9 competencies of highly successful startup employees

No doubt you have heard the axiom, people are a company’s most important asset. If this is indeed true, why is it the case that often those doing the hiring in startups are new to the interviewing process and are not given training or guidance in what to look for when screening candidates?

This article is written for startups to use as a tool to get them thinking about how they screen candidates. Here are 9 traits I feel are most critical to the success of a startup, rank ordered from least to most important.

  • Comfortability with ambiguity
  • Composure
  • Managing and measuring work
  • Self-knowledge
  • Perseverance
  • Learning on the fly
  • Work-life balance
  • Integrity and trust
  • Customer focus

This article discusses each of these competencies in detail, providing sample interview questions you can use and explaining what to look for in a candidate’s answers.

#9 Comfortability with ambiguity

Put simply, startups are full of change, uncertainty, questioning decisions, changing priorities and other (hopefully organized) chaos. Startup employees must be able to cope with these changes and shift gears quickly. The end goal may be clear from the beginning, but no doubt the path from start to end will experience many unexpected twists and turns.

Here are a couple example interview questions to ask in screening for how a candidate handles uncertainty:

  • Describe a time when you changed a job or situation suddenly.
  • Tell me about a time you were asked to try something completely new to you.

Responses showing a candidate’s inflexibility in the face of changing circumstances, or an unreasonably high need for analysis and information gathering before making a decision should be taken with caution. Look for responses which show an ability to make well rationed decisions in the face of limited information. Even if the decisions turn out to be wrong or sub-optimal, the key is that there was an intelligent thought process that took place in reaching the decision.

#8 Composure in the face of challenges

Closely related to dealing with ambiguity, startup employees must be able to maintain their composure under pressure. Deadlines, demos, pitches to investors, board meetings, sales calls, midnight Website crashes are just a few examples of common stressors which startups face routinely. If your staff can’t handle these situations and the many others they will face without blowing up, you are in trouble.

Instead, look for people who have demonstrated a maturity to keep things together during tough times, someone not easily distracted by the unexpected. These are your go to people in time of crisis. You need to know you can count on them when the sh*t hits the fan.

Questions such as these can help determine a candidate’s ability to keep their composure:

  • Tell me about a time when someone pushed you to the limit.
  • Describe a situation when you knew you were right but someone with more authority overruled you.

The responses to these uneasy-to-answer questions provide valuable insight into how a person is likely to act in similar circumstances in your company. Question responses which show a candidate tends to easily get overwhelmed, becomes judgmental, or lets emotions and frustrations show. Equally important, however, is that the candidate does not become passive and afraid to speak up. Composure requires a balance of emotional IQ — to know when to speak up, and how to do so in an appropriate manner.

#7 Managing and measuring work

Startups often require people to exercise a degree of self-management ensuring that tasks are being completed correctly and on time. Employees who are good at managing and measuring work are able to take responsibility for tasks, can set (and follow) objectives, and provide regular progress feedback to the team.

Think about it. You could have the most amazing software developers writing great code, but if they can’t communicate their progress back to a team it’s likely team progress/priorities/deadlines will become affected.

To get a sense of how a candidate manages their work, ask questions such as the following:

  • Describe a time you had to set goals and communicate how you would measure progress.
  • Tell me about a time you tried to improve the efficiency of a team.

Look for responses which demonstrate the ability to hold others accountable, clearly setting goals, and a system for measuring progress and outcomes. The startup employee who can effectively manage and measure work will be invaluable in keeping people organized and ensuring deadlines aren’t missed.

#6 Self-knowledge

Startups require people who know what they are good at, and conversely what they need help with. Think about it. Whether you’re a small team of engineers, marketers or sales reps, you can’t afford to have valuable limited people resources waisting time struggling. Employees who know their personal strengths, limits and opportunities are better positioned to gain insight into their mistakes and be open to constructive criticism.

How do you identify people with good self-knowledge? Start by using questions such as the following:

  • Describe how you learned the most about your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Discuss a time you received negative feedback. What action did you take?

Ideally you will look for people who seek out feedback because they want to improve. Strengths should not be over exaggerated and weaknesses that are mentioned should be genuine. Candidates should demonstrate at least an attempt to improve upon weaknesses. Bonus points if the responses show that the candidate understands how his/her actions impact the rest of the team/organization.

#5 Perseverance

Every startup faces adversity at some point. A demo fails. A prospective customer doesn’t sign a contract. You have to fire people. Salaries have to be slashed to make payroll. It happens. When the time comes, you want to be surrounded by people who won’t give up at the first sign of a challenge.

Seek talent with the passion and drive to see projects through to completion no matter the roadblocks. Ask questions such as the following:

  • Describe a time you felt defeated and wanted to give up but still continued to try.
  • Tell me about a time you overcame significant obstacles to achieve something.

In the answers to these questions look for candidates who show a focus and discipline towards achieving the end goal, don’t give up too soon, and can deal with conflict. Also, startups require an honesty and ability to take criticism (from partners, customers, managers) without taking the feedback/rejection personally.

