Don’t hire superstar employees, grow them


Great companies need exceptional employees. 

Once your business has outgrown the basement, it’s time to find smart, talented people who can help you reach the next level. 

Unfortunately, skilled superstars can be tough to pin down.

A June 2018 report from ManpowerGroup revealed that organizations worldwide are facing the most critical talent shortage since 2006. Among nearly 40,000 employers surveyed in 43 different countries, 45 percent said they’re struggling to fill internal roles.

That’s a lot of empty seats.

If you’re trying to hire stars employees (and really, who isn’t?), that search can get even tougher.

Research shows that the top five percent of a company’s workforce accounts for 25 percent of its output, while the top 20 percent accounts for 80 percent. Simply adding a star performer to a team increases the effectiveness of the other members by up to 15 percent.

It makes sense to have lofty hiring standards. But there’s another, and perhaps even better, way to stack your teams with outstanding employees:

Hire people with great attitudes and develop them into superstars.

The case for growing elite performers in-house

After launching my company, JotForm, in 2006, we’ve expanded into three separate locations and employ over 140 people. 

Sometimes we struggle to find skilled people to fill a specific role, but we’re lucky to have patient and experienced employees who mentor both new hires and less experienced staff members.

For example, we recently released our new mobile app. It enables users to access and collect form data offline, use a wide range of special form fields, transform any device into a secure survey station, and much more.

We developed these mobile features based on hundreds of user interviews and prototype tests. We also analyzed vast quantities of data to understand how our customers use our product — and what they want next.

We couldn’t have created this app without a crack team of data scientists, but for months (and even years), we couldn’t find expert candidates. So, we trained existing employees who were eager to take on the role.

When I mention this process to my colleagues, they often have three core objections:

“What if a new hire leaves after all this training and mentorship?”

As Henry Ford said, “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” Everyone on your team should be stretching to improve — whether they’re seasoned veterans or new to the job.

“We’re moving fast. We don’t have time to train anyone.”

There’s an assumption that outside people are inherently better — like fully-formed soldiers ready for immediate deployment — while current employees have already reached their peak. But in my experience, hiring people who are open to growth and learning, then giving them time to train, is well worth the effort. Also, having an open position for 3–6 months (not to mention all those interviews) can be a bigger time drag.

“How do you know if someone is really eager to learn?”

It’s surprisingly easy to spot a growth mindset. Watch for people who are humble, excited, and who can speak broadly about the topic at hand. Also, look for candidates who are a little nervous — who realize that they don’t know everything.

We’ve learned that the Dunning-Kruger Effect is very real, and very powerful. Back in 1999, psychological researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger proved that we often overestimate our abilities, especially in areas where our skills are objectively lacking. For example, a tone-deaf singer might believe he’s on the verge of a thriving solo career.

On the flip side, people with moderate-to-high talent and experience often have less confidence in their abilities. As Socrates said, “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” So the unskilled can’t see their own faults, while exceptionally skilled people don’t realize their abilities are rare.

Culture matters, too. People who try to change your culture are dangerous. New staff should be open to learning your philosophies and work styles, as well as deepening their technical skills. If a current employee is already a great fit, half that equation is covered.

How to raise your own superstars

Hire for attitude and grow great people from the inside.

We recently gave our new-hire mentorship process a name: The New Grad Training Program. We hire people who have just completed their education but have little (or no) hands-on experience.

Participants aren’t ready to take on a product role, so they spend four of five workdays doing support tasks. They help other employees with projects like Quality Assurance testing, user feedback analysis, and answering customer support questions.

They also work with a mentor for one day each week. For example, a new grad might spend Thursday sitting with a JavaScript developer and shadowing her in meetings. The mentor also assigns homework and offers helpful tools and advice. Every six months, participants can re-interview for any position they want.

Many of our new grads have become prized team members. Not only have they proved their willingness to learn; they also have deep product knowledge. They understand customers and often have invaluable, behind-the-scenes insights. They’re part of a pipeline that supplements our hiring process, too.

Whether you create a formal training program or not, every company needs to build its mentoring capacity. Create an environment where experienced employees are encouraged and rewarded for sharing their knowledge. Embed it in your culture — and set aside time for employees to learn from each other.

Embrace the power of interns

As Dan Finnigan explained in Inc. magazine, interns can be immediately productive in your organization. Unlike previous generations, they’re not walking blindly into an office with little understanding of what the company does or how they can help.

“Today’s interns belong to a generation that doesn’t just know how to use computers — they are incredibly adept at research, and they’re quick learners,” says Finnigan. “They’ve grown up with the ability to answer any question just by looking it up online, so you can bet that any intern you hire will have read up on your organization, learned about what you do, and even thought about ways they can make an impact right away.”

Interns are generally a risk-free proposition. While they spend a couple months with your organization, you can mentor them and assess their potential. They’re often really excited about the opportunity — and eager to learn.

At JotForm, we recently welcomed more than 50 interns. Another 50 will arrive later this summer. They spend the first week in training, then co-pilot with experienced staff and work on their own projects, like gathering customer use cases for our mobile app. When they return to school, we often wish we could keep many of them.

I won’t sugar-coat the demands, though. Our internship program takes real time and money, and it’s a lot of work for our COO. Teaching others is also a significant responsibility. Some employees love mentoring, while others don’t enjoy it at all. We try not to overtax our teams or burden people with too much time spent co-piloting.

If you don’t know how to kick-start a mentorship program, I recommend beginning with interns. You’ll learn to instill a culture of training and learn a lot in the process. Ideally, you’ll also meet some talented people who could eventually join full-time.


Training and mentorship are worth the investment

Companies that want to lead the market must continually nurture their talent. That’s because growth not only requires more employees; it demands a creative, expansive mindset. The people who can help you build an exceptional product or service will be lifelong learners. They will live for a challenge and seize every opportunity to stretch their skills.

So, don’t worry if your job postings don’t attract bona fide superstars with dazzling resumes. You can develop them from the inside out — on your time, and your terms.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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