On Hiring & My Moneyball method for Startups & Corporates Part 1

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mentorThe biggest problem for any startups and corporations hiring in Southeast Asia is hiring. One major issue which every founder or industry leader faced is the lack of information on candidates. One can blame it on culture that Asians are not vocal in calling out incompetent people. The only people who I have seen vocal about calling out this lack of information are not from Asia: Steven Goh (CEO, mig33) and Thomas Clayton (CEO, Bubble Motion). So, what I want do in the few posts on this topic is to encourage local entrepreneurs to share information about hires and be much more vocal about incompetent hires, particularly, those with pretty CVs crossing several household names but are truly useless in my view. As I am currently looking on the remaining 19 items on my list of 20 things I want to contribute to the startup ecosystem after striking one off the list, I decide to take a bold step to share something probably in a few parts that I have worked on about hiring. I will share my methods and look forward to trustworthy people who I can share this with. It is something that I have thought about after the demise of Chalkboard, and have spent my time in the last two years refining the idea about hiring. It relates to the Moneyball approach espoused by Michael Lewis in his book.

A recent private rant from Steven Goh (CEO, Mig33) sparked me to publish a set of notes I have on hiring. I sympathise with him on his hiring woes: a wrong hire from a recruiter that he trusted, and things did not work out and end in the most ugly way possible. I have the same experience for some hires we did in Chalkboard and it would be better that I would take collective responsibility in saying, “We got the wrong guy.” Probably I salute him for being bold to speak candidly the real problems about startups in Southeast Asia trying to do hiring. If you want some advice on what kind of people or what things to look out for in hiring here, you should check out these two posts by Steven Goh and Tom Clayton.

Before I joined SingPost, I wrote out a set of short notes to reflect what worked and not worked for me on hirng in the past. This was in turned sparked by a TED talk where the speaker talked about how she hacked online dating. What I learned from her talk is that everyone should have a customised list of attributes what they are looking for in co-founders, employees, partners and surprisingly even customers. I started constructing my set of spreadsheets, reviewing everyone who I have worked with, and even access whether they are competent and incompetent given what how they made decisions and deliver on their word. In the next company I will build, I am going to rely on this list to hire the best people that I can find while at the same time, eliminate people who I think is a waste of time.

Over the course of the years, I have hired people for different roles from business development to engineering. Probably, because my experience in academia, I have discovered that my strengths lie in hiring younger people, allowing them to make mistakes and pushing them to the next level. In fact, some of them have become very successful and of course, their success are of their own and all I can say is that I was honoured to be part of their growth story. To some people, this strength was interpreted as weakness, and whenever they applied their own strategy of hiring senior people with great CV, it was a disaster for them. I hate to say, “I told you so.” but I acknowledged my weakness in hiring.

While I reflected on my hiring practice with younger people, I realised that I have qualitatively operated in a way similar to Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball”. Here are the traits I look out for and they come in the form of the following questions I ask myself:

  • Are they passionate in learning about new things and set themselves towards new challenges?
  • Am I able to switch from hand-holding them to empowering them given that they are young and inexperienced?
  • Can I turn this person to be a success whether his or her success goes beyond working for me?

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I am pretty sure that I am relatively successful in moulding younger people to great success, as it was evidenced from some of them who has worked for me. The reason why is that I am genuinely concerned about their career and would do anything to help them succeed even after they have moved on. During Vistaprint, I took the same concept and mould my team using this method. It worked and I still kept in touch with that team and hired one of them to join me in SingPost.

To switch this method to employees, I discovered that I have to hire talent (who are perceived to be under-valued by their previous employers) and mould them in the way that they are excited with what we are doing here so that they can achieve their maximum potential. The person who gave me the most inspiration in managing a team is Jose Mourinho (current manager of Chelsea Football Club), who is probably one of the top managers in the world with strong winning records. Yes, he’s controversial but he’s a winner and if you have read one thing that is consistent from the players who have succeeded under him, they all loved him. The one interesting feature about Mourinho’s team is tactical discipline and it’s something that I know when I fully utilised it to build my teams, they will win.

“I am a winner because I’m good at what I do and because I am surrounded by people who think they are.”
– Jose Mourinho

During my time in Vistaprint, I observe how senior people were hired and did an internal dossier for myself on how I would know who is the correct senior person I would hire to enhance my team in the future. The issues with senior people often lie in one trait which is intangible and difficult to lock down and that is culture. I am currently experimenting a different model on hiring senior people but I know very sure what I am looking for, but I take lessons from people out there like Ben Horowitz who have given very good advice on hiring senior people.

I will discuss a bit more on how I do the scoring and the attributes which I have into a spreadsheet. I will not share my list unless you are in my trusted inner circle. Of course, there are more to come on this. I will be happy to hear who of you out there will like to be more transparent about sharing information on incompetent people out there.

Update: I have embedded my Facebook post which drew very interesting comments from Steven Goh of mig33, Lim Der Shing and Leigh Huang from JobsCentral and many others on their thoughts about hiring.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist