Hiring is a vital responsibility in startups. It’s common to hear some companies talk about how they only hire the best, the ‘rock stars.’ Some believe in a direct and reliable correlation between ‘rock star’ hires and success as a company or product team. There’s something more important to consider when it comes to hiring and laying a foundation for success: teamwork and an individual’s ability to collaborate.
Yes, it’s essential to hire people that are good at what they do, but if those people can’t work well with others, it doesn’t matter how good they are. The point isn’t that companies shouldn’t hire talented people; it’s that the focus should be on one’s ability to work well within a team. It’s not that gifted people are not decent collaborators; it’s that some just come with outsized egos and too many in one group can have detrimental effects.
“The conventional wisdom — is that all-star teams just don’t work. Egos will take over. The stars won’t work well with one another.” — Harvard Business Review
This study coined the term “too much talent effect.” Although researchers focused on sports teams, not office teams, they found that for sports that had a high level of task interdependence (e.g., basketball), there was a tipping point — about 2:1 — when adding more elite players. Meeting this threshold decreased team performance.
Traits of Good Teamwork
When we look at the traits of teams that work well together we see that people are: honest, positive, motivated, reliable, fair, communicative and proactive. Importantly, there’s a general sense that a team member will do whatever the team needs to move forward whether or not it’s their responsibility. It’s worth noting that, the most successful teams are cognitively diverse and psychologically safe. These two things often don’t happen by accident but if they do, hallelujah!
What this means in practice, is that companies need to think about teamwork pre and post-hiring and not just rely on ‘rock star’ status.
The Importance of Teamwork in Startups
A few reasons why teamwork is so essential, particularly in startups.
“Momentum and growth are the lifeblood of startups. This is probably in the top three secrets of executing well.”
— Sam Altman
Momentum is startup gold; it’s a key ingredient for traction and growth. Only teams that work well together have a chance of creating and maintaining momentum. If all your ‘rock stars’ are good collaborators, then great! If they are not good collaborators, teams run the risk of spending a lot of time frustrated and fighting with each other, not focused on goals, progress, and outcomes.
“Culture does not make people. People make culture.”
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
It’s hard to articulate a company’s culture and fully understand how it got there. When a company is growing, many of the early habits a company adopts creates the culture along with the people the company hires. A company cannot fully control the culture that develops but it can control the people it hires that to a large extent, create the culture. One of the most important aspects of culture is: it defines team norms, how people behave and treat one another. Destructive cultural elements are much harder to fix after norms are established.
“Individual commitment to a group effort: That is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
— Vince Lombardi
If a team is not getting along, the quality of the work suffers, which in turn impacts the ability of a company to be successful. Consistently poor teamwork extends to low morale, poor communication, and even lower work attendance, creating a sense of disconnectedness that can stifle efficiency and the quality of the work.
If teamwork is so essential, how can companies support it?
1. Build a Teamwork Culture
A teamwork culture starts at the top. Leadership and executives are models for behavioral norms within a company. Employees notice how executives, managers, and others in charge treat those around them; these behaviors become standards that employees adopt.
Leadership can also set expectations and communicate how they expect people to work together. A lot of companies create shared value statements, which can be helpful, but also harmful and a point of contention if the company doesn’t follow through on them.
While individual employee recognition is necessary in its own right, to reinforce teamwork, it’s helpful if managers and leaders reward and praise teams over individuals in the right context.
This article cites other great ways to build a teamwork culture such as: include employees in decision-making, be open to feedback and respond positively, and be supportive of others and ask how you can help.
2. Create a Sense of Connectedness
“Because of their size and the fact that they have only been around a short period of time, startup teams tend to be close-knit groups of people who genuinely care about what they’re working toward. Those that don’t share that sense of camaraderie or purpose tend not to survive very long.”
— Fast Company
This one can seem like a bit of a no-brainer but if you’ve ever been on a team that doesn’t get along, you can understand how much harder it is to be effective and feel a sense of belonging. Everything is harder when people are not getting along!
