Monday, November 30, 2009

You Need to Recognize and Attract Top Talent

Investors always say that a successful startup is more about the people than it is about the idea. Great people can take a mediocre idea, and make it a success, while mediocre people can take a great idea and make it a failure. So what should you look for to find the great people you need?

A great start is to look for the five C’s which indicate people of talent, as outlined by John Spence in his book, Awesomely Simple:
  1. Competence. At the very foundation, to be considered “talented,” a person has to be highly competent in an area that is key to your business. This person must possess skills, abilities, ideas, and information that exceeds yours in these areas. Truly talented people are fanatics for lifelong learning, and a sponge for new ideas.

  2. Character. You can have the smartest person on the team, the very highest performer – yet if he or she isn’t completely trustworthy, you have a liability, not an asset. Honesty, transparency, and a values-based life are the elements that build professional and personal character.

  3. Collaboration. The world is too complex, with too much information, and moving at too high a velocity for any single individual to handle it alone. For talented individuals to be effective in any organization, they must be superb at collaborating with others. Teamwork is mandatory, not optional.

  4. Communication. Every talented business professional who succeeds must be an expert communicator. It is not great skills of oratory or persuasion that are the most important, but rather the ability to ask superior questions and then listen to the answers. Be adept at laying out simple, clear, and logical arguments – while connecting emotionally.

  5. Commitment. No great success is ever achieved without great effort. Highly talented businesspeople are committed, driven, and passionate about what they are doing. They do not see their work as a job, but instead as an adventure, a quest, a higher calling.
Knowing the right characteristics is actually the easy part. The hard part is attracting people who have these characteristics, and convincing the best of the best to join you. Many would argue that top-ranked venture capitalists, like John Doerr of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers, actually excel in attracting and recognizing great talent, rather than recognizing great ideas.

To attract the right people, you must become a fanatic about finding and recruiting top talent. That means putting effective actions in place, and spending real time on the process. Entrepreneurs who say it’s hard to find good people, yet simply rely on newspaper ads and Craigslist are kidding themselves.

John Spence reiterates that the only way to win the war for talent is to employ the Powell doctrine of “shock and awe.” Make talent acquisition a major strategic thrust in your company, with specific actions like these:
  • Build a list of ten super-talented people you’d hire today if you had funds available.
  • Find a different highly talented person every month to take to lunch.
  • Build a personal relationship with top placement officers at local universities.
  • Attend association and community meetings, constantly networking for top talent.
  • Define an internship program that taps promising college students early.
  • Provide a reward system to current employees who close a talented new team member.
  • Hone your interview process to make it more effective with the best candidates.
The startups that survive and thrive in the future will be the ones that treat talent acquisition, development, and retention as a major strategic imperative. Of course, with highly talented players, you should also empower them to make their own decisions, and hold them accountable for superior communication and collaboration. That’s a recipe for success in any business.

Marty Zwilling


Monday, November 2, 2009

Building an Entrepreneurial Culture

I just returned from an Entrepreneurship Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, organized by my friend Allan R. Johnston, to improve collaboration and initiate more activities there. I had assumed that Alaska would be a haven for entrepreneurs, due to the history of independence and environmental adversity. Yet, I didn’t see as much of that entrepreneurial culture as I expected.

A couple of years ago, I helped set up a software business in Vietnam, where it was evident that everyone was an entrepreneur, from little kids on the street shining shoes, to new businesses for the world market springing up by the hundreds. The entrepreneurial culture was everywhere.

What I saw in Alaska was a small group of good people fighting to start a movement, to overcome the gaps to funding and education, in a state filled with sometimes complacent “employees” of the big oil companies, government surpluses, and Natives with cross cultural and generational challenges.

The difference between the two parts of the world certainly made me think about what drives an entrepreneurial culture. Some thoughts that come to mind include the following:
  1. The pain level must be high enough. In Vietnam, the issue is survival, with an average income of less than $10,000 US per year. Maybe Alaskans are a bit comfortable, even in the harsh environment, with good jobs from outside employers, and a fat state treasury. Real change doesn’t happen until the pain level is high enough.

  2. An education system tuned to support entrepreneurs. I heard much discussion at the conference from local academics realizing they need to do more, and getting more involved. Universities that set up incubators, groups to commercialize research, and real entrepreneurial courses can make a big difference. Financial literacy training needs to start as early as kindergarten, and be pervasive.

  3. Innovative opportunities readily available. Alaska has huge opportunities in their natural resources, and many other areas. They should be generating sustainable energy solutions from the tides, sun, wind, water, and geothermal sources. The glaciers and mountain streams are a great source of clear clean water. The possibilities are endless.

  4. Financial infrastructure robust and local. I’m not talking here about government subsidies; I’m talking about financial institutions willing to lend, venture capital organizations, angel groups, and private equity. Alaska needs more strength in these areas, less reliance on outside big companies, and some “give back” from the people who have succeeded there, as they retire to Arizona.

  5. People willing to help people. At the conference in Alaska, my talk was on mentoring, which I believe is required in all environments. People willing to help means active angel investors, experienced entrepreneurs judging business plans at universities, teaching classes, and pulling people together for collaborative efforts, as Allan has done.

  6. Work is a lifestyle, rather than a job. True entrepreneurs do what they love, and love what they do. Successful people doing what they love are the best inspiration to others, which is how new cultures are born.
I’m always impressed with the bright spots. A great sign in Alaska is my new friends, Tyler Arnold, a real software outsourcing entrepreneur at age 17, and Austin Johnson, age 18 (pictured here), with great plans. They are blessed with financial and mentoring support from friends, and I’m counting on continued leadership from their generation.

So my challenge to the rest of you is to measure the entrepreneurial culture in your area against these key drivers, and your own personal drive. Are you a driver or a damper on the culture? What more can you do, and what are additional important considerations? I’m sure I’ve missed a few key points, so let me know what you think.

Marty Zwilling