Hiring and Growth

4 Ways to Spot Employees Who Will Thrive in a Small Team

Patrick Stafford Professional business writer 
Tips for Recruiting a Small Team That Is Insanely Effective

Okay, you’re ready to go. You’ve got your budget, and it’s time to start hiring your very first employees.

Building a team is an incredible milestone for any small business owner. But many business owners overlook one key factor when they start hiring…

How can you hire people who work well together in a small team?

In a larger team, avoiding people you clash with can be easy. In a small team it’s often impossible. Not only do you need to hire people who get along, but the fast-moving nature of startups means you need high-performers as well.

So if you can only hire three or four employees, how do you make sure you hire people who can thrive together in that sort of environment?

Joey Price is the CEO of Jumpstart:HR, a firm that specializes in outsourced HR and managed HR services. He also hosts a podcast on the topic. Price regularly consults with businesses hiring small teams of less than 10 employees. When it comes to small businesses and teams, Price emphasizes the “hire slow, fire fast” mantra—and he says it’s particularly crucial when hiring for small teams.

“In a small business… it’s all the more important to steward your finances wisely,” he says. And here’s how he recommends you do it:

#1. Hire people who are comfortable outside of their comfort zone.

Price says small firms should hire employees who show a willingness to take on new projects, stay late, and buy in to the vision of the company. And they need to have demonstrated that quality elsewhere.

Which means you may not find them at larger businesses.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but [corporate workers] may be predisposed to only working in their lane and not collaborating across departments,” says Price. “You want someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

You want people in your small team who have:

  • Shipped their own product
  • Displayed entrepreneurial experience in a large company (for instance, did they start and lead a massive project across departments?)
  • Shown a willingness to learn new skills and gain expertise in areas outside of their wheelhouse

Members of small teams have to pick up each other’s responsibilities; candidates who are used to leading projects in unfamiliar areas are less likely to shy away from such tasks.

#2. Hire people who think about doing less work, not more.

As small businesses grow and become more efficient, Price says you need to be able to scale without constantly hiring more people. To do that, you need employees who focus on using systems to solve problems, rather than relying on more hands on deck.

For example: “Someone you bring in for office management may be able to manage marketing, so they install a system like a CRM which frees up potential to focus on other areas,” says Price.

However, Price warns that small businesses should stay away from generalists.

“I coach businesses and entrepreneurs to think about cash and hire someone who is really good at executing specific tasks,” he says. “Part of your growth stage at the onset should be hiring specialists and seeing how role outsourcing and automation can play a role in accelerating growth.”

Finding these people isn’t as hard as you’d think. Look for:

  • People who have implemented systems, like a piece of software, to solve critical problems
  • Anyone who’s created their own solutions, algorithms, or even custom software to save time and money
  • Candidates who focus on solving problems permanently and proactively, rather than just reacting to individual issues. For example, you could ask candidates: “Tell me about a time you solved a problem and made sure that problem would not occur again.”

‘T-shaped’ talent

What Price is talking about is called the “T-shaped skills” principle. It’s an old concept that companies like the management consulting firm McKinsey have used for decades.

You want your small team to be filled with T-shaped people. They have a “deep” area of specialization, represented by the vertical line in the letter T. But they can also move across other areas and help out where they can—represented by the horizontal line.

#3. Hire people who reflect your own temperament.

If you’ve ever worked in a startup or a small team, you’ve probably heard these types of complaints:

  • “I don’t get along with my boss.”
  • “I don’t get along with my colleagues.”
  • “Everyone is too demanding and yells all the time.”
  • “Everyone is lazy and relies on me to do everything.”

Big businesses have these problems, but they’re often diluted in a larger workplace—you can avoid your colleagues for days sometimes if you need some space. In a small business? Not a chance. You’re in each other’s faces every day.

Price says instead of hiring people who are personable and get along—or straightforward people who talk bluntly—hire people close to your own temperament.

This requires self-awareness—and for business owners to sometimes hire against instinct. For instance, an outspoken person may want to hire an introspective person to act as a balance. Price says this kind of thinking can be a mistake:

“If this was early stage Facebook, what temperament would Mark Zuckerberg want around him as he’s building the culture? What about early stage Tesla, or Jeff Bezos at Amazon?”

Building an effective small team isn’t a balancing act between personality types. Ultimately, you need a team that consistently reflects the culture you’re trying to establish, whether that’s bold and unphaseable, or genial and collaborative.

In an interview, don’t just evaluate what a candidate says, but also how they say it. Pay attention to the following:

  • Their temperament. Are they loud, and do they give more information than you asked for? Or are they quiet and reserved?
  • Do they offer sharp and short summaries of the problem you asked about, or do they take a while to get to the point?
  • Ask them tough questions and see if they answer diplomatically or give a brief, blunt assessment of a problem.

Next, analyze these answers against your own temperament. Are they far from or close to your own style?

#4. Hire people who aren’t afraid to take things off your hands.

I once worked for a startup with only six people. As much as I tried to implement systems to free up the founder’s time, he would resist. Because despite needing people who would take things off his hands, he preferred control.

Price says that’s a mistake. You need people who are going to chip away at your responsibilities and solve problems for you before you even know about them.

“You just have to ask, do I have to control the business, or do I want to have growth and empower my team?” says Price.

To that end, you need to hire people who work to find solutions to problems before anyone even asks. Ask candidates about times they took the initiative to create new systems or processes to solve problems that weren’t on the team’s radar yet.

At the end of the day, hiring a team isn’t just about finding the right person for the job—it’s also about getting the right people who will work together. Start thinking about your individual hires in the context of players in a team, and everything will start to come into place.

Updated: January 5, 2021

Patrick Stafford
Patrick Stafford Patrick is a professional writer with experience in journalism, business, and design. His business produces copy and content for businesses ranging from startups to the world's largest firms, all around the globe.


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