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Startup hiring mindset: Family v. Sports team

“Family” is a commonly used comparison for early-stage founders and organization leaders when referring to their teams. The term is endearing and fosters a sense of closeness that develops from enduring the many trials that early-stage teams face together. On the other hand, this view can also easily set founders and leaders up for behaviors that might lead to failure. In a recent webinar on “Hire right, hire better, hire the best”, AVV Investment Manager Sohun Bae, reiterates an alternative mindset of treating a startup team more like a sports team, an idea made popular by Netflix. Sohun explains that while families are built on the concept of unconditional love, sports teams are organized and created to win championships. This fundamental difference naturally leads to performance-oriented behaviors and decision-making that leads the team to realize its full potential.

Continuing the analogy, for top-performing sports teams in competitive leagues, beyond game-day performance, the most important factor that drives success is talent acquisition. To optimize performance, sports teams swap out weaker players for stronger players, both within their contracted roster and by acquiring outside talent through annual drafts and trades with competitors. Furthermore, they also swap out coaches and managers. As team and competitive dynamics change, the sensibilities of the coaches and managers must also change. Today’s coach/manager is not necessarily the best for next year’s championship team.

Likewise, hiring is the most important function of a startup’s People team. The ability to bring on the right people has exponential benefits. To start, talent acquisition can solve most organizational challenges. With the right hires, an organization can perform in spite of persistent growth pains commonly found in early-stage companies. Sohun highlights additional benefits of hiring the right people such as quicker onboarding, efficient use of training resources, and easier (less costly) retention. Conversely, the cost of change for bad hires, both time and money, can be a drag on the organization and make bad problems even worse. Another important point shared is that hiring, from sourcing and JD drafting to interviewing and calibration, is the job of *BOTH* HR and leaders and managers. Organizational leaders can easily be the magnets that attract great talent, and it’s important to use them effectively.

An intrinsic benefit of the sports team mindset is the ability to make the hard but right decisions for the organization’s growth. These decisions may include quickly cutting underperforming players or top performers who are contentious within the team and cause discord. To hire better, teams must remove low performers. The “hire slow, fire fast” mantra is followed by strong leaders because of the opportunity cost that bad hires have on the organization. Sohun points out that keeping a low performer in the organization is unfair to them because it deprives them of an environment where they could thrive and the stimuli required to do so. Similarly, It is unfair to the organization because the would-be vacant role could be filled by an individual who may have higher motivation, better role fit, and can help uplevel others. Difficult decisions made at the right time can prevent lose-lose situations that cause both the organization and candidates to suffer.

Beyond having exceptional talent, competitive sports teams build structured processes to objectively evaluate the qualifications and potential of each candidate. A structured interview process with trained interviewers who understand what the organization/role needs, how to assess candidates, and how to make objective decisions will usually generate better results in talent acquisition. For example, on processes, teams can develop a list of suggested questions that interviewers could leverage – the goal is not to ask the same set of questions across all candidates but rather to give interviewers a resource they could use to determine how to assess specific skills, capabilities or culture fit. Interview training is also needed because untrained interviewers can corrupt an extremely well-designed process. Interviewers that are unaware of their biases can easily prevent the company from making the best hiring decisions.


If the sports team mindset resonates with you, check out the full webinar ft. Sohun here to learn how to apply it in your startup’s hiring process – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ3CfBj0JUQ.

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