By Wilson Kageni – Founder & CEO
Values > Aptitude > Skillset
Given that you know the most challenging day of your company’s lifetime will come at some point, it makes sense to hire only people that you would be immensely grateful to have on the boat with you for the violent night on the seas described in How we organize. Whenever we are recruiting for an open position at Finplus, we first gather as much data as possible on each applicant (see How we make decisions) then use it to zoom in on a manageable shortlist of the most promising candidates and while it may not be obvious, among the things we screen for in this first stage – and through all subsequent stages of the process – are the person’s values.
Our decision is swayed more by our assessment of the individual’s values than anything else because this is the most crucial factor in determining alignment (whose importance we discussed in How we organize). If not everyone on the boat believes that keeping the boat afloat and finding dry land are goals worth pursuing, then the non-believers are probably not putting their all into doing so. At best, this makes them dead-weight that the believers have to work extra hard to drag along. At worst, it makes them resistors that are actively draining the energy of their teammates and creating drag that slows down the whole team’s progress. Neither is acceptable. Furthermore, it helps to know what every person on the boat might choose to do if one of their fellow rowers was to go overboard in that situation.
To be aligned, you don’t just have to work together in a complimentary and collaborative manner, you need to believe in the same reality. One where you all agree on a consistent set of rules by which to operate and a clear set of guiding principles to navigate you to your goals. In the case of a company, the goal you’re striving for is often called the Vision and these guiding principles are often referred to as the company’s Values. Everything about how the organization will work flows down from your vision and your values so when trying to find or pick talented people to join your team, you should optimize for shared values over everything else. This can be difficult in the early days when you just need someone who can get things done, but the likely negative impact of having a doubter join a small team at early stages is significantly higher than that of leaving the team without any additional members until you can find someone who will truly add to the team’s momentum, not slow it.
How do we evaluate someone’s values? We currently do it by posing situational challenges whose answers require not only an intellectual response but an emotional or ethical decision to be made and then evaluate their answers on each relevant axis. Where there’s any ambiguity we dive deep and ask them to explain the reasoning behind their choices. Those who do well here don’t always do well in actual practice but it’s the best heuristic we’ve found so far.
No one person will ever possess all the expertise required at any given point, so the ability to learn new things fast is crucial. Less obvious is the fact that an ability to unlearn quickly is almost as important as the pace at which they learn new things. Why? Because if you are doing something genuinely innovative then an astoundingly high percentage of the discoveries you make will be completely counterintuitive to what you thought. Erasing reflexive thoughts, actions, associations or mental models based on what you have known or done in the past is notoriously difficult and in the fast paced environment of an organization that is continuously breaking new ground, those who can unlearn quickly tend to have a significant advantage over those who can’t.
How do we evaluate aptitude? We look for some evidence in their back-ground that they can both unlearn and learn at above average speeds. Evidence of this could be in many forms. For instance, a successful movement from one role at work to another requiring significantly different skills or quickly picking up and gaining proficiency in new programing languages that require completely different syntaxes or spoken languages that require completely different pronunciation and conjugation. The list goes on.
We consider your existing skills last because unlike Values or Aptitude, Skills can in fact be taught, improved, honed and perfected through a combination of interest, dedication, study, practice. Plus, if your aptitude is indeed high then learning new skills actually takes a shorter than average period of time and the steeper your learning curve proves to be for new skills, the less relevant your past skills become in the hiring decision. In other words, at this stage, we find the relative value of your aptitude is inversely correlated to that of your current skill levels.
So how do you evaluate someone’s skills? Typically, the best way to do this is simply to ask someone to do something that requires them to use some specific skill(s) and then observe how they apply said skill(s) to accomplish the task. Of course everyone has a list of skills that they claim to possess and it may make sense to test for the presence of and proficiency in these skills. However, often times when you do this, you’re just as much evaluating how honest or self-aware the person is as you are their skill level. As such, one might be right to argue that this also makes it a relevant test for at least one of their Values.
It is highly unlikely that a boat captain knows everyone that they will ever need to have on a 100+ person crew. Therefore, it might make sense to teach every crew member how to spot another great potential crew member and how to persuade them to join this particular voyage. In other words, whether or not they realize it, everyone on the boat is on the recruiting team, always. Getting everyone to bring in only the best recruits is the real challenge.
Every company would like to have the best people. However, such people are a finite resource and their being in such high demand makes them incredibly valuable and thus often very expensive. Why would they ever consider abandoning their prime placement by joining an unknown quantity? In the early days its difficult for a young company to compete for this elite talent pool but fortunately being small affords certain advantages that larger organizations cannot effectively match despite being better-funded. For instance, being able to choose what you work on can be a great motivator for intelligent minds, so you must be working on something that they are genuinely interested in. Additionally, career development paths naturally tend to be shorter and broader in smaller organizations while the amount of responsibility per individual and overall impact per decision tends to be much higher, particularly for early employees. Add a great company culture along with fair employee equity allocations that vest over a reasonable number of years and these are attractive propositions for talented people who believe your vision is worth working on. Besides, sub-market compensation is not permanent because if you are successful then compensation will rise to and possibly above market levels anyway as the company grows.
People are the most valuable resource for any team, department or organization. When you attract the right people, ensure they want to be there for the right reasons, incentivize them in the right way, put them in the right places and build the right support structures around them, your chances of achieving your collective vision dramatically improve. It also helps to know that when the occasional sea storm inevitably hits, you’ll all be a lot less worried about your boat sinking and a lot more focused on getting to your destination.