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Startup fatal mistakes 101: hiring people who don’t match your values

Jul 30, 2018 | Posted by Cristina in Newsletters

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“I don’t think there’s an easier or more tempting mistake to make than to hire someone who has great ability or a great track record of performance with the recognition that while they’re not a match with the current values and culture of the company, over time you believe you can bring them into alignment.”

I was reading this a few days ago, in Rand Fishkin’s new book, and the voice inside my head was screaming: YES! YES! PREACH!

I made this mistake before. Unfortunately, more than once, and I’m probably bound to repeat it.

Almost a decade ago, in my first year as a journalism student, I was running a music blog that I founded together with Bobby. I was driven by the need to prove my peers and university teachers that they’re wrong and you can successfully build from scratch a project with entertainment news, without using any of the common manipulative practices.

In other words: I rejected any hint of gossip information, clickbait, celebrities that lack moral values, scandalous photos, SEO tactics, and so on. Instead, I focused on deep research and putting every piece of news into a context, so that music fans have a nuanced and full, accurate story of what’s going on and why that’s relevant in the bigger picture of the music and entertainment industry.

That project attracted a huge and loyal community, and exceeded any imaginable success. Despite that, we didn’t know how to make money with it so, right when the global financial crisis was about to hit, we decided to sell it. Out of the four offers we received over the first half of 2008, we accepted the one from the person we knew had the power and means to monetize it best, while also promising to keep the same values as guidelines.

We sold it and, from the initial team, I was the only member who remained involved, in order to keep the project growing. I was a twenty-something dreamer who knew how to grow and nurture an online community through quality music content, and got thrown overnight in a role that involved scaling, hiring and managing a team of 10+ people. I had no ‘traditional’ work experience, no idea how to hire or what personality traits to look for, nor did I have anyone mentoring me on how to do that (back then I wasn’t even emotionally intelligent enough to ask for help).

Today, almost 10 years later, I can clearly see that my personal values were the ones that helped the project grow in the first place and attract other like-minded readers. An insatiable curiosity, work ethic, transparency, repulsion for conflict, gossip or other politics, and a disobedience of the status quo. Unfortunately, I made the mistake to hire people who seemed competent for the jobs, came with high recommendations from others working in the industry, but mismatched those values.

Here’s a painful example, that I still regret. One of the editors I hired loved to play manipulative office politics – something polar opposite of what I was trying to build. He was always self-victimizing, complaining to others about how much I force him to work, while he was actually watching Gossip Girl episodes during work (true story – some weekends he was even surreptitiously coming to the office to do that!). When I wasn’t in the office, he was telling other members of the team little lies, such as task assignments that supposedly came from me, or how I let him in charge to manage them. He was inventing all sorts of health or personal problems as excuses to delay doing his job.

I fired him too late, and found out about most of his shenanigans afterwards. Someone accidentally mentioned one of those little lies in a casual conversation… I had a light bulb moment and started to question the rest of the team, put all the pieces of puzzle together. When I asked them why they didn’t come tell me earlier, they said they presumed I knew, or that I was favoring him. It affected how they work as well, as they also started to play office politics or come with little, apparently harmless lies. It only takes one rotten apple to ruin everyone else, and the effects far outlast their physical presence!

To this day, I regret firing him so late. It’s another weakness I’m aware of: I’m too empathic and unable to fire people as soon as I realize they’re not the right match. My confident and arrogant personality falsely believes that nothing is impossible and I can change people, “fix” them, help them see things the same way as I do.

For every employee that didn’t match my values (or the values of the company I founded), I wondered every day and every night if perhaps I’m actually the problem or I’m just plain crazy. I questioned what I’m doing wrong and what I can experiment differently. And oh boy, I can really persist in the thought that it’s solely my fault, since those folks are obviously competent and praised by so many others! Ultimately, I realize it’s futile (still need to work on becoming aware of this sooner, though).

Trying to fix employees with mismatched values is a waste of time and energy, and it takes your focus off from the things that only you, as a founder, are able to do. On the long term, it can – and will – damage your startup irremediably. You might find it hard to hold on to your values, especially when you’re in an early fragile state, struggling to survive. You might even come to believe that these values keep you from making financially beneficial decision. However, when you zoom out and tune into a long-term perspective, you’ll realize that your core values are those that will help you attract like-minded people are really make a difference.

I recently talked to Liam Martin, a Canada-based entrepreneur, co-founder and CMO of two successful businesses with 80+ employees spread across 27 countries. I was curios to learn more about the most common reasons for firing remote workers (The CEO Library is fully remote), but Liam’s advice applies to all kinds of companies, not only distributed ones.

Liam explains the four major categories that he puts employees into:

1. Those who got the right culture fit and they’re doing their job well – those are the people that you keep and give them more responsibility.

2. Those who are connected positively to their culture, but they’re not executing inside their position – those are the people that you try to move to another position.

3. Those who aren’t connecting with their culture and aren’t very successful in their position. This one’s the easiest decision, you just need to get them out of the company asap.

4. Those who are doing high quality work, but they don’t meet the culture. This one’s the most difficult category. Liam describes them as “cultural cancer inside of the business” and you need to get them out immediately.

So, how do you avoid this problem from the first place? It all goes down to the recruiting level. You need to screen this into your interview and onboarding processes. Just because someone demonstrated they have the crucial skills and knowledge that you need to advance in your startup experience, it doesn’t mean you should hire them.

Don’t keep people past the moment you realize they aren’t right just because someone is delivering good work and seems unreplaceable – are they ever? Letting cultural mismatch and values conflict slide will backfire on the long term, and the damage could be fatal.

Next time you’re wondering if you should hire someone who’s highly competent but you’re afraid doesn’t match your values, remember Liam’s words: “it’s cultural cancer inside of the business“. If someone lacks the competence and has a steep learning curve ahead, be patient and train them.

P.S. If you have any similar stories or experience, with hiring folks who aren’t a right fit for your company’s values and culture, I’d love to know more about it. And, who knows, perhaps even make it public and turn it an interview? Your story could be helpful and inspiring to other founders. 🙂

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