"How stupid can BBC be in firing Jeremy Clarkson? Funny man with great expertise and huge following." - @RupertMurdoch

I’ve spent the last three months talking to start-ups about the things that help them win and the things that kill them. It will come as no surprise that attracting and keeping the right kind of people is second only to having a kick-ass product.

That’s why the tweet by Rupert Murdoch yesterday in response to the sacking of Jeremy Clarkson perfectly demonstrates the relationship challenge that businesses (and I would argue society as a whole) have with ‘talented’ people.

In my view, the BBC have done the right thing, despite of bizarre petitions to reinstate someone who physically assaulted one of his colleagues. Who in their right mind would want to work for an organisation that allowed that sort of behaviour? More to the point, who would want to work for a leader who condoned that? We all know that the example and tone set by the leaders of the organisation is the biggest contributor to the example and tone for the rest of the organisation. You only need to look at the calamitous demise of the News of the World to see that in action. Thankfully the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, seems to get that.

It raises an interesting point about how we manage ’talent'. At what point does the gravitas, power and interests of a star performer rise above those of the organisation? Having one rule for most of us, and a different rule for the magical few is culturally toxic. For a big media organisation like the BBC, the challenge is exponentially harder. You’re not just dealing with a chauvinistic, politically incorrect top performing salesman, you’re dealing with a public figure.

I'm all for rebels and mavericks in organisations, in fact we need more of them to ruffle feathers and challenge dogma, but they should be positively infectious for the organisation, not toxic. So how do you set the tone? Well, iconic actions like Tony Hall’s, and a clearly articulated people philosophy about what’s ok, and what’s not.

The (much quoted) former head of talent at Apple, Dan Walker, had a great philosophy, which captures the above sentiment perfectly:

I’d rather have a hole than an asshole

To continue the analogy - for startups that hole becomes even more acute, but thankfully much easier to deal with. Here are some of their top tips:

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1. Right skills + Right attitude + Right work ethic. No compromise. 

No matter how talented your people are, if their attitude stinks they’ll be corrosive to your culture. One of the most common reasons for startup co-founders split is a lack of shared work ethic and commitment.

Here's one way of looking at it:

Great skills x Great attitude = In it for the business

Great skills x Bad attitude = in it for themselves

2. Push your pain threshold 

You can function on 'maximum pain' without hiring for longer than you think. Don’t let your standards slip to make your life easier, it will come back to bite you.

3. Big egos kill small teams

Many founders struggle with this, but the most successful startup founders all put the mission of the business above their own vanity. When you’re up against it, you need to know you can rely on your team to roll their sleeves up and get their hands dirty too.

4. Shared DNA helps leapfrog

Particularly when you’re small, recruit people who share enough attitudinal DNA as the rest of the business. This will allow you to get to solutions faster through shared codes and norms.

5. 'Stuck in the lift' test

Recruit people you’d be able to spend 3 hours stuck in a lift with, because the pressure's going to feel like that sometimes and you might as well enjoy yourself while you do it.

6. Kill ‘em quick

Sadly for the BBC, this isn’t literal. Become obsessed with spotting bad changes in behaviour as as result of new people joining. You’ll quickly root out the bad hires from the good.

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As organisations grow it becomes easier to harbour toxic personalities and harder to weed them out.

Perhaps it’s time to start thinking of our big businesses as start-ups and go weeding.

 

by Tim Frost

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