A-Level Culture, A-Level Company
When Steve Jobs ran Apple, the company’s recruiting stance was to hire only A players. The idea was that A-level people would hire more A-level people, resulting in an A-level organization.
I know personally that this was not true. I worked there as a third-party ISV. Apple often hired ‘Apple-type’ people who were not necessarily A players. Mainly, they knew how to interview in the ‘Apple-way’.
Underlying this stance was the theory that the domino effect in A level-organizations was aspirational, actual or, ideally, both. Reinforcing this theory was the notion that if the company settled for B-level hires, they in turn would hire C-level people, creating a quality downdraft that would cascade throughout the company.
It is very difficult – sometimes impossible – for early-stage startups to hire only A-level players. It’s also increasingly difficult to maintain this hiring strategy for multiple, subsequent stages because of the following reasons.
Beyond the founding stage, the effectiveness of founder-types often does not scale in execution-oriented companies. So, if you base your startup on hiring people with founders’ A-level background, skills and education, you are going to be limited and probably disappointed.
In the current tight, macro-economic labor market, many potential A-level hires are actively considering later stage companies over startups. Their intent is to reap the cash rewards and, especially, to attain an easier (read: balanced) lifestyle. Similarly, A-level personnel often seek de-risked companies, thus eliminating founding and seed-stage companies from their consideration and range of options.
Potential A-level hires in seed and Series A may not execute or perform at the top echelon thereafter. One reason is because startups are a marathon versus a sprint; another reason is the different skill sets that are required as the company matures.
The pre-Series A culture is typically more amenable to cowboy- and cowgirl-types. Post-Series A culture is more metrics-oriented, full of meetings and much more professionalized.
So, what’s the best way to top-grade your organization today while also keeping an eye on the future? Here are some suggestions.
Hire A players on your executive leadership and extended management teams. Theoretically, all things being equal, they will hire other A-players.
Be clear in your company culture document and in other articulations of this key topic (on the website, for example) that this is the company’s hiring stance. Include all the outstanding performance and execution-oriented descriptions, but also make sure that achieving diversity in new hires is a major company goal.
Be clear about how you define an “A player” in terms of behavior, attributes, makeup, and performance. Be relentless about upholding the “A player” standard in the selection process. Over time, you will attract and hire more A’s.
Be clear about how you define “B” and “C” players”. One way to identify your varsity players is to contrast them with the junior varsity (B and C) types in your final candidate pool. In fact, the A-players will always distinguish themselves and naturally rise to the top.
Design and implement opportunities for A-players to shine and distinguish themselves. Ways to do this include: develop a set of challenging questions that are asked of all candidates for similar roles. This would include programming or problem set examples for developers, case studies for managers, live presentations for salespeople, and lead-gen program problems or writing tests for marketing personnel, etc.
Finding those elusive A-level people has always been tough. In our current market, it’s still a real challenge, but getting them signed and hired is even more challenging. It can certainly be done; it just takes more effort and focus these days.
It’s important to realize that what constitutes an A-level performer will evolve as the company grows and changes. But you won’t have to worry about that problem if your startup doesn’t achieve lift-off. So, start by having all your startup A types in place so your young firm can achieve escape velocity.