Start-ups Live and Die by “High Potential” Hires

As the head of a start-up, there is only so much you have the capacity for. In the early stages of a business, everything is volatile; that next release, the next deal, you current customers. As a founder/CEO, you know mistakes are costly and set you back. But, you reach a point where you can’t do it all (despite the urge to try), and set out to hire the best possible people you can find.

Now what?

While you might want to hire VP-level executives because they are independent, have the experience to know exactly what needs to get done, and do it, at such an early stage you likely can’t afford them, nor are you big enough to attract them.

There are, instead, three types of people you‘ll likely hire in these early days:

1. Co-founder types These are entrepreneurial and independent thinkers, but not always a team player.

2. Junior aspirational Usually cheap, these employees need tons of direction, which is not ideal when you don’t have a lot of time to train and manage them at these early stages.

3. “High Potentials” These rock star hires are on the lower end of salary expectations, believe in the cause, and work their asses off. They are self motivated, require minimal direction, and want to learn. What drives them is the massive potential in career growth, and you’ve got to help them nurture that. They are team players and potential captains.

The high potential rock stars can make — or break — your business.

They learn quickly, take on any challenge and master it, ask questions, define the culture, impress the pants off investors, customers, and potential hires.

Everyone wants to work with a High Potential so it’s a great recruiting strategy. But, the mistake many founders make is to not invest enough in their growth, training and development. In addition, it can be tempting to put too much on them, too quickly.

Because High Potentials like to learn, they rarely say no, so you can easily pile too much on their plate. I’ve seen a few High Potentials crack because they take pressure and performance very seriously. I see too many companies give too much responsibility, too quickly to these players, in the hopes that this person will rise to the occasion, and realize their potential.

It’s true, someday they could make key members of your executive team. But, too much, too soon can have a strong backlash, whether they are put into a situation they aren’t trained for, or you end up having to hire above them. In the case of the latter, if you’ve inflated their title too much, sometimes you have to downgrade their title, which is extremely demotivating.

Help High Potentials master their domain.

My advice to start ups.

1. Do everything you can to find, attract and hire High Potentials. (See Identifying A Players During an Interview.)

2. Then, nurture them properly, give them the support and coaching they need and want. (Here’s another great article about identifying and nurturing High Potential employees.)

3. Don’t promote them too quickly, but continue to give them positive reinforcement and mini rewards.

4. Share your goals with them and ensure they align with theirs.

5. Invest in them. Get them motivated by showing them the potential of where they could go, and the path to get there.

The most rewarding part of my career has been developing High Potential employees.

One example is Sydney Strader, who I hired at Influitive as a Customer Success Manager. After working with her only a few years, she is now managing a Customer Success team of 11 employees.

Sydney has gone through tremendous growth over the past 3.5 years and I’m so incredibly proud of her. She has recently written a recommendation for me on LinkedIn explaining how I helped her realize her potential, which I am extremely grateful.

Growing and nurturing the right kind of High Potential team is a critical part of a company’s growth journey. It’s one area that I am thrilled to be improving for companies in my work as a consultant.

Do you have a High Potential on your team? I’d love to give them the spotlight in the comments, below.

Thanks to Katie Martell for her help with this article. She’s a superstar marketer On-Demand.

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