Building Your Team: Focus on People, Not Jobs

When building a startup, we put strategic forethought toward product development, marketing, sales and other core functions. But all too often when building a team, we wait to dedicate focused attention until we feel pain.

That pain leads to a public cry for help…a job description posted on our careers site and out in the world via job boards, social media and our networks. The description is packed with a wish list of skills we wanted on the team months ago and a list of objectives that we think we wanted done yesterday.

After posting, we spend hours (weeks, months…) in a mind-numbing cycle of looking for the rare needle in the haystack among an inconsistent flow of mediocre inbound applications. Maybe we get lucky and find someone great.

More often, we squint hard to convince ourselves that the best of the bunch is a good enough fit – that we are better off having someone working on the problem today rather than waiting for the perfect candidate – or we begrudgingly spend a staggering amount of money on an outside recruiter.

In order to break this cycle, we need to focus team building activities around people not jobs.

Jobs are ephemeral, particularly in a dynamic, high-growth startup environment. If the person you hire stays at your company through the vesting period associated with their initial option grant, they will likely have at least a few different formal job titles in addition to the near-constant iterations associated with evolving goals, responsibilities and company needs.

In contrast, people have relatively immutable intrinsic characteristics and accumulated experiences that they bring to your company. It is these characteristics and experiences that make your best hires truly game changing for the trajectory of your business.

You don’t have to wait for acute pain to strategically build your team with the right people.

To shift your approach to team building from a focus on jobs to a focus on people, take the following steps:

Determine Key Intrinsic Characteristics

What inherent qualities are most important for people to possess so that they can make an exceptionally positive impact for your customers and your culture?

Define Profiles

Rather than specific job descriptions, create broad profiles that describe distinct groups of people you need to scale your business. For example, you might define a single profile which encompases early-career marketing, product and operations roles which draw on a similar toolkit.

Prioritize Networking

Create and schedule space to consistently invest in meeting new people who fit the criteria you defined in the steps above. Aim high – strive to meet the people you would love to work with regardless of the context. Networking is like healthy eating, the long-term benefit is real but it doesn’t feel as alluring in the moment as ice cream.

Nurture New Relationships

An intentional investment in networking will yield new relationships. Keep conversations warm with periodic check-ins, ask for referrals and offer your own. Aligning on timing requires some serendipity, but luck smiles on the prepared.

Set Goals, Measure Results and Iterate

Like any other strategic focus area in your startup, you should set specific goals, gather feedback, measure results and use the insights you collect to iterate on your approach.

Upcoming posts will provide more detail on how to implement each of these steps in your organization.  We’d love to hear about the challenges you face in building your teams and the ways you’ve overcome those challenges – please share via comments.

Thanks to my co-author for this post, Kendra Haberkorn. Kendra has spent her career focused on the different elements of the employee experience at companies including Craftsy, where she led the People function, McKinsey & Company, Sports Authority, Accenture and now Guild Education. Please feel free to contact Kendra via LinkedIn.