Startup Teams: Why Capability Doesn't Matter Without Trust

Written By: Dharmesh Shah August 19, 2008

I’ve been thinking a bit this past week about startup teams and what makes them work (or not work).  Most people that are in and around startups will readily agree that recruting the best team possible is critical to success.  This leads to statements from startup pundits that look a lot like “get the best people possible.”  Far be it from me to argue against this kind of sage advice.  You should get the best people possible onto your startup team.  All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to recruit the best people possible?

However, the phrase “best people possible” is a bit too vague for my tastes.  The question is, what makes a given team member the best?  Are they the smartest ones?  The ones with the most experience?  The ones with the greatest skillset for a given role?  The ones with the most domain expertise?  For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to “merge” all the things that makes a given individual really, really good into something I’ll call “Capability”.  You can feel free to make Capability a function of whatever attributes (intelligence, experience, skills, etc.) as suits your taste. 


Capability = How well the person can do the job

Now, this article isn’t really about capability.  It’s about a somewhat orthogonal concept that I’m going to refer to as Confidence (or Trust).  By confidence, I don’t mean how much confidence they (the candidate) have.  I mean the degree to which the rest of the team believes a person has the required capability.

Confidence = How strongly people believe in a person’s Capability

My argument is this:  The best people to recruit into a startup are the ones that have the optimal mix of capability (can get the job done) and confidence (trust from others that they’ll get the job done).  Even with lots and lots of capability, if there is moderate or low confidence, the individual will be second-guessed, undermined, and ultimately just plain ineffective.  Even if they would have a bunch of good decisions, it’s not really going to matter, because they won’t get to make that many, and the ones they do make might not “stick”.  Unfortunately, this kind of team dysfunction does not jump right out at you, it creeps in when you’re not looking.  Everyone has the best intentions.  A quick (totally made-up) example:  “Billy’s a great web design and UX guy…and he’s been lobbying for this simplified design to replace the $25,000 website we created last year.  Sure, he goes to all the conferences and stuff, but does he really get that sorts of people come to our website, not just customers?” 

So, you ask, why would people making the decisions ever hire folks that they didn’t have confidence in anyways?  Isn’t that stupid?  What’s the point talking about that?  I’d respond with two things:  First, confidence is not a binary thing.  It’s an analog thing.  There are degrees of confidence.  Second, confidence may start out being really high, but can be chipped away at as time goes. 

Now that we have some of the baseline behind us, here are some thoughts on capability and confidence when it comes to startup teams:

Capability vs. Confidence

1.  How did we find this person?  Certain sources of referrals engender more confidence than others.  Did your co-founder bring the person in?  Is she your niece, once-removed?

2.  Who has the most confidence in them?  Is it the person that introduced them?  Someone that will be working with them?  One of your investors?  One of your advisors?

3.  How important is confidence for this role?  There are certain areas in your startup where folks need to have a fair degree of discretion.  For example, regardless of how smart and passionate the founders might be, if you hire a professional UX designer, you have to let them do their thing.  Debates are good, but whoever is the best qualified to make the decision should make the decision. 

4.  Who on the team loses the most if they don’t work out?  Yes, I know, everyone loses when you lose a team member.  But, who is impacted the most? 

5.  Is the eroding confidence justified?  Is it possible that a bad hiring decision was made?  Did people expect a degrree of capability that just did not get delivered?

Some though (but important) questions. 

Closing words of advice:  When recruiting team members make sure someone on the team will go to bat for the person when things are shaky.  You need a trusted member (like one of the co-founders) to help objectively assess issues of eroding confidence — and help restore it if needed.  Otherwise, things go into a downward spiral and nobody wins.

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