Monthly Archives: October 2009

Common Traits of A-Players

An unscientific observation of what A-Players have in common

We often talk about this elusive "A-Player" – a person that everyone wants to hire but someone people can rarely find.   In this article we'll attempt to discuss how to spot these people and see what they have in common.

A few points up-front:

1. It is almost impossible to determine if someone is an A-Player until you've worked with them for 1-2 months.  Afterwards, it is really easy to determine.  Unfortunately you often don’t get a chance to work with someone in an interview or via observation.

2. Not ALL the below traits are in ALL A-Players.   But every A-Player has some of the traits.  And if you meet someone that has all of them, that person is likely to be an A-Player.

the A-Player janitor

When people think of an A-Player, they often think the person had have gone to Harvard.  Going to a great school – or even going to college at all – is not a good predictor of being an A-Player.

Each position in your company can have an A-Player.  The person who cleans your toilets could be an A-Player cleaner.  That person isn't likely to be an A-Player lawyer … but the A-Player lawyer probably wouldn't do a great job cleaning either.

As a hiring manager, your goal is to fill each position with the very best person in that position.  If you think of a baseball team, it is pretty rare that the catcher is best hitter on the team.  But having a good catcher is really important.  And a baseball team also needs a great doctor, a great ground crew, great secretary to handle the fan mail, and even a great person to do the laundry.  

Relentlessly Resourceful

Paul Graham has written that great entrepreneurs are "relentlessly resourceful".  They are.  But that label doesn't just apply to entrepreneurs … it applies to A-Players as well.  

Great people are consistently finding ways to be great.   They make things happen.   The best teacher I ever encountered was Don Tedesco who taught my fifth grade class.  He wasn't satisfied with the normal curriculum … he needed to reinvent it.  (More on Mr. Tedesco below)

Rules Encourage Mediocrity

A-Players like to be creative.  Actually, they NEED to be creative.  They need to find the best way to accomplish their goals and they cannot be told exactly what to do.  (B and C players often NEED to be told what to do).  And so an A-Player would generally quit rather than follow stupid rules. 

My guess is that you won't find an A-Player teacher that will agree to teach to a test.   They'll just quit and move to a new environment that allows them to educate kids in the best way possible.   The best teacher I ever had, Don Tedesco who taught my fifth and sixth grades, created a whole school-within-a-school (and called it "Actionville") and broke every rule in the system.  

If your company is trying to attract A-Players, you might first want to eliminate some of your rules.  And if you are an entrepreneur of a fast-growing company, you should monitor people that like to create rules for others (generally the general counsel and the HR people).  While those rules are often well-intentioned, they can drive A-Players away from the company. 

Getting Back to People

Most A-Players get back to people quickly.  Usually within 24 hours.  In the few occasions that I have emailed Steve Jobs, he's gotten back to me in about 2 hours.  Ditto for Steve Ballmer, Maria Bartiromo, Marc Benioff, Pete Briger, Eric Cantor, Andy Grove, Vernon Jordan, Bill Kristol, Lenny Mendonca, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Dave Steiner.

The one group of A-Players that are really bad at getting back to people are those that work at Google (though there are plenty of exceptions). I think that is because the culture didn't have many real customers in the early days so people there got in the practice of basically ignoring emails from the outside world.  People like Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, and Mac Benioff, by contrast, grew up needing to quickly respond and engage with customers. 

Good rule of thumb: If you find someone that generally gets back to everyone in a timely way, it is usually a good sign.

Early vs Late

Do A-Players come to events early or late?  
I've personally found that they come to events on the early side.  Certainly it would be a flag if someone was late to an interview or a meeting.  

Founders

A-Players have often founded something.   Maybe they started a student club, an association, a company, a cool web page, a user group, a neighborhood watch association, or a new committee on the PTA.  

Follow-up

A-Players seem to better understand how to manage people – especially their bosses and their colleagues.  They seem to implicitly understand what it means to manage deadlines.

