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Hire For The Ability To Get Shit Done
I have found that the two biggest causes of having to fire an employee at an early stage startup are a lack of culture fit, and the inability to Get Shit Done. I don't care how smart someone is - if they are unable to work hard and crank out a large amount of high quality work, they will weigh down your startup.
Inability to get things done may manifest itself in multiple ways including:
Lack of urgency. Used to a large company environment where its OK if things take a few weeks longer.
Easily distracted. Heavy procrastinator.
Lazy / doesn't work hard. Some very smart people are basically lazy. Don't tolerate this.
Starts but never finishes things.
Lack of follow through - makes commitments but does not follow up.
Argumentative. Arguing incessantly about how to do something rather then just doing it.
Slow. Taking a long time to code (or do) something simple.
Perfectionist. Tendency to overdesign something and to spend 4 weeks building the perfect implementation versus 1 week building the thing that "just works" for 95% of the time. Sometimes the edge cases need to be covered, but in most raw startups this is not the case. On the business side this manifests as someone heavy on analysis, low on "doing".
Unfortunately, this is the fault of the entrepreneur and of the hiring process - too few hiring processes focus on the ability to Get Shit Done (GSD).
Screening for the ability to Get Shit Done.
Here are some ways I have used in the past to check for the ability to Get Shit Done:
Coding exercise. As part of our hiring process at Mixer Labs, we would often give people a half day coding exercise. We would see what tools they used, how they worked with the team, but also how productive they were. What was the final output of the half day, and how did that compare to other candidates? We had a few candidates that went from "did OK on interviews" to "wow, that person is great" when we saw the output of the exercise (and vice versa).
Follow through. Did the candidate respond to every email from me quickly? Did they follow through on everything they said they would do?
Excellence. Do they spend the time to become good at anything they adopt as a hobby? Larry and Sergey at Google would famously ask about people's random hobbies to test whether they were the type of people who focused on excellence and depth of understanding.
Proactivity. Do they suggest the right next steps without prompting? Do they go above and beyond in the interview and come in ahead of time with e.g. a 5 page analysis of where the company should head?
Homework. We would give non-engineering candidates a simple task to complete between phone screen and onsite. E.g. "Come back in 3 days with a 1-page marketing plan for our product." If they did not finish this on time, or they came back with little insight / shoddy work we would not move forward with them.
Ask the candidate. I would often straight out ask people how effective they were at GSD, and how did they compare to their peers? It was surprising how honest some (very smart) people would be on this. E.g. "I am average compared to other engineers". For an early stage startup, average is not enough.
Reference checks. Ask about people's Get Shit Done ability in multiple different ways during reference checks:
What %ile of getting stuff done is this person?
How does this person compare re: GSD to their peers?
Give me an example of how this person was proactive?
How proactive is X versus their peers? What %ile is this for your company? For all people of Y-function you have worked with?
How hard does X person work?
When has X person been unable to follow through on a commitment? When has X not come through on a commitment, no matter how small?
How fast does X accomplish tasks?
How frequently does X go above and beyond what they are asked for?
With the simple steps above you should be able to optimize for people who are proactive, have good follow through, and Get Shit Done in addition to the other screens for raw intelligence, culture fit, and functional knowledge.
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