Tech and Strategy for Entrepreneurs


Dream Team: Finding Unicorns for Hire! ( Strengths and Weaknesses)

Walt Disney was told he was “uncreative” prior to founding Disney. Colonel Sanders of KFC Chicken didn’t succeed until age 65.  Judi Sheppard Missett founded Jazzercise after she quit being a professional dancer and was failing as a dance instructor.  She now has 7,500 locations.  What do all these people have in common?  They had untapped gifts – and corresponding weaknesses – which had to be overcome in order to succeed!

But come on – don’t unicorns exist somewhere?  That visionary, focused, perfectionist, fast-mover, who always sees the big picture, but handles tiny, detailed tasks with ease? You can keep looking, but what you’re going to get is more of a chameleon than a unicorn. When you make ridiculous job demands and ask for the best of every personality attribute, you’ll get ridiculous applicants: typically an impostor, an ego case or someone who’s just plain confused about their strengths.

At our company, we decided it was better to be realistic than to keep hunting for unicorns. We have built a whole culture around it internally where we have ongoing discussions about our unique strengths and weaknesses. For instance, our team knows that I wish everyone had ESP and could read my mind but in reality that’s just a typical weakness of a visionary – failure to communicate in detail. Or we discuss how most engineers hate to promise things without all the information, and established that there is a healthy competition between sales and production teams. This open line of communication feeds a culture that pervades our hiring style as well.

When hiring, the goal is to create realistic job descriptions that match the true personalities of the typical people we are trying to hire. Fast-moving sales people don’t have to wade through details and we don’t want them to. In fact, we appeal to their hatred of procedure and rigor.  Analytical and architectural types are not expected to produce deliverables every hour of every day – they need space to think and analyze trade-offs – and we tell them that.  Job descriptions and ads reflect this: Short, goal oriented ads for big picture and fast movers.

Finally, during interviews, we put people at ease.  I tell them about my own weaknesses and those of other positions – about the very real trade-offs of each position and personality.  An then we draw them out by asking questions about how they’d handle seemingly ambiguous situations – to figure out how they naturally react and if they’re being dead honest with us.  And after a year or two, we can catch inconsistencies – chameleons – with regularity.

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Dream Team: Facing the Fear

During the early days of AP Logic, I had an employee come to me and ask for a demotion. I had promoted this person from a web development role to a project management position. Shortly after, I found that he was stressed out, customers were not getting consistent feedback, and I was frustrated by the entire situation.

At this point, my employee had a clear choice: to admit it wasn’t working or to try and push through.  As mentioned above, he chose the former route. I remember the day he walked into my office and declared (paraphrased), “Jim, I’m really good at doing things in order, consistently, every time. If you ask me to put up a fence, I can dig post holes consistently, accurately, in order, and I won’t mind doing it over and over. But prioritizing competing needs and responding immediately without complete information isn’t my strength.  Can I go back to my old position?” 

His honesty both impressed me and shocked me. But the result was earning my trust and respect in a way that few people have done before or since.  I chose to not cut his pay and in fact he went on to become our point-person for customer support – someone that was deeply appreciated by all our clients.  So here’s the question:  Do you think his career suffered or benefited because he was direct and honest?  Here’s a hint:  we’re still good friends many years later.

Another story: A few years ago, a Senior Software Engineer and I were struggling to figure out the best way to work together.  He was frustrated by certain types of work we were doing and felt like he was all alone trying to handle complicated situations.  We discussed his personality and the realities of our business and came to the conclusion that we would try to change some things and if those changes did not work, we would be up-front with each other about our intentions and form a plan for his exit, together.  This was to ensure there would be no hard feelings or surprises.  A year later, he left the company and went to a position that was better suited for him. And some time after that, he referred a friend to our company who is now a key leader in the business.  Again, we were able to maintain a friendship and still to this day respect each other greatly.

I tell these stories because whether you are employee or boss, trust and fear are two opposite sides of the same coin.  If anyone in the situations I recalled had feared getting screwed and made unilateral moves, that would have made things worse. Trust is what made those situations work!  Yet typical counter-arguments run along these lines:

  1. If you show your cards by being honest, you’ll be at a negotiating disadvantage;
  2. “I can’t afford to lose this person (or lose this job) at this time, so I’ll lay low”
  3. Employment decisions are things that you should decide in quiet on your own, make your move and then dictate your terms to the other party so you don’t get “negotiated”.

My response to these?  Regardless of whether you are the employee of the boss, you’re better off calling the shot first because you will actually appear more confident and confidence engenders respect.  You’ll put yourself at a negotiating advantage by having the confidence to tell someone the truth and propose something that works for you both.  They will see you as proactive and not afraid of the outcomes. Also, you’ll typically get some good tidbits in return for your overtures and will be better educated to plan your next move as well.  Trust wins over fear. And if someone is really out to get you, you don’t want to work with them anyways because it will blow up eventually.  In my experience, it’s been far easier and quicker and more profitable to be candid.


This is an updated version of a blog posted September 7th, 2016. This updated version is to better reflect our Dream Team Series.
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