Four Questions from a Job Applicant

This morning I received an email from an interesting job candidate. He asked me four good questions and I thought I would answer in the open.

  1. What attracts you to Axial?
  2. How do you encourage growth on the team?
  3. How do you handle bad morale?
  4. What are your strengths and weaknesses?

What attracts you to Axial?

(I’m currently running product and engineering at Axial, a startup building an online network that helps private companies raise money or sell)

To cut to the core of it, deep down I define myself as an entrepreneur and a creative, and those are the people I care about supporting. It is neither easy nor safe to go out on your own and try to create something new. It doesn’t matter to me if you are in tech or in fashion or opening a factory. Starting and running your own business is tough.

I’ve sold three businesses and been involved in raising money, and both of those things are HARD and stressful. I know for a fact that if you can make this easier, you can change the lives of entrepreneurs and their employees.

This will sound a little wonky, but I see Axial as creating a marketplace of intent in order to give people more options. Intent (who is truly interested in what) historically been invisible or stuck in old-boys-clubs. More *true* options means more leverage and less wasted time. It’s still down to you to have a good business, to position it well, to negotiate well, etc but we can truly create more opportunity and reward for people.

Our challenge goes beyond just creating liquidity through information efficiency — we need to eventually figure out how to build sophistication around *how* to do these deals into our very software. It’s all about empowerment.

How do you encourage growth on the team?

Startups are so hard that growth is usually a requirement. The challenges are beyond any one of our levels, and we conquer them together and by pushing ourselves. But I also think growth happens by having an ambitious definition of roles. I have very expansive views of what a designer or engineer or product manager should do. You need to be good at your craft, push the envelope of your craft, be empathetic to your colleague’s crafts, and increasingly aware of the customer and business strategy. Each one of those is a big task, and I try to coach across all of those (albeit likely with varying degrees of success). While inspiration can and should come from outside (blogs, conferences, meetups), true growth comes from having the rope/leeway to push yourself and make mistakes as you do so.

We are all undergoing personal growth as well in terms of how we think, comport ourselves, and collaborate with others. It is really hard to see yourself as others see you. While a manager will never have a true 360 degree view of things, there is useful coaching to be done here on communication styles, controlling one’s own narrative, handling emotions, teamwork, etc. It’s hard for people to change, so it often needs to be done gently and with some patience.

How do you handle bad morale?

It depends on where it comes from. I think every person has a portion of their morale tied to themselves as individual, their team, and their overall company.

Individual: Good morale comes not from perks but rather from a sense of accomplishment, growth and empowerment. Poor morale is justified when those things aren’t happening. Poor morale is not justified when it comes from a place of entitlement or childishness. When someone is upset about their job or situation, it is important to get things out into the open and have a frank discussion on what can or can’t be done and why. I have to remind myself not to get so busy that I lose sight of this.

Team: A bad team dynamic can often be solved by getting people to talk openly across the team and between each other. Getting the team together outside of work can help a lot. So much human strife is caused by people not understanding where someone else is coming from. But sometimes you just need to mix up the teams or even ask someone to go (the latter is never fun for anyone but a leader has to be ready and willing to do it). We are all different, and part of a manager’s job is getting the puzzle pieces to fit while challenging people to grow.

Company: morale can ebb and flow in startups because of their natural risk and challenges. You are often inventing, not just building, a new kind of airplane as you fall. That’s not for the faint of heart. This ebb and flow is best solved by talking openly about what is going on, while reminding ourselves of what we’re shooting for and keeping perspective on what we have accomplished.

Frankly, all three levels can help people weather the ups and downs (and near death experiences) that are endemic to startups — you love the mission, and/or you love your team, and/or you love your job. Awesomeland is having all three.

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

(It feels a bit funny writing answers to this last question in the open, but what the hell. I’m as flawed as anyone, but like all of my favorite colleagues, doing what I can to get better every day.)

If I try to look at myself clearly, I consider these my strengths: I’ve been around the startup block and don’t get fazed (for very long) by the ups and downs. I am determined and driven. I am decisive yet try to be generous with decision making. I’m willing to make the hard, unpleasant decisions even if that makes me unpopular. I have a pretty good product sense. I have a very broad skillset which is useful in a startup context. I try to surround myself with people who are better than me. I love to debate and am definitely a “strong opinions loosely held” type. I have both conviction around and very good intuition around good product/engineering process and culture and believe it needs to be customized to team and startup stage. I’m very transparent. I seek diverse thought and collaboration, yet drive to decision-making and action.

My weaknesses: 
I wish I was twice as strategic and twice as creative. I think I could think more laterally at times. I can make assumptions that other people know or remember things, and need to continually improve how I communicate. I’m not remotely satisfied with how I use metrics and analytics. While I’ve had some exits, I haven’t had a breakout hit. I’m not a very patient person. I can be hot-headed but age and experience has smoothed me out there a fair amount.

Here’s something some consider a strength and some consider a weakness: I don’t have a lot of patience for lack of performance or striving. I think it’s because I’ve spent my life in startups, where you simply can’t afford to have people who are at half-speed, either because they don’t care or because they don’t have the chops. I’m not seeking perfection, but I want to be around people who care, who try, who are anxious to learn and improve, and striving to ship/execute. Personally, I see this as a strength not a weakness but let’s be honest — not everyone has loved my bar.

I’m sure there are other weaknesses too — after all, life is a continuous exercise in increasing self-awareness and self-improvement.

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