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A Recipe for Failure: Big Egos and Mediocre Talent

A lot has been written about how big egos are one of the most harmful aspects in teams and companies. Typically, people associate big egos with individualisms, selfishness and all sorts of other elements of not team players. In my experience, the truth is a little more complicated than that.

While I agree that big egos can almost always be somewhat harmful to team dynamics, I think they can be used as a catalyzer for many aspects of the team if they are backed by the right level of talent and accomplishment. On the other hand, I’ve always find that the most harmful and vicious type of big-egos are the ones coming from mediocrely talented and not accomplished people.

My reasoning here is very simple: For the most part, talented and accomplished people have high aspirations and don’t get let their egos get on the way of small things that might impede them to accomplish great things (that can in turn bust their egos even more J ). Under the right conditions, highly talented folks can use their egos as a motivator and drive the rest of the team with them.

Contrary to this group, you will often encounter people that are not very talented, haven’t built or accomplished anything worth talking about in life but still manage to nurture a big ego related to some minor achievements that, sometimes, are relevant to people that share their same limited vision of the world. I find these types of people the most harmful in a team environment. As anyone with big egos, the mediocrely-talented folks would love to be successful and accomplished but lack the talent or vision to do achieve that by themselves and also the character to rely on more talented people to lead them. Instead, mediocrely-talented people operate in a sort of small distortion field and always try to drive attention to themselves related to not important things.

If you are working on a team environment, you are likely to easy identity the mediocrely-talented people with big egos. They are the ones arguing about the non-important things and constantly highlighting how hard they are working on that problem that nobody cares about. They are the people that think that everyone else around them is an idiot but still can’t manage to deliver anything great and always have someone else to blame for their failures (most likely the rest of the team). I’ve certainly encountered a few of those in my professional career and so have you.

Whether you are building a business or delivering a great project that you care about, my advice would be to, without hesitation, get rid of the mediocrely-talented big egos around you. They will only cause harm and, like any other mediocre soul, they will always find pleasure working on some other non-important thing that they can take all the credit for.

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Leading a Self-Managing Team

Last week one of our top engineers approached me directly to talk about his performance on a new product we are days away from announcing (here is my Tellago Studios plug ;)). Apparently, he had noticed that we were been driving extremely hard to make our launch date and he was concerned that he had been regularly missing some of the deadlines assigned to him. More importantly, while being very critical about his performance he presented a very comprehensive plan about how to improve the quality of his deliverables.

 

As a CEO, you can’t avoid but feel proud when you see that level of self-criticism and honesty coming from your team. This is even more remarkable considering that we have a lot of flexibility in terms of our deadlines. Even though we have a set launch date and we are operating on weekly iterations with well-defined deliverable, we have the flexibility of pushing some deliverable to future iterations without affecting the overall execution of the product.

After adding a few suggestions, I approved the plan my engineer presented and gave him complete control over the decisions related to that area of the product. I literally asked him to become the CEO of that part of the product. The entire conversation didn’t last longer than 10 minutes and I am already seeing the improvements in our execution model. The reason I was so conformable making that decision is because, long time ago, I realized that these group of engineers worked so well together that didn’t need any level of management: they are a self-managing team. Regardless of the level of talent we pride ourselves to bring in Tellago Studios, I haven’t been able to build a self-managing team until we assembled the team for this specific product.

During the 1992 Olympics, legendary coach Chuck Daly told the members of the USA Basketball Dream Team, that he was intending to go through the tournament schedule without calling a single time-out. Think about it, regardless of the superior talent of “The Dream Team” you could almost be certain that they will face unforeseen situations during specific games that will force the coach to call a timeout to make the necessary adjustments. After all, no other Dream Team has been able to do this despite their superior basketball talent. The reason Chuck Daly was able to lead the Dream Team all the way to the gold medal without calling a single time out wasn’t only because of their remarkable basketball skills, but rather because they were a self-managing team. Any combination of players on the floor knew how to make the necessary adjustments and changes without having to rely on the coach. There were no egos and all the players had a lot of respect for each other and they were striving towards the single goal: bring the gold medal back to the USA.

Building a self-managing is almost impossible. You need right combination of exceptional talent, passion, hunger to win, a great team dynamics and an incredible humbleness to work with other super talented individuals and make the necessary sacrifices or adjustments to accomplish the task at hand. More importantly, in a software development scenario, a self-managing team only works well in a context on which the team members can have enough ownership over different areas of the product that allow them to execute based on their own vision.

As a leader to a self-managing team your task is extremely simple: set the vision and the game plan, trust your team and get out of the f….. way That’s certainly what I’ve been doing with this current group and I am having a blast. Establishing management layers in a self-managing team will only hurt their productivity, introduce bureaucracy and harm their creative and leadership skills.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Startup Moneyball: Talent, Passion, Experience, Perspective, Work Ethic

Hiring a great team is one of the most difficult aspects of a technology startup. However, attracting the right people is not nearly as difficult as building an environment on which their talents can blossom and contribute to the company. Despite the hundreds of books written about team building, I still think there is no magic formula for assembling a great team. Having said that, I think the quickest path to build a spectacular team is to simply hire great people.

