Creative image process lines over handshake

When Process Meets People

 by Roxana Valea

When startup founders hire new people into the business, they often look to fill a skill gap. But what if we look at recruitment with different lenses? What if before we ask how people can serve your business, we first find out how our business can serve them?

A few days ago, I was attending a debate called “Recruitment – is there a new way?” The speaker was arguing that in a startup it’s better to have very strong processes and then hire people to operate those processes rather than hire rock stars who end up making the business too dependent on whether they choose to stay onboard or not. The speaker was giving examples from his own experience as a startup founder when at the point of exit he ended up having to pay top performers to stay in the business as the business was becoming too dependent on them and the acquisition price reflected that reality.

Better to have strong processes than strong people, the speaker concluded.

I do not agree.

I was born in communist Romania in the mid 70ties, and I remember well the reality of that system that thankfully ended by the time I turned 15. Communism was all about process and nothing about people. No soul. No rock stars. No top performers. No one was allowed to be better than others. Not richer. Not more talented. We were all equal we were told. And in the name of this equality, everyone is forced to be mediocre. To fit in the system. The process – like a huge, gigantic machine – took over the people.

This view can still be found in business today. There are founders of startups that would wholly agree with this old-world view. They believe a startup is created by them and them alone, the processes are created by them and the people they hire are only supposed to support those systems. To fit in. To do the job. To not become too important. Too performant. Because - these founders would argue – this would threaten the business.

The business or the ego of the founder?

The diametral opposite view is to treat the people that you hire in a startup as co-creators of that startup. Even if you are the founder, and you might even have a small team of co-founders, every person you hire in a start-up is likely to bring their energy and this energy will shape the business. That’s because the business ‘entity’ is still forming. The energy of this entity is not yet fully established. Like a small child, it is easily influenced by the energy of everyone it interacts with. And just like a baby, it will be shaped not only by his parents but also by his nanny, his grandparents, the teacher at the nursery school and the dog of the family. The same goes for a startup. Its energy will be influenced by everybody that interacts with it. First and foremost, by its founders, but then by the first employees, customers, suppliers, investors, advisors and so on. Like it or not, everybody involved in that business will have a co-creator role.

If so, what if you as a founder embraced this approach rather than resist it? What if you would give up trying to retain absolute control on how you want to shape this startup and hire only people who would mould into a role, a system operator role. What if you took this new approach? What if you hired people looking at them as whole persons, not just as a skill set that you desire? What if you consciously brought every employee in with the desire to allow this person to co-create the business with you?

For that to happen, not only do the new hires need to be right for the business but the business needs to be right for them as well.

Here are a few questions to assess if your startup is right for them:

  • What are their biggest dreams and ambitions?
  • In what environment are they at their best?
  • When and in what conditions do they feel more energised?
  • Where and how would they like to live their life?
  • How would they like to work? How long? In what manner? Doing what? At what time of the day? With how much time off?

And the biggest question that needs to be answered is:

  • How would working for this startup enable them to pursue their dreams and be all that they have ever dreamed to be?

It seems a courageous and risky approach to hiring but I would say it’s the less risky one in the long run.

Think of the costs of hiring someone who’s not right for your business: the head-hunter's costs, the time spent interviewing then accommodating a new employee, the training, the mentoring, the first initial and inevitable mistakes everyone does in a new job. All this will be lost when this person leaves and need to be replaced. So, the more you can make sure this person will stay and is right for the job, the less the costs.

And here’s the big shift: make sure that your business is right for them before you consider if they are right for your business. When they leave - whether because they underperformed and got fired or they simply decided they’d be better somewhere else – this happens because your start-up was not the right place for them. It did not support them to be the best people they can be. It did not support them to achieve their dreams. So, they left and looked for that support elsewhere. Or underperformed most likely because the current environment did not motivate them.

How about skills? You may wonder. How about if they could not perform the job due to a lack of skills? I would argue skills come last. If recruits are highly motivated, they will acquire the skills. They will stay up all night and learn what they need to know. They will invest their time and attention. They will make it work. And, after all, I did not say hire unskilled people. By all means, evaluate their skills. But do this at the end, after everything else.

Sounds good, you might say but a bit fluffy too. How could this work in practice?

Here’s a 5-step summary:

  • Accept that you as the founder are not the only creator of your business. Welcome everybody – employees, customers, suppliers, investors, advisors and so on to co-create the business with you and you might end up with a much better bigger and brighter business than you could have ever dreamed of.
  • Design processes but acknowledge that they might change. Design a continuous process improvement approach that would answer the need of the growing business.
  • When you hire people, resist the urge to fill a skill gap. Look at the person as a whole being. Ask yourself how they would fit with the emerging culture of the startup. Ask yourself if the business is right for them and if it can support them to be all that they can be. Then, by all means, make sure they have the skills you need.
  • When new employees settle in, allow them to challenge the status quo. Allow them to bring in new ideas and possibly new directions. Allow the business to grow to accommodate the newcomers.
  • Keep on making sure that the business supports everybody to live their highest dreams and aspirations. Because a business that does will never be a place where anyone underperforms or wants to leave.

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