Startup Execution

Game Changers vs. Players

In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in his quest to break the Enigma encoding machine used by the Nazis in World War II. About seven minutes into the movie, Turing arrives for a job interview at Bletchley Park with Commander Denniston from the British Royal Navy. Because of his quirkiness, Turing fails to convince the Commander of his qualifications, his vision or his plan. About nine minutes into the movie, the Commander decides to end the job interview, concluding that Turing was not qualified, having “set the record for the shortest job interview in British military history.” Fortunately for the Allied forces, Turing got the job anyway and created a machine that cracked the code — a machine that most historians recognize as the first computer ever built.

Sadly, many high-level job interviews fail to identify true talent and potential. Some fail because they lack process and structure (refer to my article on Interviewing Skills). Others fail because the interviewer doesn’t know how to evaluate the core skills that make people successful in their role. Some fail because they rely solely on the candidate’s past roles to evaluate fit, as if holding a position alone is the definition of skill. Some interviews appear to succeed because they resulted in a hired candidate who presented him or herself excellently, only to realize several months after the candidate starts that they hired someone with great polish but little substance — a heavyweight boxer blessed with Muhammad Ali’s silver tongue, but cursed with slow hands, lead feet and a glass jaw.

Preparation, Not Opportunity

Bobby Unser rightly observed that success is where preparation and opportunity meet. I’ve witnessed many people who were hired primarily based on the past opportunities presented to them or roles they played. Though experience in a specific role is certainly one consideration, it shouldn’t be the primary factor. Preparation is primarily the responsibility of the individual, but opportunities are usually given to you.

A well-prepared employee may be mired in a lesser job because the opportunities to shine were few and far between. For example, Tom Brady was second on the New England Patriots’ depth chart behind starter Drew Bledsoe and probably would have sat on the bench for years, as long as Bledsoe remained healthy. In his second season, Brady only got his chance to play when Bledsoe was injured in a game against the Jets. Similarly, Kurt Warner entered the NFL in 1994 as an undrafted free agent, got cut from the Packers’ training camp, and found himself stocking shelves at a grocery store for $5.50 an hour. Even after successful stints in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, Warner found himself as the third-string quarterback for the 1998 Los Angeles Rams, behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono. Warner was only named the starting quarterback for the 1999 season after Trent Green, the first string quarterback, tore his ACL in a preseason game. Warner was wildly successful, anchoring the Rams’ high-powered, “Greatest Show on Turf” offense that set an NFL record with three consecutive 500-point seasons.

I’ve also seen situations where a company offers a job to a product manager who claims he grew the product from $10M to $50M in revenue. While it may be factually true that the product grew substantially while the employee managed the product, little effort is usually made to determine the conditions surrounding that revenue growth. Did the product manager benefit from a market that was simply on fire, where every vendor’s revenue grew substantially during that time? In a bull market, every amateur investor realizes strong gains. As the old adage goes, “a rising tide floats all boats”. But can they do well in a bear market? Can they do it over a long period of time, or was it a single flash-in-the-pan? Many marginal employees appear successful because they were beneficiaries of great opportunities, not because of great preparation. Though past success is often the result of being in the right place at the right time, it is more important to hire candidates with great preparation and multi-dimensional skills.

In a past job, I was involved in the performance reviews of all the employees in the region. Steve and Jim (not their real names) were both project managers up for evaluation. The senior management initially concluded that Steve was the stronger project manager because his project had fewer customer complaints while Jim’s project needed constant management attention. I happened to be an architect for both projects so I saw first hand the quality of each person’s work. Steve lacked domain knowledge, was disorganized and failed to implement the recommended architecture. This resulted in a poorly performing application that completely embarrassed the customer in front of their users. The customer had every right to flame-broil the team, but that wasn’t their style — they were very mellow and didn’t skewer us. On the other hand, Jim was handed a project that was completely undersold. It was priced at $800K, but should have been priced at $2M. That combined with the fact that the customer was very unreasonable and combative made it look like Jim was a very poor project manager. The reality was that, if it wasn’t for Jim’s methodical, logical and measured approach, the project wouldn’t have finished at all and the customer probably would have sued us. It was work to help the senior management team understand that the simple appearances betrayed the actual skill of both Steve and Jim. Thankfully, this was made clear and Jim received the promotion that was about to be given to Steve.

Game Changers Wanted

If anything is to be learned from the rise and fall of great houses and kingdoms in HBO’s epic Game of Thrones, it’s that mad fighting skills can tilt the balance of power. The Hound, The Mountain, Tormund Giantsbane, Brienne of Tarth, Oberyn Martell, Jaqen H’gar, Syrio Forel and a dozen other “lesser” characters were all pivotal pieces on the chessboard. In your fast-paced startup, you need game changers and not just players.  Finding these game changers is not easy and often requires thinking outside the box.  Over the next several days, I’ll expand on this posting to address several things to focus on that fall outside the realm of a typical interview in order to find your set of game changing employees.


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