of dot-commers from failed start-ups are flooding the employment market. But
can these creative individuals be integrated successfully within traditional
organisations? Asks Liz Simpson
you ever wondered why some pioneering entrepreneurs leave the companies they
founded when the business reaches a certain size? In some cases, they recognise
that their success at managing a handful of highly motivated mavericks is
greater than their ability to guide a bigger, more diverse workforce. But often
it’s because the passion of those early days evaporates when the balance
between thinking up great ideas and running a business tips more and more
towards the latter. Such founders don’t want to run an established company,
just to grow one.
his book, Accidental Empires, about the personalities of Silicon Valley, author
Robert X Cringely compares the different approaches to working life to those of
various kinds of military personnel. Start-up personalities, including most
dot-com entrepreneurs, are like commandos – "young guns" who love to
work hard and fast, and whose creativity in dealing with unexpected situations
often comes at the expense of professionalism. When there’s a beachhead to be
conquered, or a new market to storm, you can’t do better.
them with the kind of individuals an army needs when it already has an
established presence and requires people to hold that territory. Certainly they
won’t be able to do that with a bunch of livewires who baulk at the idea of
rules, regulations and processes.
most valuable personalities in this context are the military police. Unlike the
commandos, these types dislike too much change, operate best when there’s a
structure to adhere to and are looking primarily for security and stability,
not excitement and danger. Rather like the majority of employees in later-stage
businesses, in fact.
consider what’s happening as many dot-commers from failed start-ups are
flooding the employment market. In the past the question on everyone’s lips
was: "How can start-ups, run by young and relatively inexperienced
individuals, take on someone with experience in a larger, more structured
business – given that each represents a different culture?" Today many are
asking: "Should we try to integrate into larger, more established and
secure organisations individuals who, before the dot-com bubble burst, would
not have given such employers the time of day?"
there’s a lesson to be drawn anywhere, it’s from Silicon Valley where many
dot-com employees – perhaps for the first time in their lives – face the threat
of redundancy and worry about their ability to find another job quickly and
easily. Is there a way in which more advanced companies can take on and benefit
from the passion and creativity of such individuals? In short, can the
commandos work in organisations more geared to the military police?
says Jack Scott, a Silicon Valley-based partner with international executive
search firm Heidric & Struggles, whose clients include both young start-ups
and Fortune 500 companies. Not only that, says Scott, but businesses that fail
to take advantage of this talent will miss a golden opportunity.
dot-com employees into more established businesses is rather like a youngster
going to live back with their parents after spending some time at college. Each
side needs to meet the other halfway and rethink the rules of engagement. How
quickly and painlessly they do that depends on how much open communication goes
on," he says.
who have been attracted to start-ups are more risk-oriented, creative in their
approach to business and comfortable with questioning the status quo. They’ve
been prepared to embrace wholeheartedly the business and mission and have given
a certain amount of blood, sweat and tears to achieve something they believed
in – even to the extent of putting the rest of their lives on hold. Large
companies need to learn how to harness that kind of passion and energy."
adds that now the employment wheel has turned back to a buyers’ market, he
fears that larger organisations will be tempted to bring in even more formality
and structure because they don’t feel they have to cater as much to the newer,
younger generation who are coming, cap in hand, for jobs.
would be a big mistake," he stresses. "If we are to learn anything
from the high-tech experience over the past few years, it’s that traditional
companies have a lot to learn from people who push the envelope. They need to
approach dot-commers rather like a coach – be able to recognise the raw talent,
and instil greater direction and focus than might normally be the case, yet
without squashing the spark that makes that person so exciting and innovative."
Moyer, director of HR at global media and technology company Excite@Home, agrees
that start-up types have a very different risk profile than someone attracted
to a bricks and mortar company. But she offers a more guarded perspective with
regard to bringing anyone into a workforce that operates from a very different
culture to what they’ve been used to.
more entrepreneurial these kids coming out of dot-coms are – and I call them
kids, no matter how old they may be – the more they’ll have to adjust their
risk profile and way of working. As HR professionals, we need to be alert to
that and look for evidence during the recruiting process that such a change is
possible. Frankly, it’s less about companies having to accommodate the
candidate than the other way around," says Moyer. "While employees
coming out of dot-coms are extraordinarily entrepreneurial, their focus is on
speed and pushing a product on to the market as quickly as possible, as opposed
to understanding the market and the customers."
adds that, in her experience, employees from start-ups tend not to work as
collaboratively as is expected in later-stage companies because they were
employed as autonomous experts.
one thing to want to attract people who think about problems differently, quite
another to take on someone whose approach to solving problems is to do things
by themselves with no collaboration with their team whatsoever," she says.
points out that whether it’s a tight labour market or not, there are three
things HR professionals should always interview for:
Skills – can the person do what you want them to do?
