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The Founder’s Paradox: So You Want a Team of Superstars?

Yes, it is possible to have an entirely A-team and scale for sustainable happiness.

Pelé. Beyonce. Chavez. Oprah. Salk. Magic. There are some names that require no explanation. You know exactly who these superstars are. The level of talent and impact supersede the need for their complete name — these folks have moved from mere mortals to one-name legends. But there are plenty of other stars in our midst.

In any successful organization or team, there are always a few. (Even though you probably call these people by their full name and they are not recognized around the world.)

But generally speaking, everyone else is a supporting player. This is true, despite what company leaders will tell you — that they only hire “A-players.” Companies claim all-star status because people want to join a high-performing group. So most (including Aha!) make it a point to highlight the talent of the team. Why?

The inference is obvious — if you join the so-called superstars, you must be one too. But the reality is more complex.

What actually happens at these companies is quite different. This reality of few superstars and tons of supporting players happens for a few reasons:

  • There are not that many superstars
  • Non-superstars typically hire other non-superstars, either out of comfort or fear
  • Superstars like to lead and need space to do it — plus, big egos can be hard to work with

So, two questions come up when you are a founder or company leader and are committed to only hiring the best. One, is it even possible to have an entirely A-team and sustainably scale a fast-growing company? Two, how is it possible to do so and still keep everyone’s ego satisfied? I have thought deeply about this over the last few years and have a few suggestions on how to contend with the superstar paradox.

Is it possible to have an entirely A-team and sustainably scale a fast-growing company?

The answer is definitely yes — if the company’s future goals are audacious and the past achievements are easy to see and created real value. Stars have insight into what is possible and are wary of hype. And they know greatness when they see it.

We have found that as Aha! grows and our plans become bolder and our accomplishments more significant — more top performers want to join in on our success. Job candidates tell us that they want to “learn from others,” which is another way of saying that they want to be surrounded by the world’s best.

All-star teams achieve more together than what any individual superstar can or could even conceive of alone. And that level of achievement is addictive and attractive.

Plus, there is always pressure and stress if you are the sole superstar on a team. You frequently have to carry others. You know it and they know it. So you playing your best with others playing their best reduces frustration and brings deep satisfaction.

How is it possible to only hire all-stars and still keep everyone’s ego satisfied?

The answer is that it is possible — but the “how” is much harder. You must first find true superstars who are intrinsically motivated to keep learning. Then, challenge them in ways that they have never been challenged before. And commit significant time and resources to train them to master the new.

These folks are out there. They are typically the ones in their previous organizations who know everything — the go-to resource for the really hard challenges that no one else could solve. They take pride in knowing they are good. And they know others know it too. But they want more. As I mentioned above, these stars want to learn.

Herein lies the difficult task for any founder or company builder. This internal desire certain people have to be the best and be recognized for it must continually be fed with exciting new problems to solve. And those challenges must be presented and supported by other stars who know more than they do.

To continually hire superstars, you need to have superstars in place. And you probably need to grow more organically than most emerging companies do today.

Wanting to hire the best and scale without sacrificing quality is a paradox for a reason — it is not an easy feat. But like most contradictions, it is a space that can be occupied and terrific results can be realized.

I know this because we wrestle with this paradox every day at Aha! — our team has nearly doubled every year since we founded the company. And we remain unforgiving in our standards. Our team vets candidate qualifications rigorously. But my goal is quite different. I vet Aha! for the candidate.

Will the company be the right type of team that the candidate is seeking? That is the question I help each candidate answer during the interview process. Of course, this is not entirely altruistic. Neither one of us can afford the mistake of the wrong fit.

When we hire someone, we are both making a big investment. The job candidate is investing in the company and our company is going to invest in this person’s continued development. This is the only way to truly challenge someone who wants to be their best.

Yes, we have a comprehensive onboarding program. But we keep going. I select books for the team to read twice a year, with topics related to personal and company growth areas or challenges. We provide world-class internal training programs. For example, I just led a session on negotiation for our entire Aha! Customer Success team.

If you want to build a team of one-name stars, you can do it over time. But it will take a level of investment and patience that you are not accustomed to.

It will also take insight and a prescient approach to hiring. This is because not everyone is a star when we find them — but we are able to spot those with a quiet sort of confidence. People who could be stars, given the right environment. It takes discipline.

We receive thousands of applications every month and hire a precious few. But our hiring process is designed to reveal which people have the talent, humility, drive, and ambition needed to flourish (both professionally and personally) at Aha!

This approach will force you to put people and process ahead of glory, but the reward is real accomplishment that you and everyone on the team will be proud of in the end — growth and accomplishment that are lasting.

Originally published on the Aha! blog

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