Category Archives: Leadership

The ABC’s of Building a Startup A-Team

White tulip with many red tulips

Building a strong team goes far beyond reviewing credentials. The best candidates will have expertise that complements and personalities that blend well with your culture.

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D., and Sarah Cardozo Duncan

The quality of your team is the most critical factor for achieving success with a startup company.  How you and your team work together, how crisis is handled as well as how opportunities are uncovered and acted upon are all functions of your team.  Building an ‘A-team’ is easier said than done.  The easy part is finding candidates with the skills and expertise that you need to complement the existing team.  The hard part is determining how well this person will fit into your existing team.  The key is to find the individual that has both the expertise and is aligned with your culture.  In short, the candidate with the best match with your company’s culture and personality will make the strongest addition to your team.

Why is this so important?
There is not a lot of slack in the budget and timeline for startups to grow from the ‘great idea’ stage to becoming a ‘great business’.  It can take 6 months or longer to find the right candidate for your team.  During this time you and your team will be spending effort evaluating resumes, interviewing candidates and other activities to get this need filled.  Once you have hired your new colleague, it can take another 3 – 6 months or longer before they are fully productive.  If you hire the wrong person and they leave (they resign or you let them go) you will have to start the process all over again.  This results in further costs, and delays as you and your team are tasked with finding, vetting and hiring a new person leading to further delays to achieving business milestones.

Here’s how to get it right (The First Time)

A.  Conduct a self-assessment of your company’s culture:
The best way to insure that you will be happy with your new employee and they will be happy with you is when the company culture and the personality of the candidate are a fit.  You need to have a clear understanding of what your company culture is before you start to evaluate candidates.  Your answers to the following questions will help you to determine this (There are no right or wrong answers).

  1. Is your company’s organization chart flat (few layers, everyone reports to a very small number of leaders) or vertical (lots of layers, junior members report to more senior members and they in turn report to members that are more senior to them etc.)?
  2. How are decision made?  Everything must be approved by the CEO or is authority more delegated with only the most critical decisions requiring input from the CEO.
  3. How quickly are decisions made?  Are team members empowered to make decisions that will move the company forward even when there might be some incomplete data or are there often delays to either get more information and/or get consensus from a group.
  4. What is your tolerance for risk?  Comfortable taking chances or only accept options that are well proven and/or where most of the risk has been mitigated.
  5. What is the noise level in the office?  Do people tend to get up and meet with their colleagues or do they prefer to instant-message or e-mail each other.
  6. Who has authority to approve expenditures?  Only the CEO or C-level executives or is this authority more broadly delegated (within limits) throughout the team.
  7. What is your work environment like? Is it Traditional (regular office hours i.e. 9 – 5) or progressive (as long as the work gets done on time, employees have flexibility with their working hours and can work from home some of the time).
  8. Do you view your employees as assets (company well-being depends on them and investments in each employee ultimately benefits the company) or expenses (salaries are the largest expenditure; need to minimize this as much as possible).
  9. How do you invest in your employees? Do you encourage and pay for professional conference attendance, courses and workshops, provide career development, etc.?

B.  Assess each candidate’s fit with your company culture:
Provide some structure to the way that you conduct your interviews.  Ideally the CEO should be the last person that the candidate meets (the CEO should be checking in with the other interviewers throughout the day and can then focus their questions accordingly.  Putting the CEO last allows for more time flexibility and will also avoid getting off schedule during the day).  Each person that interviews the candidate should try to figure out whether they think this person would be a good fit with the team based on the culture assessment you previously conducted.  There should be at least 4 or 5 standard questions that everybody asks.  For example:

