Building a Team of A-Players

The one thing I am most proud of in my company is the team we’ve been able to build. I can say we succeeded beyond our expectations. From time to time people ask me how we did it, here’s how.

Five Steps to your Dream Team

“A-Players Play with A-Players”

It’s true. Once you get to the point where you have A-players on your team it gets much easier to attract talent. This nugget of wisdom has found its way into every management book published in the past 10 years. Yet, it won’t help you. It’s the chicken-or-the-egg problem applied to management. Where to get your first A-player from?

Step 1. Tell your Story

I’ll be straight with you: A-players can get employed anywhere. They get propositioned more often than you change your underwear. Ask yourself: why should they spend their time – which they can only spend once – with your start-up? There is an upper limit to how much money you can throw at people and still keep their interest. Furthermore: you don’t want people to be on your team just for your money. And let’s be honest, there’s not much of money anyway.

So, what attracts people in a way that money can’t? Your story. A-players operate on a higher level of Maslow’s pyramid. They understand the importance of doing things that matter beyond their own little bubble of life.

Selling your company to candidates is much the same process as on-boarding that pivotal launch customer.

Step 2. Care About the Same Things

A-players want their playing field to be in top-notch condition. They care about it. They don’t see the work they do as just work, it’s a significant part of their identity.

Make sure to create a culture that cares about these things. A culture that aims for doing things in the best way possible. Put functioning non-bureaucratic processes in place. When you’re hiring a developer, make sure that your codebase is clean and follows coding standards.

When you’re talking to a candidate while your environment is not 100% in shape yet, be honest. Tell them what skeletons are hiding in your closets and tell them why and how you want to get rid of them.

Don’t underestimate the importance of culture fit and compatibility on a personal level. I have hired talented developers that were productive and contributed a lot to the product but ultimately didn’t fit our culture. During the honeymoon phase life was great. But then, slowly but surely, things started to collapse. Tensions rose and the latest addition became more and more an outcast of the team, operating as a lone wolf. You don’t want this.

Don’t let a candidate’s technical skills blur your vision. Hiring these people will only bring a temporary short-term improvement. On the longer term they will hurt your product and your team.

Dilbert's wisdom on culture fit at start-ups

Dilbert’s wisdom on culture fit at start-ups

Step 3. Search and Be Visible

By now you’ve probably learnt that A-players aren’t queueing in front of your office to apply for a job. That’s because they don’t know you.

There are two things you need to do:

A. Build your Fantasy FootBall Team

Build your fantasy football team, containing all the players you would draft if you could get them. This serves two purposes. You will have a list of people you can contact, but more importantly: it makes you consciously think about what kind of person you are actually looking for.

Trello board with Nette developersWe found that using Trello for this is perfect. Simply add a card for every candidate where you track aspects such as experience, focus areas and contact information.

Don’t do all the work yourself. Ask the best player on your team who they would like to play with. If they don’t want to play with anyone, see step #4 and ask the next in line.

B. Promote Your Startup

Make yourself visible in the communities you are aiming for. This also serves two purposes. Firstly, it makes yourself known to the group of people you are aiming for. And secondly: you will learn what they find important and what not. You get to practice your pitch many times while getting instant feedback from the people you are seducing.

Furthermore: encourage publishing. Give your people the resources to give back to the community. Support them in writing blog articles, open-sourcing pieces of your code and talking at conferences. Don’t be afraid that this only serves their personal brand. Remember: A-players play with A-players.

Step 4. Subtract to Add

I’ll circle back to that “A-Players Play with A-Players“-proverb. It can be extended as follows:

C-Players Repel A-Players

And that statement is actionable. Improve the average skill level of your team by removing the least-functioning players.

Sometimes you just know that a person is not functioning as they should, and no matter how much you try to improve it, it won’t. But, as they are still delivering work, especially when it’s billable to a client, you just can’t put yourself to letting them go.

These C-Players are holding you back in many ways. They slow down your delivery process and hurt the quality of your product. But what’s worse: they prevent you from drafting A-players. Over the years I’ve learnt that there is only one way forward: cut the rope and plunge into the deep. Create an actual need for you to replace that person, by letting them go.

Step 5. Learn from Setbacks

You will hire the wrong the people. You will see great people leaving, for all kinds of reasons. Watch and learn.

When you fire the wrong hire, look back at your reasoning when hiring that person. What did you miss? I found out that I was often blinded by their technical skills, but ignored the personality factor. Remember step #2: you are looking for people who fit your culture.

When people leave you, ask them why. Perhaps people are hesitant to tell you at face value. Keep going, explain them why it’s vital for you to know the reason behind their departure and ask them what you need to improve.

And sometimes, great people leave and you realize that the only sane thing to do is to support that. We had a fantastic developer leaving us because he got offered a position on the West Coast. Brno is a great city to live in, but it’s not exactly L.A.

Rinse and Repeat

Building a fantastic team is not a linear process. It’s as iterative as your software development process should be. You won’t have your dream team by tomorrow or next week. But start applying these five steps today and step-by-step the quality of your team will rise.

Then, one day you look around the office and feel that moment of pride. You got your team.

A team of A-Players

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