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Right People

I wrote previously about our principle Right People, Right Way, Right Things. In this post, I’ll expand on what we mean by Right People.

Before diving in, it’s important to reiterate something from my prior post. When I say “Right People,” it doesn’t mean there’s only one kind of “right” person. Different qualities are needed in different contexts. To use a football analogy: a running offense or a passing offense can be successful, but the personnel and their skills will differ in each case.

The Right People share our values and fit best into our system, the kind of work we do, and how we do it. The Right People help us perform our best in the ways that matter to us and our clients.

So, who are the Right People

A lot of organizations might cite “smart,” “experienced,” “knowledgeable,” and so on. We value these things, but we think they’re secondary attributes.  It’s great to be smart, for example. Who doesn’t like smart? The problem arises when smart people are unable to produce a proportional positive impact because of limitations in other areas like judgement, teamwork, communication skills, and self-discipline.

In our world, great people and teams generally aren’t defined by their ability to apply a single skill or to solve a single kind of problem. Rather, they’re defined by their ability to apply their secondary attributes to get great results no matter the situation. So, while we value secondary attributes, we value the effectiveness of our team members much more.

What really matters, then?

For our folks, the most important attributes are soft skills. Soft skills underlie our ability to function well in relationships, whether with others or ourselves. People with great soft skills are able to apply their secondary attributes very effectively to create exceptional outcomes. What’s more, they’re able to acquire the secondary attributes they need in order to be successful.

This applies just as much to teams and our organization a whole as it does to individuals. The composition of teams—and of the organization—must optimize their effectiveness. We call this idea “ensemble teams.” In an ensemble team, the members balance one another’s strengths and weaknesses to create a highly effective group. I’ll talk about this in more detail in another blog post. The important thing for the present post is to understand that the composition of attributes in an individual, team, or organization will largely determine their effectiveness.

So, what are the key soft skills for our team members?

Humility: Humility isn’t the lack of ego, or even confidence. Rather, humility is an understanding of our own importance in relationship to others, and the significance of our opinions and beliefs in respect to theirs. We can be quite confident and quite humble at the same time. In fact, we like this quite a bit. It’s nicely captured by a principle we embrace, “strong opinions—weakly held.” We look for team members who are willing to take strong positions, to lead in uncertain situations, and to take responsibility for the outcomes they create. At the same time, we want them to see themselves as no more important than their colleagues and far less important than our shared mission, and to think openly and deeply about whether they’re right when their ideas are challenged. This takes a lot of humility.

Awareness: Awareness is an essential attribute for anyone wanting to work well with others, or even to be successful or improve on their own. The ability to “detach”—to take a step back and get a clear perspective on ourselves or a situation—is the difference between evolution and stagnation. Without awareness, we’re condemned to repeat the same behaviors over and over. With awareness, we have the opportunity to transform ourselves and our relationships with others.

The Drive to be Better: Software development is changing at an unprecedented pace, and developers must change with it. We have to reinvent ourselves constantly, even in small ways, just to stay even. Not to mention how hard we have to work to actually push ahead of the curve. If we don’t get better every day we’re getting worse, and in today’s world, that outcome is a recipe for greatly reduced professional longevity. So, our folks need to be relentless in their desire to improve at everything they do, from soft skills to hard, and completely willing to shine a light on their weaknesses in order to see what they need to work on. This constant reflection and assessment of our weaknesses is difficult. None of us likes to look hard at the parts of ourselves we like least. Mere motivation isn’t enough, as motivation ebbs and flow with our circumstances and how we feel about them. We have to be driven to do it. We must be compelled.

Work Ethic: Work ethic isn’t a mindless drive to work long hours in a professional capacity. Rather, it’s the understanding that success is a direct function of effort, and the expression of that belief in the form of making the effort necessary to succeed. Talent is largely a myth. The obvious exceptions aside (needing to be tall to play center in the NBA), the most successful people are those who believe in a direct relationship between their achievements and how hard they’re willing to work to make them happen. This is true in business, in personal relationships or pursuits, in personal growth, and wherever else the goal is progress. We value people who invest the effort necessary to create what they want in life. Interestingly, the mere existence of this belief makes things possible that would otherwise not be considered.

Communication:  It’s obvious that we have to communicate well to work as a team.. What may not be obvious is that we have to want to communicate in order to be successful. There’s a nice parallel between the ability to read and write effectively (a secondary attribute), and the earnest desire to interact well with others (a primary attribute of a great team member). It’s possible to have impeccable written and verbal communication skills and be a complete disaster with regard to communicating with others. Communicating well requires empathy, great listening ability, and a sincere interest in what others have to say—all soft skills.

Purpose: The most effective people I’ve known all have a deep sense of purpose. They implicitly understand their why, and they consistently express it into the world through the things they do. If asked, they can state their purpose concisely and without hesitation, and someone who knows them well—or perhaps even just casually observed them—can readily see the truth in it. We value people with a palpable sense of purpose—people with a strong sense of who they are and why they do what they do.  It’s remarkable how different some of our purposes are, but how we still find ways to knit them together—to be more effective together than we would be individually. 

Resilience: The one thing we can be sure of is that things aren’t always going to go the way we want or expect them to. Life gets a vote and it seems to like voting early and often—frequently for candidates or propositions we don’t particularly care for. On top of that, it’s challenging to be constantly evaluating ourselves, looking at our weaknesses, getting feedback from others, and always seeking to channel it into a better version of ourselves. We can’t lean into these difficulties every day unless we’re psychologically and emotionally resilient. We have to be able to find that odd mixture of acceptance, defiance, and persistence that propels us forward through whatever we face. The formula and ingredients are different for everyone, but it’s amazingly empowering when we get it right, and when we see it in others.

But what about technical skills? Many companies in our space still think the “alphabet soup” on a resume is the best indicator of qualifications for a technical job. We value technical skills a ton. The difference in our perspective is that people with great soft skills can rapidly acquire technical skills. The converse is almost never true.  In our experience, it’s relatively easy for people with great soft skills to “train themselves up” technically, and it’s both painful and agonizingly slow for most of us to navigate the path of personal discovery and development that leads to better soft skills. Thus, for us, the far more valuable raw materials are the character traits and other attributes that make up a person with great soft skills.

It’s worth noting that in our world, there really are very few cookie-cutter problems. Every client, every project, every task may differ in meaningful ways from the things we’ve done before. It’s easy to see why hard skills are necessary, but alone they simply aren’t enough.

Curious people who are driven to learn and have a strong work ethic will have a constantly evolving set of hard skills that can be applied to great effect. People with solid hard skills who aren’t curious, driven to learn, or who don’t have a strong work ethic will likely spend much of their time complaining about the unfairness of not getting what they want.

The right people aren’t people who are exactly like us, or who think exactly like us, or who want exactly the same things we do. The right people have a deep drive to become ever better versions of themselves and to contribute to creating ever better versions of our teams and organization. They know who they are and express their purpose through what they do. They hold themselves to very high standards. They show up every day and do the work—no matter how unglamorous or difficult it might sometimes be.

The right people are constantly working to become the best version of themselves.

The right people inspire us to do the same.