This may be the first year where most of us sincerely want to put the last year in the rearview mirror. In December, I wrote about my gratitude for my team’s talent. Zuri Group’s team members surely made 2020 better than it might have been. In fact, as an already remote company in March 2020, we felt much less upheaval than most. However, I think there was a deeper factor in play: we only hire adults.
Many have asked what Zuri’s secret has been for growth and stability. We’ve rarely lost staff in our first 13 years, and we have grown carefully. At first, the secret was that my partner, Howard Horowitz, and I only hired people we had worked with. Past performance is a great predictor of future performance, and knowing that a future team member was a great co-worker in the past was key for us. For instance, one of our prized team members, Xavier, was actually my boss for a time when we worked together at the now-defunct Kintera. Knowing someone from both sides of the equation—as boss and co-worker—is a solid basis for knowing you want to have that person by your side.
Eventually, we grew beyond our ability to hire past colleagues. Our first significant expansion was getting Chris on board. That process took longer, was messier, and required more mutual exploration than saying “Hey, Xavier, want to come work for Zuri Group?” Chris would tell you that we both got lucky. Now, 5 years later, we have onboarded folks I haven’t even met. In this time, we’ve effectively operationalized our selection, hiring, and onboarding processes in a way that I no longer need to be involved in every hiring decision. I’m confident in our hires, so long as we ascribe to key considerations.
As we grow toward a team of 100, we wrestle with the ramifications of size on culture and cohesion. But we constantly remind ourselves that we only hire adults, and particularly those at the top of their game. That sounds easy and obvious enough. But, as many have seen in this forced work-from-home arrangement in 2020, zeroing in on the right characteristics can be tricky. So, what are the characteristics and considerations for hiring adults? I have five go-to points I ask everyone who wants to join our team and that we use to assess future team members.
1. Are they intrinsically motivated? This is Adult 101 stuff but is surprisingly absent in many candidates. With remote work during a pandemic, we need folks to hop out of bed ready to make our clients happy. They need to learn new things every day. They need to determine the next steps and make them happen. They need to direct things with confidence. All of this requires a self-starting engine.
2. Are they truly an expert at the thing we need them to do? We require amazing talent. We require “how did she code that so quickly” skills. We demand “the president emailed me about how happy they are with the work” levels of client engagement. We expect “she is leading a panel at the next conference” thought-leadership. And, by the way, we have had great success at molding folks into roles, especially if their intrinsic motivation is high. Their “expertise” may be in learning what to do next; we sometimes hire less seasoned team members whose drive is to learn whatever is new and next. That’s a highly undervalued expertise.
3. Do I want them at our staff-wide retreat? Now, you don’t need to like everyone you work with, but they do need to bring something to the table. Our culture is engaging and client-focused. We hold a retreat (which will be virtual in 2021) that sets the tone for the year. Some folks simply wouldn’t fit in around the retreat environment, which is telling.
4. Will they make 10-year decisions? We know not everyone will stay at Zuri Group for a decade, but we want them to and we want them to want to. If points 1-3 are positive, we can build professional and personal arrangements to engage our team, but we want to know the feeling is mutual!
5. Will our clients tell me how great they are? I generally receive a few emails a week about the awesome work our team does for clients. Our team expects to wow our clients (as A-team adults should). We section off a few minutes on our weekly Friday call to highlight these accomplishments. Frankly, it’s interesting to see what people do not mention, even though the unmentioned triumph was incredible. Like working through the night to complete the conversion of 1.5 million records. Ho-hum. Pivoting a client’s online giving tool during Giving Tuesday because of vendor problems. All in a day’s work. So, while our team is modest (because they are intrinsically motivated and expect great things of themselves), our clients fill the gaps.
In December, a team member forwarded an email from a client that validated all of the points I am making:
“I continue to be impressed by the quality of the work, and the simple, wonderful, human quality of everyone I’ve dealt with. Please let John know that I think he’s created a little piece of magic with his company. 🙂”
This client’s spontaneous email was the result of hiring adults, allowing others to hire adults, and pointing the team toward lofty client satisfaction goals and fundamental expectations of excellence. I remain humble about the good fortune we have had with our team, yet I also know it has a lot to do with our unwillingness to stray from these principles. I wonder what tips and tricks others have about hiring talented adults. Share your comments with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John is an innovative leader and strategic thinker with over 30 years of experience and more than a decade in the nonprofit technology arena. John founded Zuri Group in 2007 with the knowledge that nonprofit organizations are most successful when they have trusted partners in technology on the team.