When thinking about the mechanics of building a great team, I can’t avoid tracing the parallel to the moneyball science. In its 2004 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, bestselling author Michael Lewis tell us the story of how the Oakland Athletics(OA) General Manager Billy Bean and a group of baseball enthusiasts applied an accounting method for assembling a baseball team. As a result, with a very small budget and using underrated players, the OA were able to win as many games as the top franchises and even make the playoffs.

While the moneyball science is based on factoring baseball elements such as home runs, stolen bases, hits, etc in a the software startup world we can apply a similar formula to build a great team. In my experience, a great team in a small software startup is a combination of factors such as talent, experience, passion, perspective and work ethic.

Even though is not an exact formula, you can use the following equation to relate to a great team.

Startup Team= %Talent + %Experience + % Perspective + %Passion + %Work Ethic

As a startup CEO, your job is not only to find the right combination of the aforementioned factors but to provide an environment on which they can nurture and applied to the productivity of the overall team. Let’s think about each factor individually.

Talent

In order to be successful, it is key for a startup to attract the right groups of talent. Whether you are referring to great programmers, analysts or business development people, having a uniquely talented staff will allow you to efficiently execute in your specific products or strategies.

How to nurture talent? : Skill is the natural complement of talent and the best way to nurture it. As a startup founder, make sure you are providing an environment and culture and that allows your team to acquire new skills to improve their talents. A classic example is facilitating your best programmers (talent) to learn and apply a new programming language (skill).

Experience

Regardless of how talented you are, there are things that manifest itself throug experience. Having experienced folks in staff helps the team to avoid common mistakes and to focus on the things that really matter.

How to nurture experience? : The best way to nurture experience is to surround your team with the right group of advisors that will help guide them through specific decisions. In that dynamic, the less experienced team members will quickly be exposed to a new pool of wisdom based on the experiences of the other folks.

Perspective

Talent and experience are not everything. When facing specific circumstances, there are people that have the ability of thinking outside the box and trace parallels to examples of different industries, different times in history or complete different subjects. I like to refer to that skill as perspective and, arguably, is the hardest talent to find and nurture in startup

How to nurture perspective? : Knowledge is the natural ingredient to broaden people’s perspective. Some people acquire knowledge by reading books, others prefer to constantly talk or interact with more experienced people, other prefers to travel, etc. Regardless of the method you use, providing the right channels to acquire more knowledge will broaden the different perspectives from which your team can assess a particular situation.

Passion

Passion fuels all the other aspects of a startup. Being passionate about a problem, a product or a specific goal will make people go to the extra mile to accomplish a specific objective. Differently from talent, experience and perspective; passion is highly contagious and it quickly changes people’s attitude towards a specific circumstances.

How to nurture passion? : Passion nurtures itself. As a startup founder, make sure you are giving your most passionate people the right space to leverage their talents and to influence the rest of the team. Also make sure you are getting rid of all obstacles that can affect your team’s passions.

Work Ethic

You can’t build a successful software business working 8 hrs a day, it just doesn’t happen. Having a strong work ethic, making the right sacrifices and being a team player are essential ingredients to succeed as a software startup.

How to nurture work ethic? : Lead by example! Make sure your most hardworking people have the opportunity to mentor and influence the rest of the team. From time to time, I find it useful to run a few sprints and fight a few fires that test and train the work ethics of the team.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2012 in entrepreneurship, startups

 

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Why Global Talent Rocks and Offices Suck?

In a startup, we spend a lot of time debating over non important things and battling dogmas from the past. If you talk to entrepreneurs, you can find that we all share a set of common stories: the sales guy story, the payroll story and there is the OFFICE story :)

Establishing physical offices and implementing relocation policies are some of those well-established stigmas that we spend a lot of time debating upon. Because of tradition, we tend to place the advantages of co-location and daily in-person communication over what really matters in a startup: productivity, passion, talent.

Over the years, I’ve been extremely blunt on my opinion about this topic. From my standpoint, offices are a necessary element of a company that rewards presence over productivity. As entrepreneurs, we need to embrace the fact that we live in a global world with massive pools of global talent. We should not only embrace it but be thankful for the fact that we are in one of the few industries (technology) that can take advantage of this fact. Talent is not directly tied to a particular geography; it does not acknowledge a language, race or religion. Building the infrastructure in your company to effectively embrace global talent is one of the most productive things you can do in the early stages of a startup.

With both Tellago and Tellago Studios, we went over several iterations of this argument, until we decided to only establish physical offices after having proven metrics that it will benefit the productivity of the team. Companies that establish strict policies about hiring engineers in a specific location, asking them to relocate or requiring them to go to an office every day are, by definition, neglecting 90% of the available talent pool.