Attributes – how do they work best, are they team players, how developed are
their interpersonal skills?
got a whole slew of younger workers who may be available to us now, which means
we’ve got to be particularly careful about cultural fit," says Moyer.
"Many entrepreneurial types are more comfortable with a stage one company
– three guys, $10m to play with and a great idea, working out of someone’s
garage. If that’s what they really want to be doing, these folks will never
make the transition into a mainstream culture and it would disrupt the internal
harmony of your company to take them on."
Scott, however, feels that while the ability to successfully blend different
cultural perspectives is developing slowly, many companies believe there is
value in what a new generation of employees has to bring to the table.
may be challenging, but it’s in their best interests for organisations to
recognise the value of people who were given a chance to be creative, more
responsible and authentic," he says.
companies do that by allowing individuals to flourish and flower rather than
being hemmed in by processes, procedures and bureaucracy. What you have the
potential of achieving here is a merger that combines the wisdom and experience
of people who’ve been in business a long time with the enthusiasm, passion and
flexibility of this new generation.
you achieve that is by ensuring everyone is focused on the same common
objective and is shooting for the same goal. That’s hard to bring about if the
two groups aren’t communicating in the first place."
it was founded in 1962, global information services company EDS foresaw that IT
would fundamentally change the way people, companies and governments operate.
Since then, the company has grown from 500 employees to 120,000, its revenue
from $16m to over $18.5bn.
its age and size, EDS successfully helps former dot-com employees settle in
smoothly, including many who had left the company dreaming of their path to
riches and have since returned disillusioned. How has EDS managed this? By
maintaining the company’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Chris Ryan, regional director for HR delivery, whose responsibility it is to
manage the recruiting function in the US: "We certainly have some
processes and structure, as you’d expect from a corporation as well-established
as ours, but it’s blended with a culture of risk taking and being innovative.
Our environment is not that different from what you’d expect from a dot-com –
with the added benefit of a secure payroll.
mantra is, ‘It’s better to ask forgiveness than wait for permission’, because
we want people to take ownership and do whatever makes sense to support our client
and distinguish us from the competition."
advises that to benefit from the passion and creativity of start-up
personalities, your mainstream culture has to be one in which those traits
survive – not unlike that of a start-up with the emphasis on ownership,
pitching in and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. If you don’t have
that environment, bringing in people who’ve only been exposed to dot-com
culture won’t work – it’s a forced fit.
extensive interviewing process gives us a good picture of how candidates would
fit within any given culture. We’re also able to identify those people who are
only coming back or approaching us for economic reasons. Throughout every stage
we’re looking to determine how well the fit is likely to be," Ryan says.
kind of organisation are you?
important to know what sort of culture operates in your organisation before you
can effectively attract and retain people best suited to your needs – not just
in terms of the jobs they do, but their alignment with your corporate mission.
How companies operate has been illustrated using military metaphors. The good
news is, all have the potential to be attractive to dot-commers.
Stage one companies (up to two years old): Attractive to those who think
of work in terms of the projects they’d love to get involved with rather than a
career. They appeal to people who are passionate about a product or corporate
vision, but whose missionary-like zeal can become dampened by processes and
procedures. These companies are ideal for multi-skilled, creative
"commandos" who constantly desire to push the boundaries of what is
Stage two companies (two to five years old): This is the best
environment for the corporate "infantry" – the second-wave invasion
force whose desire is to capitalise on the initial success of the start-up and
who prefer to work with more substantial resources (and hence security). The
infantry thrives in organisations that recognise that processes are necessary
to save time, but don’t allow them to get in the way of someone trying to do
their best job. The people attracted to these better-established organisations
will take direction, but also want to be applauded for thinking for themselves.
Stage three companies (six years plus): These older companies need to
take great care during the recruiting process that candidates fully understand
the corporate vision, mission and values in order to ensure alignment. The most
successful at attracting entrepreneurial types actively demonstrate how each
employee is expected to make a significant contribution to the business. People
attracted to these "occupying force" organisations want the
opportunity to develop new, transferable skills, something they recognise is
not possible at companies with less structure and fewer resources.
Empires: how the boys of Silicon Valley make their millions, battle foreign
competition and still can’t get a date, by Robert X Cringely, Harper Business,