Building All-Star Teams

by mikekarnj on July 9, 2012

“The difference between an A team and an A+ team is the difference between a million in revenue and a billion in revenue.” – Paul English, Kayak

According to Steve Jobs, “hiring the best is your most important task”. Talent is the lifeblood of any amazing company, but even more important than hiring the best people is building the best team. Putting together an A+ great team is worth 100x more than any “rockstar” individual.

Building a great team starts with keeping the caliber high for talent so that the team can achieve the impossible, together. Putting the team first means that you’ll have to pass on “rockstars” who 1) aren’t a cultural fit, 2) don’t play a critical role/position on your team; and/or 3) aren’t remarkable in their own unique way.

Culture & Team Fit
Most companies define culture fit as “someone you can grab a beer with at a bar.” The problem with that definition is that it’s completely subjective and leads to homogenous teams that look, think, and even dress alike (example: Square’s summer interns were all males).

Companies like Zappos start with core values that help define their unique culture. Core value is defined as a “principle that guides an organization’s internal conduct as well as its relationship with the external world”. Here’s an example of some of the core values from Zappos:

1. Deliver WOW Through Service
2. Embrace and Drive Change
3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
5. Pursue Growth and Learning

To determine if someone is a “cultural fit” at Skillshare, we created a set of core values as a team (during one of our retreats), and created interview questions for each one of our values. For example,  “Be Curious. Stay Passionate” was one of our core values, so we ask all candidates during the interview process, “what are you passionate about?” to get a better understanding of their passions for our mission and outside of work. This allows us to determine whether they are a culture fit based on our values and not on whether we can grab a beer with them.

Lastly, we have an overall criteria of traits we look for when build out our team, which revolves around ambition/drive, curiosity/passion, and humbleness. We also look for “black swans” that have done something remarkable in their lives that make them stand out. For example, one of our recent hires was an Eagle Scout and another was ranked as one of top 100 piano players in the country.

Everyone Recruits for the Team
Recruiting is the not the sole responsibility of one individual at your company but the responsibility of the entire team. For example, the Facebook Design Team keeps a “dream list” of designers they admire. Each designer spends a certain amount of time each week searching for “sparks of genius”.  Members of the Facebook Design Team will reach out to these designers themselves, meet up with them over drinks, and sell them on why they should join Facebook. This is very powerful because each person on the team is recruiting for the team.

Most all-stars are not actively seeking to join a new company because they already have a job. It’s your team’s job to find and convince them that they’ll play a critical role on your team. At Skillshare, we host a monthly happy hour where every single person is required to invite someone that they’re actively recruiting – whether we’re hiring for that role or not. This allows those folks to meet other folks on the team, get a vibe of our culture, and understand our vision first-hand.

Interviewing for the Team
The interview process at Skillshare is lean, rigorous, and optimized to save time for everyone involved. The entire interview process never takes more than 30 days and we strive to respond to all candidates within 72 hours during each phase to always keep the ball moving forward.

Everyone on our team is selling during the interview process. Too many companies focus on “what can they do for me” versus “what the company can do for the individual”. Hint: it ties back to joining the team and fulfilling the mission of the company, together. In a nutshell, here’s our interview process (which I’ll detail more thoroughly in a future post).

1. Role Definition
2. Application
3. Phone Screen
4. Homework Assignment
5. Phone Interview (skills)
6. Team Interviews
7. Reference Checks
8. Job Offer

Another entrepreneur once told me that you can determine the success of any new hire based on how you onboard them within the first 72 hours. The onboarding/training process at Skillshare is optimized around 1) removing all awkward moments and 2) being extremely clear on the person’s role and how they can be successful.

At Twitter, Dick Costolo (CEO) makes sure that all new hires can answer three simple questions:

1. What’s my job?
2. How do I know I’m successful at my job?
3. Why does it matter if our company succeeds (vision)?

On the first day, we spend a lot of time on communicating the vision of Skillshare, company history, and our current goals and milestones. From there, each person is responsible for putting together their role definition and attaching goals over the first 30 and 90 days, which we review with them. This allows them to know their role and how to be successful at their role. And why it matters in the bigger world if our company if successful (democratizing education).

There’s nothing more awkward than showing up on the first day to an office where everyone is working and trying to figure out where to eat lunch on your first day. So, we start all new hires on Monday where we cook them breakfast. This gives them an opportunity to meet the entire team in a casual setting and get properly introduced to the team (and vice versa). The same happens during lunch when their team takes them out to lunch.

Removal of 6’s from your Team
Sometimes, you’ll have to remove individuals if it’s in the best interest of the team (for whatever reason).  I believe strongly in the removal of 6’s from teams. If you had to rank individuals on your team from 1-10, it’s really easy to identify the low performers (ranked 1-5) and the high performers (9-10).

But, “6’s”  fly under the radar and do just enough work to get by day-to-day. Even worse, they really irritate the high performers (9-10). Since they don’t want to get exposed, they attract other “6’s” to the company. And before you know it, your team slips from being great to being mediocre. It’s extremely important to remove these people from your team as they can be successful somewhere else.

Keeping your Team Happy
Great teams love to achieve impossible tasks together because they know that it’s impossible for any individual to do alone. There are perks (free lunches, yoga, etc) but keeping your team happy revolves around: 1) setting ambitious goals and reaching them; 2) motivating the team by giving them clear success metrics; 3) ownership and empowerment to make decisions; and 4) training to become better.

Most companies will ignore the “all-stars” on the team to focus on the “6’s” but even superstars like Lebron James need feedback, ownership, and coaching/mentorship (article). “All players want to be coached. They want to have discipline. They want structure.”

In short, always make decisions for the team (and not the individual) and you’ll be on your way to building an all-star team!

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