Perseverance is a major key to building a successful startup. Hire with this competency in mind from the start and you will be surrounded by people you can count on when times get tough.

#4 Learning on the fly

Ability to learn new skills, openness to change, and a passion for experimentation are all part of learning of the fly — an absolute necessity when doing a startup. Whether you’re a software developer, in marketing, or business development, successful startup employees are self-driven and can quickly grasp new concepts. When they don’t know or understand something, they research, teach themselves or seek guidance.

The following questions are designed to get a candidate thinking about situations they had to learn on the fly:

  • Describe a time you had a problem without a solution and had to make things up as you went.
  • Explain a work situation where you had to learn a new skill very quickly.

Look for these traits in the responses: 1) willingness to move outside of his/her comfort zone, 2) ability to look beyond the easy or obvious solution, 3) careful analysis of the problem, and 4) usage of multiple types of sources in finding a solution.

#3 Work-life balance

Startup life can be all consuming. It is easy to get caught up working 100 hour + weeks to meet deadlines. While this can’t always be avoided, it is important that everyone in the organization understands the need for a healthy work-life balance. Working until 3 a.m. might be necessary in the days leading up to a major deadline, but doing it everyday will benefit no one in the long term.

Seek candidates who acknowledge the need to maintain a balance between their work and personal lives by asking questions such as the following:

  • Describe a time when you felt your work and life priorities were out of balance.
  • Tell me about a time when you felt overwhelmed at work. How did you handle the situation?

Important traits to look for in the answers are the ability to prioritize multiple tasks, a process for scheduling/planning work and leisure activities enjoyed outside work.

Sometimes employees’ work-life balance falls out of whack because peers or managers lack such balance themselves. By ensuring everyone in the organization understands the importance of work-life balance, you can have a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.

#2 Integrity and trust

Often in startups you find yourself working side-by-side with a small group of people for countless hours on end. In such an environment, few things are more important than being able to trust your co-workers. More than being truthful, it is important to find employees who can keep confidential information to themselves, admit their mistakes (and learn from them), and seek to benefit the team rather than seeking individual glory.

To get an insight into the integrity and trustworthiness of a person ask questions such as the following:

  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with someone you did not trust. How did you handle the situation?
  • Describe a time in your professional career when you made a mistake. How did you handle the mistake?

Listen to how candidates answer these questions. Do their answers show a concern for the good of the team or are they entirely self-focused? Answers which show a tendency to blame others versus taking responsibility should also be cause for caution.

#1 Customer focus

I rate this as the most important competency for any startup employee. Failing to focus on the customer’s needs and expectations is a sure way to fail. Customers can be external and internal customers. A software developer, for example, actually has multiple sets of customers: perhaps a QA analyst who will test their code for bugs, another engineering team who integrates other code with theirs, and of course the end user.

The important traits to screen for here are that candidates are dedicated to finding out first-hand from the customer what the requirements are; always acting with the customer in mind, and building trusting relationships with customers.

Try asking these questions to get sense of how someone will treat his/her customers:

  • Describe how you get up-to-date information from customers, and what you do with it.
  • Tell me about a time when you changed your approach based on customer feedback.

Avoid candidates who focus on making their job easier as opposed to enhancing the experience for customers. A particularly dangerous trap is thinking that the person already knows what the customer wants/needs without actually asking.

Candidates who react to customer issues with long term solutions versus one-by-one issue “fire fighting,” and those who proactively prioritize customer challenges are more likely to put your customer first.

Bonus: What is not on the list: functional/technical skills

It may surprise you, but I don’t believe being an expert in a particular field is one of the 9 most important competencies when hiring for a startup. Now that is not to say I recommend going out and hiring someone with a background in finance to write your Web app in Node.js.

Rather, in many cases functional skills are something that can be taught and learned as the startup develops and matures — if you followed my advice and hired people who can learn on the fly, have good self-knowledge and comfort with ambiguity. After all, the nature of startups and the path they take are dynamic. The skills needed are likely to evolve as the business model and product evolve.

Instead, screen for passion in a particular field. Ask questions such as the following:

What do you do to keep up-to-date about what is happening in your discipline?
What are the current trends and what is coming next in your field?
In the answers you are looking for someone who can speak passionately about the field — after all they choose to do that type of work. Are they interested in learning? Do they actively seek out opportunities to keep their skills current and learn new skills?


That is my list of the 9 competencies you should screen for when hiring a startup employee. Many of these items can also be applied to larger, more established companies, but they are absolutely essential when you are working in a small team. Hiring a talented team with these competencies will save a lot of time and effort managing people, time better spent focused on serving your customers and building amazing products/services. After all, that is why you are in business, isn’t it?

So what do you think? Do you agree/disagree with my priorities? Are there other competencies you think are more important than the 9 I have listed? Leave your feedback in the comments section.

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Note: Originally published June 2, 2015 on Tech in Asia.