How To Build A Team And Not A Random Group Of People

Building a strong team to get things done is one of the key responsibilities of every manager. And curiously enough, very few are actually doing it. I encourage you to look around, and even consider how you build your teams, and chances are that you focus on hiring bunch of people who will work together as a group, but not a team. Team, in my definition, is a several people who work together for common goal, who have the same core values, rely on each other and complement each other strengths. The last aspect is the most often overlooked.

Imagine you are setting up a brand new office. You have several key functions to hire. You need an HR person, you need an accountant, an office admin, you need a recruiter, you need someone to handle contracts, you need someone to maintain facilities, sit at reception, interact with external world of vendors and suppliers, etc.

How do you build this team? Depends on how your organization works, chances are that each department will want to have a representative they will hire who will be expert at her specific function. This sounds great. Each department brings on board the best expert they can find. You hire excellent accountant, great recruiter, perfect office admin, the best HR person around… and things are constantly broken.

What happened? You didn’t take into account whether these rock stars would work together and more importantly you have no redundancy build in. If your accountant goes on vacations any finance related topics are put on hold, if your recruiter gets sick you stop hiring people. So how you deal with this? By following couple of basic rules in the recruitment process when building the team:

  • Hire for strengths
  • Hire for gaps
  • Hire for cultural fit
  • Hire the right, not the best, person
  • Hire by committee

Hire for strengths

There are different ways how to interview and hire. One approach is to look for weaknesses and consistently weed out anyone who shows weakness in any of the traits and skills required for the job. This sounds reasonable until you realize that you focus on getting a mediocre person who is “sort of ok” in all the aspects but may not have any discernible strength. He will do the job somehow but won’t bring anything that would get the team to the next level.

Another approach is to hire for strengths. Identify couple (not many) of critical skills where you really need a rock star and hire for these and be willing to overlook some of the weaknesses. As long as they are not critical to the success of the team, or as long as the rest of the team can compensate. For example, you may decide that the most important skill you are looking for in a recruiter is ability to dig out the rare talent and obscure technologies your team requires. So that is where you focus and the fact that he may not be able to close the candidate won’t bother you as you will handle it by another person on the team who is a great salesman.

Hire for gaps

With the approach described above you will hire a great talented person who may have some weaknesses. That means you need to compensate by someone else. Your next hire needs to fill the skill gap caused by overlooking weaknesses of other people on the team. And not only you need to hire for gaps, you need to ensure you build in some redundancy and resistance into do team. In our case with hiring a stellar recruiter, or rather a sourcer and data wizard who knows the job market inside and out, we know that another person on the team needs to be strong at giving out offer and selling the position to the candidate so he joins the team. This might be the manager, but could easily be the HR person or whoever else on the team with the right personality and drive.

And not just this, each person should have a primary strength and a secondary utilization. What happens if your recruiter goes on vacations? You need to keep the ball rolling. You may not have another super star but there needs to be someone competent enough on the team to pick up the ball and keep running. What about having it a part of the office admin job to keep up to date with the job market and be able to step in every now and then to help? If you cover this way every single function and skill in your group you are in a great shape and you build pretty robust team.

Hire for cultural fit

Of course, with this approach you are not hiring silos. You are hiring people who by definition will have to rely on each other a lot. And that means the right “chemistry”, the same core values and view of the world needs to be there. Each individual needs to understand what her strengths and weaknesses are and be comfortable reaching out to the rest of the team for help when needed.

It is easier to say this than to do it. In fact, for many jobs you will keep refusing really great and qualified people only because they don’t fit the team. It is very difficult to do as the pressure of the business is to hire as soon as possible but it is worth the wait. The cost of hiring wrong cultural fit is huge. Even a single person who won’t fit the team will spoil the atmosphere, change the dynamics in a negative way and ultimately lead to suboptimal performance.

Hire the right, not the best, person

There is a strong tendency to fall in love with people similar to us, there is a strong desire to hire the best of the best, and there is a big danger of the Halo effect (to make decisions based on first impression). Just imagine you are building a small start-up and looking for a team lead. Two people show on the interview. One is a very hands-on guy who spent couple of years at another start-up and let a team of three people and a more senior guy who came from a bigger company where he led hundreds of people.

