It’s what all the cool kids are doing

How I Learnt To Stop Whining About Millennials & Start Using Early Career Acceleration

Back when I lived in Singapore, I met a number of (mostly) Europeans working apprenticeships at major corporations — think Siemens, Airbus and ABB. The more I chatted up these students and recent graduates, the more trends started to appear — namely, that these apprentices had an expectation that this work would lead to something more permanent with their then-employer or in the industry. To them, this was more than a “normal’ internship. These gigs lasted for more extended periods — a year, sometimes more — and really pulled apprentices into the fabric of the organization.

Soon after, my social gaming startup (Game Ventures) began hiring early career generalists — as startups often do — to fill various roles at the company (mostly because that was all we could afford then!). I couldn’t help but think about these apprentices — their entry level roles, their training, their expectations and their commitment. They were hungry, passionate and committed — and I needed people like that in my company.

So I found them. Using those apprenticeship models as my jumping off point, I’ve created roles and programs to help high potential talent break into the startup scene — an Early Career Accelerator, really. The verdict? Done right, it works. And best of all, it’s simple.

STEP 1: HIRING FOR EARLY CAREER ACCELERATION

The first step: look for curiosity. Sometimes it’s on the surface, and sometimes it’s a few layers deep. To get to that curiosity, I ask lots of questions — and not the kinds of questions these candidates are expecting.

A good example? If I’m hiring a Product Manager I’ll ask, “what’s the last product you used and really LOVED — but that no one seems to know about?” I want to see if this person — someone who could be sitting right next to me a week from now — is a person who goes with the flow or digs in and discovers the new and the next.

Another question I’d ask is if they’ve taken any engineering courses or tried to learn code. I honestly don’t care if they can code or not. I just want to get to the bottom of their intellectual curiosity and how deep it really runs. Because, again, that resume pile is going to look very homogenous, especially when you’re talking about a pile of recent college grads. All things equal, give me the candidate who deeply curious. Hands down, that’s what differentiates candidate A from candidate B from candidate C, D, E and F.

Another good question — Outside of employment or school, what is your greatest achievement, so far? Years ago I interviewed a prospective PM who had come in as a referral. The conversation veered towards his music. I pressed a little and found out he had taught himself to play guitar. He’d even written music.

When I pushed more, he finally spilled — he’d composed, produced and released a solo album. Granted, it wasn’t Billboard Top 40, but still! It was interesting and it showed me that this young would-be PM was passionate, curious and multi-dimensional. This guy was someone I wanted on my team. And he wound up being an incredible hire.

It’s a little unorthodox, sure, but it definitely gets to the core of who people are and what makes them unique. And, no, I’m not optimizing to avoid false negatives—in fact, entirely the opposite. It’s false positives — getting too eager about a candidate who seems solid on the surface but, at the end of the day, isn’t the right fit — that kill you early on. It’s an easy trap for any company but, especially, for early-stage startups.

STEP 2: MANAGING THEM LIKE A BOSS

Open-ended projects set new hires up for failure.

I’m working on a project with one of my recent grad hires right now. It’s his first project — a data-driven dashboard that the entire company can use for various tracking functions. It’s simple, it’s discrete and it has a very tangible outcome. And, in that vein, it’s easy to describe — there’s no question about what’s needed, and nothing is left to chance or interpretation. And that’s what makes it the perfect project for this rookie hire.

Open-ended projects set new hires up for failure. This approach, though, helps you and your new hire build a basic cadence for your working relationship and gives both sides an early win — a win that builds confidence and makes your new hire feel effective and efficient. And when that happens, everyone wins. Says one of my former PMs — and the guy with the solo album — Sridhar Ravichandran, “What I learnt best…was the ability to apply systems thinking to products, and eventually to companies.” Sridharan worked for me straight out of school and now leads growth initiatives as a Product Manager at SoundCloud. “As a large part of a small team, I had to think through the impact that my work would have on others — engineers, our users, data analysts, and even our finances, and finally to the company.” It’s a lot to wrap your head around, especially if you were still in school just a few months ago.

And after you’ve created and doled out these discrete projects? Trust — but verify. You need to verify these hires’ work every time, and ensure they’re hitting the mark. If they aren’t, you need to course correct in the moment. If they are, you need to push them forward so they maximize their potential. As you’re managing this workflow, don’t be afraid to offer constructive criticism but, at the same time, always be supportive. Remember, even if these young hires seem solid, they’re still new and fresh. In some cases they don’t know what the don’t know, and you need to be standing by to give them a boost and a pat on the back.

From there, monitor growth. Have regular one-on-ones with these hires and focus not just on the day-to-day work but, also, on their growth and development. New grads are used to continuous feedback. While it might not feel natural to create that kind of informal feedback flow, it’s important for their growth and development — and for your company’s ongoing success. Continuous feedback helps these hires course-correct if they veer off course and, equally importantly, it ensures they know when they’re knocking it out of the park. Either way you’re reinforcing a virtuous cycle.

I’ve had success simply showing appreciation for a job well done. I’ve had success with bi-weekly one on ones paired with quick twice-weekly check-ins. The point is, you can get away with an semi-annual review — that long lag isn’t going to fly here, and it’s going to result in underperformance, which only leads to low satisfaction and employee churn.

STEP 3: LET GO (NO, REALLY…)

And the final step in this Early Career Acceleration approach? Let go. There’s a natural arc to a person’s career and, as a manager, part of your job is to help your hires grow in that career. It’s a mindset shift for some supervisors, but it’s a critical one. Because just like you’ve facilitated their growth and helped them carve a professional path, you also need to know when it’s time to let them take on their next challenge — whether or not that challenge is with your organization. Some people will last a long time in that initial PM role, let’s say, while others will stick around for an internship and that’s it. Either way when the time comes, you can’t be afraid to let go.

And if you’re afraid to let your hire go because you feel like you need them in the role — and not because they’re growing in the role? Shake it off. Your mindset is off the mark. You should be pushing them. You should be the one telling them it’s time to move up and out. In fact, you should be the one making referrals for their next career move.

A recent ‘Associate’ Product Manager, Gordon Tang, used his internship at Influitive to test the PM waters — and then it was time to move on. “Coming from an educational background that balanced tech and business, PMing seemed like the right fit for me,” says Gordon. “Interning as a PM enabled me to explore the different flavors of product management and helped me verify that there is such a role that allows me to do everything from building an MVP to usability testing to measuring product ROI.” And now? Now Gordon is a Product Manager at Toronto-based technology company Points.

The evolution of these former hires is something I’m really proud about, as I look back on the last few years. Many of my fresh-from-school PMs and engineers are, now, killing it outside of my immediate circle. And as they come and go from my companies, my own network grows. Sometimes they stick around for a year, sometimes 10. No matter what, though, I know they walk away having grown as people — and the company’s grown for having employed this future leader.

Another perk? Many of these hires followed me from one venture to the next. Zhi Hui Tai, a Product Manager from Game Ventures — my former life in Singapore — came to work with me at Influitive in Toronto, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. But, despite the success stories, it’s important to remember that when you hire for a role like this, it’s hard to know which direction the person will grow. Sometimes it’s with you, around you, near you, whatever. And sometimes it’s thousands of miles away — literally.

For me, though, it’s always gratifying no matter where they land. Because to me, I can see that I — and the company — gave these promising pros a real framework right out of the gate, and they hit the gas with everything in them. It’s satisfying, gratifying and endlessly inspiring. Really, there’s nothing better.

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