huge number of potential combined reasons. Maybe one person’s attitude or motivation levels are sapping those of the others, maybe some professional jealousy is creating unaddressed issues in some relationships.

Some teams and work styles are suited to a highly structured way of working with loads of formal meetings and minutes and regular accountability, others lend themselves to a more decentralised approach. Neither is correct, but in any context, the formal work and feedback processes will suit some staff more than others.

As small business owners, we need to be attuned to the systems both formal and informal we have created for the day to day management of staff and allocation of resources to them. I like to say that those systems should never be considered finalised. As a small business owner, I recommend making space at the end of each week to take stock on the organisational dynamics, think about how your work processes might be impacting them, and set yourself a challenge to do ONE THING next week that will improve the outcome for everyone.

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How Teams Fail: Poor Execution

At the end of the day, there are three broad reasons why employees might produce sloppy work – a basic lack of ability, a lack of specific training, or a lack of motivation. The first two are easy enough questions to deal with in hiring, where again an in depth approach that actually seeks to test specific skill sets is optimal, as we’ve discussed.

But motivation, energy levels, how much the hire will long run contribute to processes of team rather than personal improvement, these things are hard to test for by asking direct questions – because let’s face it, nobody pronounces themselves unmotivated or selfish in a job interview, nor do they offer up referees that might deliver this assessment.

But it’s where asking the right questions of referees can be SO important. I tell small business owners as often I can “when you pick up the phone to the referee, you need to have the mindset that you are still interviewing”. You are listening for any reservations, qualifications, any hint that there might be something in the person’s background to raise some alarm. And if the alarm rings too loud, then you need to be willing and ready to abandon the hire then and there.

This can be witnessed through multiple areas, but a team which is poor at execution is bound to give below par performances. Execution can be in the form of closing sales or getting a product finalized. These are important decisions and if poorly managed can leave the start-up in tatters.

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How Teams Fail: Weak Organisational Culture

The final point I make here is that you can actually have made the correct hires the whole way through but still have a low performing team. And it often takes a really hard look in the realism mirror to bring this phenomenon to light.

Because there’s no avoiding that if you’ve got great staff continually producing average outcomes, you need to look to the structures and practices you have built into the organisation, because it is only through these processes that your team works. So the cause of your problems lies in the organisational structures that are entirely your responsibility as the business owner.

Because taking that honest look in the mirror and deriving an honest answer that focuses on how your business process can be improved rather than seeking to “blame the tools offers you literally the only way through this problem.

But the beauty of an organisational-level focus to your analysis is that you can actually involve your employees in the process of improvement. Sitting them down and empowering them to say what the issues are and how they would change them can often bring about a real revolution in precisely the dimensions you need.

And so often, where I see SME owners adopting this approach, the people who are interfacing with the problem will often have the best and most innovative solutions for it. Being unafraid to say in front of your employees “I know things could always be better, what can you tell me?” That approach usually brings about some very creative, very fruitful discussion.

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