Who do you hire? I’m not providing the answer here, since it really depends on what you need. However, it is important to make a conscious decision on what type of person you want to hire. Who do you need today? Who will you need in a year time? Do you need to hire for your today’s need? Or are you at stage that you just started a hyper growth and you need to scale, thus to hire someone for tomorrow who will scale? That is what I mean by hiring the right person for your particular circumstances and not the best person on the market who may not fit your actual needs regardless how good she is.

Hire by committee

The most important aspect of this to work is not to make any decision unilaterally. You are a manager so you are probably tempted to make the final decision whether to hire or not to hire but I would urge you not to succumb to this temptation. In fact, I would even ask you to do the complete opposite and let the team decide whether they want to hire the candidate or not. Two rules to follow here.

First, anyone should have a right to veto. If someone on the team is strongly against the candidate it means automatically no hire, regardless whether you or the rest of the team liked the person.

And second, there should be at least one person on the team who is really enthusiastic about the candidate. If everyone says “eh, he is sort of ok,” it means yet again no hire decision since clearly the candidate doesn’t bring anything to get the team to the next level. Another way how to judge whether someone will bring something new to the team is to ask the current team members if they can name one skill or characteristics in which the candidate is better than they are. Assuming you don’t have defunct team who is able to do a good retrospective, they should be able to name a few.


How do you ensure you build a cohesive team that works well together? How do you grow your people? Do you focus on their weaknesses trying or rather substitute a weakness in one person by strength provided by someone else?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

How To Hire A Winning Team

Lean and mean. That’s how you could describe a winning team that is passionate about the work and has the skills and attitude to get things done. Specifically in software development you are looking at a team that will be able to build a product that is easy to maintain, easy to support, easy to install, easy to use, and brings an obvious value to the customers so they have no choice but to fall in love with it. You want a team that has good technical insights but who won’t get distracted by doing something “cool” on the expense of building product that brings value to customers.

It all starts with recruitment

I have talked already about why attitude is important in Effort And Attitude Beats Talent And Knowledge and I talked about the importance of everyone in the team putting their share of effort in finding the right candidates Everyone Is A Recruiter. I haven’t spent much time yet on how the decision to hire someone should be made.

Interviewing as a critical skill

Interviewing can be sometimes seen as a necessary evil. In some organizations it is seen as a distraction from the core business, hiring managers are too busy to participate or work with the recruiter in timely manner, and sometimes it is being outsourced to HR team completely.

That is a wrong approach. If you want to build great products you need great people. If you want to have great people you need to get them somewhere and ensure that they really are great. Why would anyone want to let others make such important decision for him? Interviewing is simply the most critical task you can do and the most valuable skill you can develop. And it doesn’t really matter if you are a manager or an individual contributor. Being able to find the right members of your team will drive your long-term success and job satisfaction. The priorities we live by in my teams were always very clear: first comes the customer, then the candidate, then the rest of my job.

Over my career I have interviewed hundreds of people for positions from a developer or tester, across designers, project managers or directors. Most of them were engineering types but I always gladly stepped in when asked to interview people and give my opinion even on roles in other departments such as technical support, human resources, finance, or sales. Making sure that we get the right people to the company, regardless whether they report to me or not, is so important that I will always find the time. And as a side effect being constantly involved helps me to exercise my interviewing muscle and helps me understand how rest of the company works.

Don’t hire copies

Your recruitment process and hiring decisions should be as unbiased as possible. You shouldn’t discriminate against any age, race, gender, religion, and other attributes not related directly to the job requirements. It is not just a legal requirements in many countries but also a good business practice and simply the right thing to do. Having a good set of forms to fill to assess all candidates against the same criteria may sound like “big company thinking” but it will pay off regardless of the business side. The overhead is minimal and it ensures consistency, especially when you have multiple people as part of the interview team and you rotate them often. It will also push everyone to take the interviews seriously, make notes and hire based on data rather than feelings.

Having couple of interview rounds with different people is a must. Having the candidate do some practical tests to assess her cognitive abilities and the hard skills needed for the job is always a good idea. It might be also a good idea to have a clear guidelines on what does it take to be successful on your team and have a specific questions or tests to focus on core values and attitudes.

