Not Silicon Valley’s Talent Pipeline

Generally, Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs are of the opinion that you should do the following:

  1. Hire someone who already has experience, ideally with a degree from a top-tier university, with the right culture fit.
  2. Hire absolute top talent. One person who’s at the top of their game will out-perform ten normal people.
  3. Replace employees when they eventually tap out and can’t scale their skills to the next level.

These three pieces of advice are logical and theoretically correct. However, I’d like to tackle each one and explain where I experienced problems.

1) Hire someone who already has experience, ideally with a degree from a top-tier university, with the right culture fit.

The majority of people with college degrees and experience in Tech are white males. This means I ended up creating a mono-culture of primarily white male college graduates. Hopefully, I don’t have to explain to you why this is backward and bad for business, but here is more reading material on the merits of diversity.

In order to diversify our team we started a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club, to pinpoint hardworking individuals that are simply lacking the skills to work in the tech industry. We invest in them and train them, using Treehouse, and at the end of the program we (and other local tech companies) have a group of Apprentices with the exact skill we require. Here’s an earlier post I wrote that explains the whole program.

And while we’re here I don’t like the phrase ‘culture fit’. This is a dangerous term because it usually means ‘people who look/sound/act like me’ which has nothing to do with being effective at work and again, usually creates an unhealthy mono-culture.

2) Hire absolute top talent. One person who’s at the top of the game will out-perform ten normal people.

It’s difficult to fully understand and validate someone’s previous experience and achievements. It’s not that people are lying about their experience. It’s more that hiring an employee is very similar to the first couple of dates with someone. You’re both trying to impress one another, hide your flaws and ideally create a long-term relationship. Inevitably, your true strengths and weaknesses reveal themselves after you settle into a longer term relationship.

Instead of always hiring in outsiders who are considered ‘top talent’ I’ve learned it’s more effective to grow top talent. Companies have been doing this for years but we (the tech industry) seem to have forgotten this because we are in such a hurry to ‘win’.

Train and support folks that are already on your team who’ve demonstrated the right behaviors. You know their strengths and weaknesses and they’re already onboard and understand the company and its goals. You’ve already invested in them, so why not continue to do so?

I believe part of the reason that Silicon Valley is obsessed with ‘top talent’ is because there is an overriding short term mindset. This means you don’t have time to invest in creating and building amazing talent. You have to ‘buy’ it instead of building it.

3) Eventually people tap out and can’t scale their skills to the next level.

In my experience it’s not that people can’t scale their skills to the next level but that they decide not to. They might say, “I don’t want to manage a bigger team because …”

Most of the time this idea that people ‘tap out’ is used by CEOs and managers to let people go because that CEO or manager has a short-term timeline and is maximizing for short term revenue growth instead of long-term sustainable profit. They don’t have time to grow someone into the next level — they need results now.

So what is the best way to hire talent?

I’ve hired hundreds of people over my 11 years running tech companies. Some of them have been great hires and some of them haven’t. However, the most impressive and talented ones all have the same character traits. They are:

  1. Humble
  2. Hard-working
  3. Results-driven
  4. Disciplined
  5. Inclusive

I call these folks ‘HHRDI’ or ‘hardy’.

These observations have taught me one thing. That I should hire for behavior, not skill.

The skills part you can fix. The behavior part you cannot.

These days when I’m interviewing for new employees I will try to find ways to find out if they have the character I’m looking for before we dive into skills. If there is a skills gap but the character is right then we’ll endeavor to fill the gap.

If someone possesses all traits, in my opinion, they can learn and succeed at almost anything. They can be promoted to higher and higher positions in the company as they learn the necessary skills and acquire the experience. They can create huge value for customers, other employees and shareholders. Also (bonus) they’re nice people to be around.

Good things take time

Most of the talent pipeline advice I’ve heard from Silicon Valley centers around getting results quickly vs building a long-term strong team. I believe that teams who have worked together for years and years can deliver better results. And if someone tells you differently, think carefully about their motives for doing that.