It turns out that social capital amongst teams is a driving force for effective teamwork. Margaret Heffernan describes social capital as: “the trust, knowledge, reciprocity and shared norms that create quality of life and make a group resilient.” In her book, Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes she describes how social capital is at the core of just cultures and essential building blocks which allow teams to work together.
“In any company, you can have a brilliant bunch of individuals — but what prompts them to share ideas and concerns, contribute to one another’s thinking, and warn the group early about potential risks is their connection to one another.”
— Margaret Heffernan
It takes time for new teams to gel, and when it happens, you can feel it. Getting to know each other and sharing stories help people build a sense of connectedness and trust, which eventually turns into social capital.
Using four years of data, Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company put together a list of The 25 best icebreaker questions for team-building at work. Here are a few of my favorites!
- What was your first job?
- How do you like your eggs?
- If you could pick up a new skill in an instant what would it be?
- What’s your favorite breakfast cereal?
Positive leadership also has a significant impact on a team’s ability to work well together. Managers are smart to embrace traits like empathy, gratitude, appreciation, recognition, transparency, and trust when working with people to help team members feel valued and help a team run smoothly.
3. Look for Humility When Hiring
Humility is a trait associated with a modest view of oneself; humility can be extended to one’s ability to collaborate and should be a consideration during the hiring process. In “5 Lessons from Building our Company Culture” Michael Karnjanaprakorn, founder of Skillshare talks about how important humility is to their hiring process:
“Lack of humility is the number one reason why candidates don’t make it through the full interview process. A candidate who ranks high on humility hold themselves accountable first and foremost in any situation, rather than blaming others.”
There are ways to look for humility when interviewing, for example paying attention to how candidates talk about project wins or successful outcomes; whether they cite the contributions of others and say “we” instead of “I.”
“If a candidate can’t suppress making an arrogant comment during a 30–60 minute interview, they are likely to do this even more often when employed full-time.”
When it comes to interviewing, a number of articles suggest different types of questions to ask during interviews that are helpful in assessing character and emotional intelligence. Here are just a few examples:
- “Tell me about three people whose lives you positively changed. What would they say if I called them tomorrow?”
- “Take me back to a moment wherein you had to say what’s on your mind to let your colleagues know what you felt or thought.”
- “What’s something you can teach me?”
4. Focus on Diversity
“By breaking up workplace homogeneity, you can allow your employees to become more aware of their own potential biases — entrenched ways of thinking that can otherwise blind them to key information and even lead them to make errors in decision-making processes.” — HBR
There are a handful of articles which discuss the correlations between results-oriented teams and diversity, and there is a link between cultural diversity and innovation in groups. Research shows that when people are more or less alike, there is a comfort zone that exists and they question each other less. Teams with diversity, tend to focus more on facts and processing facts more carefully. Diverse groups keep each on their toes!
An essential factor for startups regarding diversity is that it needs consideration at the inception of a company. As Andrea Barrica, founder of O.school points out in “Diversity Debt: How Much Does Your Startup Have?”, diversity debt can start to accrue after hire number four:
“Debt starts to accrue around the 4th hire, speeds up around #10, REALLY HARD after #20.”
Some tech companies like Airbnb are changing their hiring practices to focus on increasing diversity. Airbnb used to encourage interviewers to look for commonalities with candidates, however when they discovered that this increased bias and led to a less diverse workplace, so they changed their hiring practices.
“Today, recruiters explicitly avoid looking for commonalities, and use objective scorecards to make sure all candidates are evaluated equally. In 2016, the company also hired its first Director of Diversity, and began partnering with women’s nonprofit groups to support female mentorship and activism.” — Source
These efforts increased diversity in technical, engineering and leadership areas, which resulted in a much more ethnically and gender balanced company. 👏👏
Related Article: How Small Teams Get Shit Done
Many of the photos in this post are courtesy of Burst. Burst and Hackernoon joined forces to offer free start-up stock photos that focus on diversity in tech and the workplace: https://burst.shopify.com/startup. Thanks!