I was often part of discussions within the panel of interviewers that was very passionate and where “the company fit” was a big issue. It is one of the critical component when evaluating the candidate. It is not just about the hard skills that are usually easy to measure but also about whether this great guy is actually a great fit for your team. At the other hand there is always a danger that you will hire someone who looks like your copy. For this reason you should ensure that during the interview process the candidate speaks with people who have different background, different skills and styles of work. Then you will make sure that you hire team that is diverse enough to expand their view and don’t get stuck in some narrow thinking.

What I like to do every now and then is to look at the qualities of the team already on board and try to find what skills and more importantly what characters are missing. I’m a big believer in well balanced teams and that means you need to have good coverage and redundancy in all the skills and styles of work. For example, if you have a management team where everyone is driven by numbers and hard facts it may be a good idea to put in someone who will take care of the more human side of the discussion. If you have a team where everyone is always trying to get consensus and it slows down business just put in someone who is not afraid to pound your fist on the table and decide. Yes, it will most likely disturb the status quo, but honestly, that’s what you need when you want to build great team. Great teams are made of great people with strong opinions and a character.

It is a numbers game but emotions are important

That being said, you are not a robot and you don’t want to make a decision only based on some scores, formulas and automated systems. The human factor in the final decision really is a key. You need to ensure you have the right people as part of the interview process. People, who are passionate about interviewing and who love the search for the next team mate. People, who understand that on a small team everybody counts and must contribute or the team dies and who will ensure that they are hiring only the best. People, who are willing to hire others who are better than the current team. I always like to ask myself after the interview “is there something I could actually learn from this candidate?” If I cannot find anything I’m really hesitant to raise my hand and vote for the person.

So let’s say you had five people interviewing a particular candidate. They all shared their notes, you have all the data, and the time for a decision has come. I would suggest you ask each of the interviewers to rate the candidate on a scale one to four:

  1. I love this guy and will fight for him
  2. He is ok and I will not stand in the way
  3. I don’t think so, you better have a really good reason why to hire him
  4. Over my dead body

There needs to be at least one person who strongly believes in the candidate. If no one is willing to put their reputation at stake you don’t want to hire the person. If all people say 2) or 3) then you would hire a sort of ok guy who would do sort of ok job but who would not help to build a top notch team and create amazing products. And if someone says 4) then it is an end of game for that particular candidate. You don’t want to bring to the organization someone who will have internal enemies from day one.

So next time you start building a new team think twice who will do the interviewing and make sure you dedicate enough of your time to such an important task.


Is the hiring process and interviewing important in your company? How much attention it gets? Do you have some tips and tricks on how to make the right decisions about candidates?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Hire For Strengths, Not Lack Of Weaknesses

I really like to quote from Ben Horowitz “Hire for strength, not lack of weakness”. I have seen it many times in my professional life as a manager that people who were seen as unobjectionable by the hiring team didn’t do as well on the job as people who polarized the team but who had some real strength that was needed by the organization.

He was “just fine”…

If you have a stable business and want to keep status quo and not rock the boat, I can imagine to hire someone who is just fine and doesn’t have any significant weaknesses can be a good move. However, what if he doesn’t have also any discernable strengths?

Would you hire such a guy when you expect a hyper growth? When you need to make significant changes or flexibly react to the business needs? For these situations the unobjectionable guy may not be the one you are looking for. I see it quite often when the hiring team comes back from the interview and says something like “yeah, this guy is sort of ok,” or my favorite “he is normal, I don’t have any objections to hire him.”

Anyone to stand up for this guy?

What is wrong with that picture? There is no enthusiasm on the team to get the guy on board. For positions that need to hire someone with specific strength like “great communication skills,” or “someone proactive who will drive the project,” or “someone flexible who won’t buckle under stress,” you need to ask the team a very simple question, “Is there someone who is excited by this guy and will stand up for him?” If there is no response, no enthusiasm, then he probably isn’t the person who will help you to get the organization to the next level.

What are the must haves?

So what is the alternative? Don’t try to hire people who are good (or equally bad) at everything. Identify couple of key characteristics and behavioral patterns you need from that particular role and things that are nice to have but at the end the person doesn’t really need to excel at them.

Then after the interview judge the candidate against these criteria. And not just that ask the hiring team to talk about the biggest strengths the person has. Why is he a great new asset to the team? What does he bring that will help the organization to get to new heights?

What can you live with?