Work harder and smarter

Great employees work harder than good employees.   Partially it is because they are motivated by their company and those around them.  But it is also because they take pride in what they do.  Jerry Rice outworked every football player.  Tiger Woods outworks every golfer.  They both have some incredible natural talents – but it is their work ethic that sets them apart.   My guess is that both Rice and Woods would be amazing in a business environment if that is what they were passionate about.  

But A-Players also work smarter.   Like Rice and Woods, they don’t just spend a long time practicing, they actually practice in the right way.     

travel visas are tired

having a "paper" visa (essentially a sticker) in your passport seems not a very efficient way to travel.   if you need to get a travel visa, they should at least mail you the sticker (rather than you needing to to mail your passport or stand in line at a consulate).

why hiring a product manager is so hard

Rapleaf is looking for a super talented (read: rock-star) PM (product manager).   we've looked at over 1,000 resumes and have yet to give an offer.  so I find myself asking: why is it so hard to find a rock-star PM?

First, to define a rock-star PM, the person needs to be:
super smart, great communicator, fantastic listener

180px-Venn_diagram_cmyk.svg But the problem is that most really smart people that can communicate are not great listeners.  These people, from a young age, could talk and argue their opinions very effectively.  So many of these people become great engineers or salespeople (or even CEOs) where listening is important, but not the most important thing.

Great PMs need to incorporate feedback.   They need to understand the customer.   And they need to listen.  

Unfortunately, the Venn Diagram overlap of super smart, great communicator, fantastic listener is a very small set … so finding a great PM is hard.  

Another reason finding a great PM is hard is that a great PM will quickly get promoted in companies (probably faster than a great engineer or a great salesperson).  The role of a PM is to interact with more people in the company than any other role (except maybe HR).  so a great PM will meet more people and impress more people … and their talents will likely get noticed faster.  This seems particularly true in big companies.  So a great PM is more likely to become a VP faster than a great engineer or a great salesperson.  

And great PMs often end up starting companies or get promoted to C-level positions at companies.  The greatest PM in the world is probably Apple CEO Steve Jobs.  Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is a great PM.  Unfortunately, you can’t hire Jobs or Zuckerberg … they’re not on the market.   I often invest in people that are obviously strong PMs: like Brightroll CEO Tod Sacerdoti, Meebo CEO Seth Sternberg, and  Thread cofounders Katherine Woo and Brian Phillips.

And we are looking for a great person.   And I know they are out there.   If you come across someone, even if they are still in college, please let me know.

A Call for Transportation Innovation

More can be done to
change the way we move around the world.   The four decades that ended in 1969 were a Golden Age of
Transportation. Innovation since that time has fallen short of our
dream.

(this is a reprint of an article I wrote this week for BusinessWeek:  http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/sep2009/tc20090930_048677.htm)

We're constantly on the move. But the planes, trains, automobiles, and
other machines that get us from place to place haven't changed much in
the past 40 years, especially in comparison with the four decades that
preceded those.

Many of today's modes of transportation had their roots in what I
consider the Golden Age of Transportation, a period stretching from
1929 through 1969 when innovation abounded. An era that began with
rickety cars and planes came to a close with interstate highways, vast
networks of roads and bridges, and commercial air travel that could
whisk you from New York to California to Hong Kong to London in a
matter of hours, not weeks. We built jets, broke the sound barrier,
harnessed nuclear energy on land and sea, sent monkeys and men into
space, and capped it all off with a lunar landing. It was a marvelous
era of risk-taking, imagination, and optimism.

Those who lived in that era might have confidently predicted that
innovation would continue. They may have optimistically hoped that in
the succeeding four decades, humankind would be capable of such
breakthroughs as jet packs, flying cars, civilian space travel, and
landing a human on Mars.

But instead, in the past 40 years we've traded innovation for stagnation. We live in an era where few risks are being taken.