  1. Tell me about yourself? (This is a great open-ended question to help get the ball rolling and will provide you with material for follow-up questions)
  2. Why did you choose this for your profession? (Passion for learning, for the prestige, for the money)
  3. Where do you see yourself in the short-term and long-term (do they see working for you as a step in their career path, do they want to stay at the bench or branch out into other parts of the business)
  4. What do you think we will gain by your working here?  (This is a good one to see how much they have thought about how they can contribute.  This will reveal how much they have researched your company and also how confident they are in their ability to help you)
  5. Do you have other interests? (Here is where you will find out if you have a workaholic or a more balanced person on your hands.  They don’t need to follow the same sports teams and have the same hobbies that you or your team have, this just allows you to get a fuller picture of what type of person you are meeting)

C.  Review interview notes, rank candidates and tender offer (reasonably quickly): 
Have a review meeting immediately after the last candidate interview while impressions are still fresh.  The team member (ideally the immediate manager of the candidate) should lead this meeting and also take meeting minutes (these will be crucial during the ranking and selection stage).  Get feedback from each of the interviewers on the following:

  1. Did they actually answer the questions your asked?
  2. Did the candidate seem confident?  Too confident (cocky)?
  3. What was their body language like?  Did they sit rigidly in the chair or did they slouch back?
  4. Where they dressed appropriately?
  5. Did they seem prepared and know about the company, the position and its needs?
  6. (for first interviewer) Where they on time?
  7. Did they ask good questions?
  8. Did they seem enthusiastic about joining the team?
  9. Did they ask for the job?

Next, review the answers to the 4 or 5 standard questions and look for consistency.  Ask for any further impressions, comments or concerns and ask each person if they could see them fitting in with the team or not (gut feel).  You should be evaluating at least 3 – 4 candidates or more.  A few days after the last candidate interview, the meeting leader should distribute the meeting minutes from each of the follow up meetings via e-mail and ask the team to rate their first second and third choices by e-mail (you will get better feedback this way than in a meeting).  If there is unanimous support for one candidate, make an offer.  If not, you should discuss whether the highest ranked person would be a good fit and see if you can reach agreement.  If not, you will need to interview more candidates (better to take a bit more time now for this than to face the consequences of hiring the wrong person).

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Women as Corporate and Entrepreneurial Leaders

Lions

The business world can be an unforgiving jungle, but women handle it as well as men, and then some.

By:  Michael Kaiser

If you watch nature programs on TV, you have come across at least one dedicated to those Big Cats, the lions and you quickly realize that it is the lioness that looks after and commands the pride. At best, the male serves as a mix of bodyguard, concierge and gigolo. It is the lioness who does all the hunting and caring of her cubs. It is a constant challenge that forces the lioness to erect a fortress of rigorous discipline, alertness and battle preparation. This zoological example serves as an analogy for the vicissitudes and triumphs experienced by women in the business world.

In this second decade of the 21st century no longer can the male gender come up with comments bordering on blatant business misogyny such as “They are emotional”, temperamental”, “They are watching over their family, how can they run the business”, “They will get pregnant”, “They have their period and are impossible to deal with”, “They are capricious”, etc. As if those descriptions were not enough, along came the 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada” starring Meryl Streep as the epitome of a ruthless and cynical fashion entrepreneur.

That is definitely not the scenario that we should equate with female entrepreneurs and corporate executives in Western, and more recently, Eastern societies. Time to wake up and get the record straight: women are as strong as men; they are standards of initiative and dedication, intuitive, tactical and strategic leaders, progressive, highly motivated, creative, the list of positive characteristics goes on. And with a good sense of humor, they even bestow positive remarks about their opponents:

“We have ‘arrived.  it means we’re not expending a huge amount of energy battling each other for power, instead we’re having challenging conversations about what we do well and what we need to work on. It’s a fact (I have the research somewhere) that men outperform women in 4 key areas of business. They are better at asking for what they need, for standing out in a crowd, for singing their own praises and speaking up.” Suzy Jacobs in “Can we please change the conversation”.

