The single most important question a founder can ask a potential employee

founder-questions-759x500By Phillip Bogdanovich

“What questions should a founder ask during an interview?”

Over time, founders become adept at asking the questions that are meaningful to them. They become quick to separate interview candidates that are capable of making an impact versus those who are not. What often remains difficult is selecting for a candidate that not only aligns with company culture but also company values. More often than not when a candidate is a bad fit it’s either a culture problem or a misalignment of values. This is especially true in talent rich markets – such as the Bay Area, Austin Texas, Hong Kong, and Beijing – where finding talent that is not just capable but gifted is inevitable.

“All of us or none of us. What does that phrase mean to you?”

The answer provides great insight into what’s important to a prospective employee and how they prioritize team mechanics. I’m interested in hiring people that embody the idea of “team” and “teamwork”. I hire teammates, not co-workers. The success of the team is first; if we all succeed together, we also succeed individually. We all win or lose together. Supporting the efforts of every person in a startup is critical to success. Startups – especially early stage – are a marathon and surviving means not burning out.

“Separate culture from personal values.” 

Often the two are commingled or even confused but they are not one in the same. In a business context, culture describes a company’s soul; how teammates interact both within specific disciplines and also within the company as a whole.

Values on the other hand are personal. They describe how someone feels about a particular thing or set of things and how those feelings impact decision-making. Values are a contributing factor to cultural development, especially in startups.

However they are only a component, not the entire embodiment.

“Aligning with culture does not mean aligning with a value set.” 

It is possible – and in some roles probable –  that there will be a misalignment of culture and values. Having an employee who likes to be positive, gives thoughtful feedback and is inclusive is great; necessary even. What is also required is an employee who is willing to work long hours on a weekend to meet a deadline. In early-stage companies, it is often necessary to prioritize the success of the company and meet tight deadlines over personal comfort. This is a question of values. Does a prospective employee value success over personal desires, such that they will do what is necessary to best ensure the success of the company?

“Aligning with values does not mean aligning with culture.”

A driven employee is great but that only goes so far. Working long hours and having to be flexible with priorities can often lead to high-stress team dynamics. If a person is super likable but refuses to occasionally work extra hours to complete critical tasks, their value is severely limited. Conversely, if someone is willing to sacrifice everything for the company, sleeps at the office, and carries the company but everyone hates them, their value is extremely limited long term. Essentially, if someone is really likable with a bad work ethic or has a great work ethic but everyone hates them – they ultimately are not an asset for culture development.

“Being aligned with company culture and values creates the best possible environment for universal success.” 

The life someone wants to live outside of a company in some way requires funding. Also, an enjoyable personal life requires manageable net stress levels. A failed company requires the entire team to find new employment, which limits cash flow and creates stress that permeates the personal lives of employees. The most effective way to ensure long-term comfort is to minimize the potential for loss which entails ensuring the company’s success; aligning with values and culture best ensures long term success. Long-term success best guarantees comfort.

“In warfare, if you concern yourself with the welfare of the man to the left and to the right, everyone is covered.”

Only being concerned with the interest of oneself leads to exposure and higher risk. This ideology is also applicable to startup environments because they are high risk and teams are often small and highly skilled. Ensuring that the whole team is capable of performing at a high level and understanding the fundamentals of everyone’s job – and how to support it – is crucial. Always look for a teammate to help and be aware of roadblocks that teams and individuals face. Choose to not only assist when possible but empower each teammate to perform at a peak level. At the end of the day, survival is not the result of isolated, individual achievement. We survive or die together; all of us or none of us.



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