Make no mistake that the transportation industry has made advances in the areas of efficiency, comfort, safety, and reliability.

Strides in Energy Efficiency

Today's cars, planes, trains, and other vehicles certainly are more
energy-efficient than their 1960s counterparts. They go farther on less
fuel, burn much cleaner, and need less energy. Transportation is also
considerably more comfortable than it was 40 years ago.
Air-conditioning and CD players are standard; advances in suspension
and interior design make the ride smoother.

Cars are safer, resulting in fewer accidents per capita. Fatalities
as a percentage of driving hours have steadily fallen because of
features such as seat belts, air bags, and antilock brakes. And from a
design standpoint, air and sea travel are also safer—even if the
threats of hijacking and piracy remain all too real.

Finally, travel is more reliable. Cars don't break down as often; my
nine-year-old Toyota has never had a problem to speak of. The Tokyo
metro is a model of efficiency. And thanks to GPS, FedEx tracking, and other great software, we're better at keeping track of where we and what we care about are headed.

And there have been some technological advances worth noting. Segways,
with their ease of use and automatic load balancing, are truly an
engineering marvel. But with no disrespect to Dean Kamen, I'm not sure
Segways are all that useful except in limited recreational settings.
Prosthetic arms and legs have come a long way, too, offering
life-changing functionality to people who have lost limbs. Thankfully,
however, most of us do not need them.

Longer Cross-Country Flights

Yet what about all the other areas where we might have made great
strides but haven't? Think about how long it takes to get from point A
to point B. I've been regularly traveling from New York's JFK airport
to San Francisco for the past 17 years, and in that time the flights
have actually gotten longer. Because airlines now generously pad their
schedules, a flight from JFK to SFO is listed at 6.5 hours today; it
used to be regularly scheduled to last fewer than six hours.

The Concorde was a great first step toward getting people around
faster, but it has been shut down. Where are the other attempts at
supersonic transportation? Even the U.S. military cannot transport more
than two people supersonically.

I recently rode a bullet train from Hiroshima to Tokyo in 4.5 hours,
and it was a wonderful experience. It was comfortable and convenient. I
had Wi-Fi. We should be able to fly from Tokyo to San Francisco in less
than that amount of time.

What about personal flight? Flying cars and jet packs seem further
away today than in 1969. In fact, I doubt many people would predict
that personal flight will be commonplace 40 years from now. 

Jetpack

Time to Take Chances

For all the hard work going on at places such as NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Motors, there appears to be a general unwillingness or inability to take risks.

We need more people willing to try something crazy. This is why privately held Space Exploration Technologies,
or SpaceX, is so cool. And yes, in the name of disclosure, I am a tiny
investor in SpaceX. They are willing to try things that sound
outlandish. And since you have to fail a lot before you can invent
something truly groundbreaking, they are also not afraid to fail. But
there are very few endeavors like SpaceX.

You could blame the transportation innovation drought on companies'
unwillingness to invest the money and time it takes to achieve
breakthroughs. Maybe it's the public's unwillingness to back
large-scale public works.

Perhaps some have come to rely so much on innovations in other
areas—such as high-speed multimedia communications—that they're simply
less needful of truly innovative approaches to transportation. After
all, it is far easier to move bytes than people.

But those reasons be damned. We can do better.

Military questions we should be asking

One of the hardest things to do in management is not strategy, actions, or implementations … it is asking the right questions.

Recently many people have been asking tough and thoughtful questions about our role in Afghanistan.  These are important questions that need to be asked.

But we should also be asking other questions about our military like:

– Are the South Koreans capable of defending themselves?  If not, why not?  (South Korea is a massive economic power). 

– Does it make sense to have tens of thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea (which is arguably the most dangerous place in the world)?

– Could the military be modernized faster?

– Could we have smarter financial controls over military spending?

– Is it possible to win in Afghanistan before the American people tire of it?

As we ask smarter questions, we will get a much better