5 Pivotal Qualities to Look for in Your First Employees
A nimble mind, tolerance for risk and true grit are just a few of the key characteristics of a great early-days staff member.
There is nothing on earth quite like the moment when you realize it's time to take on your first full-time crew. Thrilling, to be sure, but also stressful, because a company's greatness is inexorably tied to its people. Getting staffing right, then, is crucial — particularly in an enterprise's early days, and not least because initial hires help shape the company culture.
Attributes that go without saying for these first hires include believing in your mission and values — they must be excited about the opportunity and keen to operate as team members, given that they are, in all likelihood, about to become as close as family members. But beyond these basics, what traits and attributes should you be looking for?
By far the most important sought quality, grit is more a collection of characteristics rather than one, but above all, it's the ability to look at adversity with a smile and push forward even when things are going wrong. Early phase startups can meet a lot of bumps in the road, and nothing is more valuable than a person who can withstand the myriad of challenges and believes enough in the idea to play the long game. That means grit is also about endurance — weathering the days when hard work doesn't always bring the results hoped for, yet remaining confident that it will pay off down the line.
A person with grit will also put aside ego in the pursuit of company success, and that means a person who won't question their abilities and become insecure in a role when they don't achieve a desired outcome. This staff member remains confident in their skills, but regularly reflects and reevaluates strategy to ensure broader achievements. Of course, all these characteristics go hand in hand with optimism. Grit is simply the ability to handle everything at once — finding a way to get it all done with a positive outlook and unique solutions.
2. Passion and enthusiasm
Passion is infectious; when one person has it, a whole team of people are much more likely to emulate it. It's not just an essential quality in order to fit into a company's culture, but because passion and enthusiasm lead to good ideas. For a vision focused business, nothing gives you greater confidence than an employee with a genuine passion for the cause, and who will ideally suggest creative strategies and solutions as a result. Such a person will arrive at work ready to strive for a vision.
Passion also gives people a sense of purpose, and allows them to more fully understand their roles and responsibilities. (After all, understanding exactly why we are doing something will always lead to better work.) It is also what allows people to strive to improve, and when you find an employee who's aiming to be better than they were yesterday, then you've pretty much won the hiring process. One technique I use is to bring a whiteboard into the middle of the office and ask everyone to write down why they feel they are a part of the company and why what they do is important. The answers will be illuminating and hopefully inspiring, not only for you but for the entire team.
3. Insatiable desire for knowledge
No matter how experienced someone might be, a new job nearly always sports a considerable learning curve, and every day will be an opportunity to learn something new. If you interview someone who is convinced that they already know everything required of an industry and the job role, you're likely to run into problems down the line. Instead, find someone who's skilled and knowledgeable, certainly, but also shows a desire and excitement to learn more. Those who recognize that they can always grow skill sets and broaden knowledge will be a valuable asset, not least because they are likely to be enthusiastic leaders as well. People who are "forever practicing students" are some of the rarest and most desired individuals to have on a team.
4. Risk tolerance
This quality is one usually applied to investors or those in other financial roles, but risk is unavoidably a part of any early-stage businesses: every decision comes with a degree of it. An employee who fully supports a company's decisions when the outcome is uncertain is a keeper. After all, nothing good ever came from comfort zones; you want to work with someone who is willing to go big or go home. These individuals also tend to stick out in terms of both ideas and personalities, and be culture leaders for others. They will also challenge you to constantly be better as a founder.
I like to think of first hires at a company as akin to a family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. Typically, there is a wild dynamic of personalities that brings an overall uniqueness to the table. It is here that individuality plays its role, because if everyone was the same, you would find yourself with a lack of innovation, and certainly a lack of camaraderie.
Having a diverse team leads to diverse thinking, which is what fosters new ideas. Members with a strong sense of self also, at least typically, do not require handholding or much direction. As a founder, this is critical, because you won't be able to be involved in every moment of everyone's day, but will trust an individual with the right traits to get work done in their own unique way.
How to find these qualities
In order to assess if your candidates have these characteristics, you need to ask the right questions, so think outside the box in an interview. Qualifications, skills and a strong resume are important, of course, but there are usually plenty of people out there with those. What's rarer and harder to bring out in the hiring process are the "wow!" factor qualities that give you true confidence in their ability to help your company achieve meaningful growth. Among my favorite interview questions in the above-linked story are "Describe your sense of humor", "What is your purpose, both personally and professionally?" and "If I gave you $100 million right now, would you be in this seat?"
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