It is very fascinating analysing the differing cultures that are created within ‘high tech’ companies, as most of a company’s culture flows from the attitudes of the founders of the business. But company’s culture is a living, changing concept that is controlled by these employees from the MD down to the “worker bees”. I believe that culture plays a huge role in the company’s success or failure in the long run. For this reason, as well as many other obvious ones, there is probably nothing more important to a high tech company’s long-term success, than hiring and retaining employees.
Here follows some of my suggested “best practices” in hiring and retention.
Hire Slowly – This is a major part of my hiring philosophy. Future employees weren’t simply chosen by a manager filling out his or her staff, but a structured interviewing process includes interviews with potential peers and other managers. While a company thrives with a diversity of styles and opinions, it is also very important that a prospective employee be a “fit” in the culture. It’s good for the candidate as well; they should have a good idea of what they are getting into, should they join the organisation.
One by product of “hire slowly” is to limit your growth in headcount, to a % of your revenue growth. This isn’t a hard and fast rule. When you are a start-up, there are no revenues—and there must be employees! Many times hiring accelerates just at the peak of the revenue growth curve—right before a downturn.
Fire Slowly – It’s by far the best to hire properly up front, so that you don’t have to fire. In all companies, however, there comes a time when this becomes necessary. It may be layoffs due to a business downturn, or someone who isn’t pulling her weight in their present role.
I believe strongly that if you’ve hired someone, you’ve received a commitment from them, and you owe them a commitment in return – not a guaranteed lifetime employment. If it’s a layoff, don’t pull the trigger until you’re sure it’s necessary, and then give them all of the outplacement assistance and severance benefits that you can afford. If it’s someone that is under-performing in their present position, first think how you can remedy the situation without firing. Will additional training or an inside mentor make a difference?
There are exceptions to my “Fire Slowly” advice. Bad attitudes, disruptive personalities and general disloyalty have no place, and are poisonous to a culture.
Don’t treat employees like furniture – In my “Hire Slowly, Fire Slowly” advice above, some of you may have been thinking that I’m a bleeding heart. My advice comes strictly from the perspective of optimising a business. In my experience, if you treat people with respect, consideration and loyalty, you are most often rewarded in kind. Organisations that treat their employees as their biggest asset, to be protected and nurtured, usually have a workforce that will run through the wall for them. What could be more important to the success of a business?
Match Temperament and Personality to the Job – In job advertising and position specifications, you will see much effort devoted to attracting people with experience and technical skills which match well with the requirements of a particular position. Much less thought is given to “softer” aspects, which often mean the difference between success and failure. That sales rep you’ve just hired may have been great in a big, well-known organisation, “farming” a major account. Does he have the drive and perseverance to be as successful, now that he will be “hunting” new accounts, for a company with little track record and an unknown brand?
The new technical support engineer has five years of experience in software applications similar to yours—but does he have the temperament to deal with anxious and angry customers, 8 hours per day?
Treat everyone fairly—not necessarily the same – One of the areas I think managers often make a mistake, is to have a firm set of rules that apply to all equally, at all times. I believe that to optimise an organisation’s performance, you must manage people as individuals. Different people respond in a dramatically different manner to the same stimuli. An employee with one type of personality may respond to an independent assignment with pride that you’ve showed such confidence in them. Their colleague, with a different personality, may treat the same assignment as a sign of neglect and lack of caring about them. Each of these people may be equally capable, but how you manage them will greatly affect their ultimate performance.
Tie compensation to the long term success of the company – I want all of my employees to think like owners, so if possible give everyone stock options—that’s my strong advice. If that isn’t desirable or practical for some reason, figure out a reasonable proxy to try to get the same results. Utilise Profit sharing programs based not only on short term results, but long term as well. It’s important to get everyone to share your goal—which is building the long term value of the company.
Build teamwork with group goals & incentives – Just as it’s important to tie everyone to your long term goal for the company, it’s also important to tie people to each other. All too often, even in early stage tech companies, I see companies where the employees seem to be fighting each other in an attempt to get ahead. They are expending energy fighting over the biggest piece of a still small pie, rather than using that same energy to expand the pie for everyone. But I also recommend that part of each employee’s incentive compensation be based upon their internal team reaching its objectives—not just the achievement of individual goals.
Hold employees accountable but with compassion – The sum of it all is that I don’t recommend a country club environment, where no one is responsible for their actions. On the contrary, I recommend that you do your best to attract high performers, give them the tools to do their jobs, and hold them accountable for their actions. But do it with respect, helping them in every way that you can. And above all, treat them with compassion.