Learn what ‘great’ looks like

Learn what ‘great’ looks like

There is a common saying: our perspective is limited by the best we’ve ever seen (up close). Vocap Partner Mike Becker got a reminder of this concept on the golf practice range recently. He noticed the guy next to him hitting one beautiful swing after another, intentionally dropping balls into divots and still shaping each shot exactly the way he wanted. Mike thought: this guy is unbelievable; he must be on the PGA Tour. Turns out he’d been struggling on the Florida Sunshine Tour for years and was considering dropping out. His swing wasn’t holding up under tour conditions and he couldn’t hit key pressure putts. What appeared great to Mike based on his untrained eye was well below average for a touring professional.

If you’ve built a company to significant scale before, you’ve likely experienced this in your business career over time: candidate or employee X looks like a superstar to you initially. You think - this person must represent the pinnacle of their job title. Then, at some point down the line, you were exposed to more people in that role and became aware person X isn’t as great as you thought. It’s not that person X was bad or even mediocre, it’s just that more exposure opened your eyes to what truly world class looks like. You develop a new standard for an exceptional leader/manager in that role.

Founders should internalize this concept, especially those who have less experience growing companies to significant scale. Always check yourself on whether you really know what world class looks like. How does a world-class sales leader build and drive execution on her team? How do top product leaders stay on top of market needs and consistently deliver solutions that beat the competition? How do great COOs and CFOs integrate the functional areas and leverage metrics and data to help the overall company drive strong execution? In short, how do you know when you have ‘great’ talent on your team or in your candidate funnel?

First, start with your mentality. The most successful entrepreneurs assume the best they’ve seen is somewhere short of world class, true or not. This attitude does a few things:

The most successful entrepreneurs assume the best they’ve seen is somewhere short of world class, true or not.
  • It keeps you hungry for better and better players to coach your current players or to upgrade talent on your team.
  • It forces greater appreciation for what world class talent can bring. Think back to the golf example: if that player dominates the field locally, imagine what a PGA tour pro would do.
  • See more in the upgrading and upfilling section

A quick word of caution: don’t let this mentality shift become paralyzing. You have to hire the best person you can attract at that time.

Here are a few other practical suggestions for how to identify ‘great’ talent if you don’t have direct experience to guide you:

  • Look at your heros’ heros: think about the people you like and admire most. Who do they look up to and learn from? What do they do differently? Ask them!
  • Lean on advisors: you likely have advisors, investors or peers around you who have worked with some world-class executives in a given functional area. Seek their input as you define ‘greatness’ for the role. Whenever possible, include them in your screening and interview processes to help you separate the wheat from the chafe.
  • Dig into past experience: as you interview new candidates or consider current employees’ readiness for their next role, use their past experience as your best predictor of future success. Has this individual previously led or at least helped manage their functional area through the type of growth you are targeting? If not, do they have an insatiable curiosity and demonstrated track record of success in new initiatives they have taken on? For new candidates, dig into team structure and circumstances of past roles to get past the ‘we’ and into the ‘I’. What was the candidate’s specific contributions? Is it clear he/she was the talent driving the outcomes or were others propping them up?
  • Keep stage relevant: you are looking for ‘great at your stage’. Elissa Murphy may not leave Google and become your next VP of Engineering. She may not even be the right fit for where you are as a company. Seek talent with a track record and interest in driving results at your stage. Don’t worry too much if they are the right fit in 2-3 years when you’ve tripled in size. Can they drive great outcomes now?