In a reference quoted for the description of “Female Entrepreneur” we read that:

Studies on women entrepreneurs show that women have to cope with stereotypic attitudes towards women on a daily basis. Business relations as customers, suppliers, banks, etc. constantly remind the entrepreneur that she is different, sometimes in a positive way such as by praising her for being a successful entrepreneur even though being a woman. Employees tend to mix the perceptions of the manager with their images of female role models leading to mixed expectations on the woman manager to be a manager as well as a “mother”. The workload associated with being a small business manager is also not easily combined with taking care of children and a
family. However, even if the revenues are somewhat smaller, women entrepreneurs feel more in control and happier with their situation than if they worked as an employee.

Although many positive changes took place in the 20 years since its authors published their findings, there is still the classical “room-for-improvement” ahead. As an example: early this year the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, issued a memo banning the practice of telecommuting for the company’s employees which led to a negative uproar, promptly smothered by a positive retort in her defense from, yes, a male reporter of the Washington Post.

Recent statistics show that women’s level of higher education is on its way of surpassing that of men, which explains the large number of female executives in some of the most complex and demanding scientific sectors. Alas, this has not minimized the obstacles they face due to social mores that still operate under antiquated gender roles; even today, the number of male entrepreneurs exceeds that of women, and that is based more on conventional stereotypes than reality, because women are equally as good as men in starting a company with very few financial resources at hand.

In closing I invite the reader to watch the TEDx video by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, listed below. It is an uplifting paean to the resilience of women in the face of business entry barriers, and how they have become an integral and much needed part of entrepreneurship and corporate leadership, without gender barriers.

References and Additional Reading

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Interim Executives: Their Role on Existing and New Business Trends

By:  Michael Kaiser

rainbow after storm

Interim executives can be the perfect solution to fill leadership gaps as companies weather the storms of commercial demands.

One of the most visible, even dramatic changes in the leadership of companies is the growing number of Interim Executives. Until a few years back, they were considered as transitional appointments to cover C-level executives that either resigned or where fired. Usually it was left to the board of directors to choose the interim replacement until the permanent one was hired. That is no longer the case because those interim executives (herein: interims) navigate from small to large companies, and in some cases may occupy C-level positions for an extended period of time, at the behest of boards and investors.

More often than not, the interims are characterized by having additional skills that their permanent predecessors lacked or did not apply in their tenure, e.g., communication ability, charisma, flexibility and the ability to simultaneously think in tactical and strategic terms. As expected, the appointment of an interim is followed by immediate pressure to add value and benefit, often in very high-change environments. Unlike management consultancy, interims focus on implementation, team working, coaching and mentoring the existing team. It is a critical process best described as the quintessential “hands-on assignment”.

A few weeks ago someone asked me what my role was as an interim and I replied that it was akin to a sort of “corporate Clint Eastwood”, which first elicited a surprised look from my interlocutor, followed by laughter. So much for the fun of it! As noted above, this is a critical process that requires multitasking. The interim’s role demands change, not just filling the spot left by a departing executive or the challenge of a new project, notoriously difficult assignments for both the client and the interim.

The increased need for interims to act as short-term permanent executives or managers (it sounds like an oxymoron, but it is not) even in well established corporations, took off with the onset of the 2008 Great Recession in the U.S. as well as the fragile economy of the European Union represented by the loss of key executive/managerial jobs. Another reason lies in the fact that the crisis was followed by new information technologies and communication tools that significantly accelerate business-to-business interactions such as R&D, implementation and commercialization. Let me make clear that the role of the full-time permanent corporate executive has not been replaced, but what we are witnessing is also the emergence of a new business trend that is here to stay for the foreseeable future, best explained as the “doppelgänger”, i.e., one that works in parallel with C-level personnel and employees.

Nowhere are interims more in demand than with start-ups, small and medium-size companies in areas as different as the life sciences, public relations, software and hardware. Some of the reasons for that surge are: change and/or crisis management, IPOs, mergers and acquisitions, etc. In those scenarios, as well as in other similar or different ones, the interim becomes an integral part of the C-level management and his client’s workforce.

Additional Reading:

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