08/31/2012 05:06 pm ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

Going After B Talent

Companies should settle for "B" talent. After all, the mismatched labor market that we've been working with for some time is extremely tight. They can't realistically expect to fill their company with "A" talent. Companies should bring on the "B" talent and get to work.

That's what I recently overheard a colleague of mine saying. I was shocked.

We work with startups. Startups that are trying to build repeatable, scalable businesses. They've taken on a huge challenge and their team is absolutely key to the effort. A single bad hire out of a staff of five, ten, or twenty people can be a major setback for the organization, taking months to fully unwind. Startups know this. They're looking for rock stars. See for yourself, search for "rock star" and you'll see dozens of job posts.

Of course I confronted my misguided colleague, giving her a long speech on how only "A" talent will do. I went on and on about how a sharp team with a passion to create is the most critical factor to a startup's success. After all, when you hire "B" talent, that "B" talent hires "C" talent -- everybody knows that. Then she gently corrected me.

I had misheard my esteemed colleague. She wasn't advocating that startups should lower their standards. She wasn't saying they should only be satisfied with "B" talent. No, her point was that fixating on so-called "A" talent leads one to miss out on great hires. Focus on what a candidate can "be."

Entrepreneurs are forward thinkers by nature. This is evident by how they see the potential for their product in the marketplace, and maybe that is how they should see the potential in their hires. They should become attuned to discovering future rock stars.

How much deeper could the talent pool be if we looked at candidates -- on and off the resume page -- a little differently? It could be vast, and that could make all the difference in the world to young companies.

That kind of hiring approach would require these four considerations:

1.) Skills matter, but eagerness to learn matters more.

Having proven experience in the technology or industry of interest is powerful, but it's not enough. Chances are that your startup is doing something different from their previous experience. You're approaching the market from a different angle, or aspiring to disrupt a whole industry. And when it comes to technology, things are almost guaranteed to be different. Not only does technology continuously change, the rate of change is accelerating. Web and mobile applications aren't built the same way they were five years ago.

You want to look for people who are pushing the boundaries of their abilities. They are interested in new technologies or approaches in business and they actively experiment with them. Their minds thirst for more knowledge. In other words, your need the explorer eager to map a new landscape not the tour guide with the bored look in their eyes who thinks they've seen it all before.

2.) Would they put the team first?

You want to look for people that make the rest of the team better, and understand they come in all sorts of packages. Maybe it's the Customer Support person that not only helps the user base, but then on their own initiative also digests and summarizes the issues for the development team. Or it's the engineer who volunteers to go on sales calls, then sits down with marketing to help put together simple, accurate product explanations. Or it's a sales person who suggests ways the company can empirically test the desirability of proposed features.

It's people like these that encourage and inspire the rest of the team. Get a few of these types of folks together and you can get a virtuous cycle whereby the mutual support and success that is generated raises the abilities and expectations of the whole organization.

3.) Are they comfortable saying "I don't know?"

The best programmers I know are comfortable with saying "I don't know." They are confident enough in their knowledge and experience to be direct and transparent. They don't have the need to put on airs. What they do need is an answer! They're not satisfied in not knowing and will usually be the first to point out how they can find out the answer.

4.) Do they have passion?

Last and probably most important is the evidence of passion. When you talk to a candidate with a drive and passion for your area of focus, keep talking to them. Talk to them until you either find a place for them on your team or you know definitively that they aren't a good fit. In other words when you meet a candidate who has a drive, focus and determination similar to your own, the question switches from "should you hire them" to "is there any reason you shouldn't hire them."

Now that I think about it, the first time I talked to the colleague I mentioned earlier, she too was overflowing with insightful questions and thoughtful ideas.

In a future post I'll propose we dispense with the rock star analogy altogether, but until then, good luck in your search for your future rock stars.