As a startup founder, you should obsess about the aspects that will make your company successful such as productivity, talent and passion. Finding and nurturing the best talent and providing the conditions on which it can flourish its a monumental task. At Tellago Studios and Tellago, I’ve been blessed with a fantastic team that has helped navigate those waters effectively. While building a globally distributed team you should obsess with providing your team with the ideal conditions to be more productive. Some people are more productive in an office environment while others do their best work when they can focus at home; some people prefer to start working early in the morning while others are more productive in late evenings. Although painful, those factors are irrelevant as long as they contribute positively to the bigger goal of building a great product and a killer company.

Despite the benefits of building a distribute team, you should be aware is a painful task. Having the flexibility of working from different geographic locations, not having to relocate or even go to an office is a great benefit to your employees but it puts a lot of pressure in the management team. As a startup CEO, it is your job to bridge the cultural differences and communication gaps in your team, establishing effective working procedures that driving people with different perspective of the world to execute towards a common goal. I spent more time talking to people that I would ever have to if the entire team was in the same location.

As a founder, my advice to you is to grow your team based on the best talent and passion and establish great conditions for your team to be happy and productive. Sometimes having physical offices will help you achieve that goal and sometimes will become an unnecessary distraction.

More about this in a future post….

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Talent attracts Talent

I’ve always believed that a talented team is one of the biggest asset a company can offer when it comes to attracting talented people. This is particularly true in creative positions such as software engineers, researchers or artists in which talent is as important as knowledge. Last week, I got a firsthand example of this at Tellago.

A couple of weeks ago, we extended an offer to a top engineer of one of our competitors to join our team. To not disclose names, let’s just call him Andrew. From the beginning Andrew was clearly attracted to join our team but he expressed some concerns about the change. At the end, excepting a significantly higher salary and the opportunity of working in our team, the position had little benefits compared to his current job. We were asking him to leave a team leader position to go back to be a developer, put up with the madness of a fast growing company and transition from being “The Man” in his current employer to being another engineer in our team. To that, you can add that our competitor was doing everything possible to retain Andrew by offering even better benefits.

During a Tellago management meeting, I expressed some concerns that Andrew might not accept our offer. Almost immediately, a couple of my colleagues who had been in similar situations to Andrew’s before joining Tellago asked to talk to him directly. Even though I was surprised by this reaction, I was very intrigued and definitely pleased by the initiative shown by my team and so  gave them the green light to talk to Andrew.

The next day, we received a call from Andrew accepting our offer and expressing how excited he was to join Tellago.

When I asked my colleagues the details about the conversation all I heard was “J, don’t worry, we got this…”

There are a few important lessons to be drawn by this story which, as entrepreneurs, sometimes we forget as we get caught up in the intensity of running the day by day operations of our companies.

Is not about money

You see it all the time with organizations like Google, the US Basketball Dream Team or the MIT Media Lab in which talented people make serious concessions in order to work in more interesting environments in which they have the opportunity to  accomplish things that matter, things that can have an impact in the world.

As a startup, you should look for people who will make your company better and that are passionate about building great things. Money is very important and you should offer your employees competitive salaries, high bonuses, and the opportunity of growing with your company, but I will go as far as saying that, as a startup, you SHOULD NOT HIRE PEOPLE THAT ARE PRIMARILY DRIVEN BY MONEY. In the long run, those people won’t make your company better and they are likely to not stand by your side when you face difficult times ( and, trust me, you will face difficult times )

Nothing attracts talent more than talent

Talented people are naturally attracted to work with other talented people. If you have a uniquely talented team, then other people in the space will be attracted to join your company and it will be up to you to keep the high standards. An important lesson to learn here the best talent are not the people who excel individually as engineers, programmers or architects but the people who, in addition to that, have the ability of making everybody around them better

Let your team recruit for you

Seeing your team market your company and recruit people for you is one of the most gratifying feelings you will ever had as an entrepreneur. If you are truly building a different company, one that makes a difference in the lives of your employees, then your team will be proud to share that message and recruit other people they will enjoy working with.

Highlight your weaknesses 

As a startup, a lot of times you won’t be able to offer the same benefits or working conditions as bigger firms. Things like normal working hours, large offices or big benefits packages are difficult to offer in your early days as a company particularly if you are bootstrapping the company. A lot of startups try to hide those aspects and make artificial promises to their employees instead of focusing on their core values. The fact of the matter is that none of those things is really fundamental to the success of your company. Instead of seeing those things as limitations you should use them to your advantage and tell everybody about it.

At Tellago, it took us almost one year before we decided to open an office but, instead, our employees enjoy working from home most of the time and their productivity levels were incredible. We rarely work 8 hour days but, instead, we guaranteed you will be working on exciting projects with new technologies. More importantly, we are always honest and transparent about the state of our companies and our immediate plans.

Even though a lot of the reflections expressed in this post seem obvious, it took us some time to embrace them and put in practice at Tellago and Tellago Studios. As of this moment, Andrew is scheduled to start at Tellago in the next few weeks and we couldn’t be more excited about it.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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