April 23, 2008

Bringing and keeping "startupians" in the big house

The battle to be the RIA platform of choice for developers, operators, and partners is heating up. Adobe is there, Microsoft is entering, and Java (my team) is there as well with Java FX and other technologies and solutions we'll be announcing at JavaOne and beyond. One of my most immediate opportunities is staffing. I need a small cadre of bad-ass folks to join my team as we go to RIA war. And I mean bad-ass folks. Hungry, wicked smart, motivated both by guerilla warfare and protracted campaigns. I've already got a great team on the ground, both in my group and in other supporting organizations, but we need more people like them and we need them now. Because of my background, I immediately think of recruiting "startup types". Now I've done my fair share of recruiting wicked smart people from larger companies, but it's great to get a healthy mix of backgrounds, degrees, and battle scars into your team. So how do I get "startupians" to join a larger company like Sun? I did it, was I insane? Clearly not, or so me thinks. This led to a lunch discussion with my wife, who is also a manager, on recruiting, and almost more importantly, retaining startup types in a large company. How do you retain insanely talented people who are used to working huge hours but receive a reasonable chunk of the proceeds (via options, etc.) for their labor? Especially if they now are in a larger organization where ownership and its rewards can't (by the laws of financial physics) be the metric of success? I came up with four rules to motivate people to come to and stay at a larger company. It's a starting point based on a few hours of thought. This topic got me motivated, and I'll probably get feedback from my friends who read this that will re-shape this post. These rules have probably been written in at least twelve thousand management books, but since I'm working so hard right now I don't have time to stop and read those books ;-) Rule #1: Burn as bright as they do You can't expect others to do what you won't do. If you want hunger, passion, and insane productivity, the candidate has to see it in you and your team. "A" people hire "A" people, and we all know an "A" person when we talk to them. I came to Sun frankly because my direct managers are the letter before "A". They are that fracking good. I knew they worked as hard as I do, are at least as smart as I was (in some cases way smarter (or was that smart-ass!)), and most importantly, they would teach me new tricks. A candidate coming to my team has to see my passion, and when they interview (with) my team, they should see the same characteristics that they believe they possess in the people around them. Startup is a word. Passion is tangible. Rule #2: Be the shock and awe More of a retention technique, but once word gets around that you exhibit this, it becomes a recruiting tool ;-) Nothing strikes the fear of Yahweh/God/Allah into enemy troops more than when a USAF B-52 on station decides to drop 70,000 pounds of ordnance on their position. You see the contrail of the plane above you, you know it is coming, but there is nothing you can do. You are f**ked. If you are busting your tail at work, acting with the passion and hunger of a motivated employee, and you run into a wall you can't get around, it is a really demotivating. You know what the right course of action is and verified that with others, but an organizational, personnel, or resource issue prevents you from moving at the speed of business. You're stuck and you don't know what to do. But if you have the right manager, you call for shock and awe. This is not a privilege to be abused, but used sparingly and with intent, it is incredibly motivating knowing that you work for someone who can rain 70,000 pounds of organizational firepower onto your problem, effectively eliminating it. Passionate, hungry employees don't like being stalled. They are like sharks; swim or die. Recruit and retain by letting your people know they will always have a clear path to their goals. Shock and awe in advanced form is where you clear the path for the employee and they don't know how you did it. No visible blast. The problem just goes away. ;-) Rule #3: Give them your land Feudal kings had a great tool in their arsenal. Land. Nothing creates loyalties faster than giving someone a destiny, save maybe a royal marriage (which was really about land anyway)?! The amazing thing about startups, especially early stage ones, is that when you are hired to perform a function, you own that function. And most of the associated functions within a six mile radius of the thing you were actually hired to do! You have the room and authority to strategize, execute, and deliver. Responsibility is a great recruiting tool. Hungry, passionate people want responsibility. They want the noose around their neck. Swim or die. Responsibility itself doesn't respond only to the word startup. Again, startup is just a word. If you hire fewer but smarter people to work for you, they by default have more responsibility (e.g. land) to own and grow into. Give your responsibility and authority to your directs and their directs, and let them feel the motivation and responsibility associated with big roles. Rule #4: Treat them like rock stars I'd rather pay ten people 150% of market rate who perform at 150% than pay fifteen people performing at 100% (or less). Personal preference. People pay to see rock stars, not sucky American Idol wanna-be's. And in return, rock stars get treated like, well, rock stars. Passionate employees should never think about their comp. As a recruit, you negotiate for a good rate, then should have faith that your comp will grow as you prove that your vito was not just a piece of paper with laser-burnt ink on it. High performers (HiPo) know they are paid better than everyone in the building, and know that if they want more, they have to keep their game at 150% and take it to the next level. Comp is another word that shouldn't respond to the word startup. Startups use options. Big companies can use cash, bonuses, and other perks. Nothing says you are star, as an example, more than it being said to everyone by your boss. It's another perk of "A" people hiring "A" people. "A" people like being told they are "A", and level set their performance by the calibre of people around them. An "A" is an "A" when you compete with other "A" types to get it. When you work until 2am for weeks straight to nail a project when others were blissfully sleeping under their down comforters, you'd like a little something extra to recognize your hunger and passion. Again, recruiting and retaining is much easier when people just know they are being taken care of without having to stop (e.g. die) to deal with it. Another way to say it: Rock stars can toil under a big label or a small indie outfit, either way they want to feel like a rock star if all they sing are Top 10 hits! As I start to recruit for and expand my team here, I've got to make sure all four laws of recruiting and retention are in full effect...
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