What to do with potential weaknesses this person might have? Again, make sure you identify these and discuss with team whether these are the things you can live with and/or whether these can be quickly improved by training, coaching and mentoring. Especially on the technical side there are few things that cannot be improved over time by providing good training. You should be more careful on the behavioral side as when someone is a jerk he will stay a jerk regarding what you do and significant issues in person’s character can turn into a problem that will derail the efforts of the whole team.

Next time you talk to a candidate don’t forget to identify his key strengths and values he would bring to the organization. If you cannot find any and find yourself talking to a mediocre robot you may want to continue your search.

How do you hire? Do you focus on getting someone who seems to be a perfect in all the aspects or are you willing to overlook some of the weaknesses and hire someone just for one strength that you need?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Interview Question You Should Never Ask?

I’m a big fan of Liz Ryan and her writings on the topics of HR and recruitment. I find it usually very insightful and thought provoking. I just finished reading her blog post “Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?” and it was so much though provoking that it provoked me to write an answer. If you haven’t read it check first what Liz wrote and then come back. I would maintain that asking questions like “Where do you see yourself in five years?” is not that lame as it may seem.

There are no lame questions

Any question is legitimate as long as you understand the reason you are asking it. Yes, I agree with Liz that if you got a list of your questions from your manager or HR department and you go one by one without really knowing why you are asking them then you are wasting your time as well as the time of the candidate. But if the question you ask brings you something you are looking for than it is legitimate to ask it.

It is important to have a vision

Liz claims that in today’s fast paced and ever changing world you cannot predict what will be in five years and she is of course right. In my mind that is exactly the reason why you should have a vision. You should know where you want to be in five years otherwise you will be swept off course. If you would ask me ten years ago when I finished university where I want to be in five years I would tell you that I want to be a developer and in long-term a manager. As it turned out I got the opportunity about a year after I would make that statement. So what? Things didn’t go exactly as I planned but since I had a long-term vision I was at least able to make decisions that guided me in the direction I wanted to go. If you ask me today I will keep my answer probably more fuzzy and at the values level. “In five years I want to be still in a leadership position, building something great for better of humanity and developing people around me.”

What answers you want to hear

So what do you want to hear when asking the “where do you want to be in five years” question? This obviously depends on what traits you need the employee to exhibit.

  • Sitting in your chair
  • Be the go-to-guy for technical stuff
  • Having an ice-cream business
  • Doing something new and exciting

Pretty much anything except of “I don’t know”. Keep in mind that you are asking about desires not about what will be. Things may of course turn for that individual in very different way. Obviously, this is not a question that tells you everything you want to know about the guy and chances are that quite often you will hear not what the guy wants but rather what he believes you want to hear… well, his loss.

I don’t claim here that this sort of questions are the best way to find out whether someone has the right fit and attitude that you need. For that you may want to look more at behavioral type of interviewing with questions targeted on actual situations and the way the candidate handled them. Chances are that if he or she consistently showed certain way how to deal with problems in the past they will do the same on your team in the future. Just to give you an example of such questions: “Tell me about a time in your life when you had to deal with unexpected emergency,” or “Describe me a situation when you were asked to do something outside of your scope of responsibility.” And then dig deeper into these. The key here is not to present hypothetical scenarios where the person with at least a bit of smarts can deduce the right answer but rather seek what exactly this person did in the situations he may encounter in your organization, what his believes and values are and why he is acting in a certain way. Remember, everyone is good for something. So you are not trying to see if someone is good or bad, but rather whether he is good or bad fit for your team.

Employment for life

Liz is also questioning the morality of employer to ask the question about “five years” when he may not be able to guarantee a job even for five months. But that is not the point. If I know that your dream job is to sell ice cream and you are interviewing for a position of accountant I obviously cannot guarantee you that in five years at our company you will have an ice cream stand. But I can give you a chance to learn some of the skills you will need to be successful at your dream job. I can be also very upfront with you in case I see that there is nothing I can teach you to help you get closer to your envisioned job.

It is important that not only I screen the candidates for fit with my organization but also the other way around. They need to understand whether they want to work for someone like myself in this type of organization. So my favorite question to ask about person’s long-term career plans would be: “What is the mission of your professional life?” It is a question that goes down to your core values and by answering it honestly, at least for yourself if not for me, you get a feel whether the job is right for you or not.

So the next time you do interviews with candidates feel free to ask any career related and politically correct question as long as you understand why you are asking it and what will you do with the answer.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe that asking this question is a waste of time or would you ask it yourself?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.