Building a team for the long-term

I will look at it as my personal and professional failure if any of my team members will leave Aidoc’s A.I. team after less than 5 years.

At the same time, I will be super happy for that team member who found a better place for himself, where he\she will be more satisfied, more challenged, better promoted or compensated.

Very recently we rejected a superstar candidate to our team. I pretty much “fell in-love” with that person who sounded professionally 100% what we’re looking for. He was super: bright, fast and independent learner, motivated, accountable, passionate, hard working, team player, methodological, always striving to be better than what he is and aiming for the stars. His references spoke very highly of him — not only is he a strong performer, he’s the kind of guy that sees the big picture and comes to you with things you didn’t think about.

Something felt off about his CV from the first place — though he was quite junior, he switched jobs much-much faster than I would expect. Even in his short military service he excelled a relatively prestigious course, and later did a highly unconventional and extreme route-change after a relatively short time in his role.

Though it felt weird, talking to him about his considerations convinced me that he made the right decisions — these places were really good, but didn’t have high enough standards for him — in a period of his life where he strives to have people to learn from. Or their management culture (like most companies today unfortunately) was focused completely on professional task management (“tech lead”), instead of personal management — which should take into account how satisfied is each of your team members with his role, how much his role challenges him and helps him develop professionally in ways that are important for him and the company, how satisfied is he with his possibilities to advance to more challenging and senior roles within the team and the company.

His considerations for leaving all of these companies really resonated with me, because I know how many companies get these things super wrong, and even more than that I know that these things (high standards, methodological work, personal management) are a core part of our company’s and team’s culture and how much effort we’re putting into excelling in these aspects.

I let these thoughts convince me that rather than this being his disadvantage (leaving many places quickly), it shows his advantage in being a person of high standards just like we’re looking for. And I let myself be calm about this since I knew all the reasons for him leaving his previous companies wouldn’t be relevant at all for our company.

Then, two things happened that got me alerted again, and eventually made me reject him. FIrst, I understood from him that his next major career goal is being an entrepreneur\first startup employee. A major part of his reasons for leaving the two last companies, was their low standards were especially in places he felt are important to develop in this direction (even though they had very high standards in other areas). Second, talking to his references, I got two of them (his previous team leaders) to tell me clearly that despite being a very strong team member, he left after a surprisingly short time and they never saw it coming. He wasn’t transparent about it and never gave them the chance to be better for him.

These things made me connect all the dots I mentioned previously in a completely different light.

He doesn’t have alignment of interest with our company — since his top goal (early stage startup) cannot be realized inside our company. Of course there is always a realistic chance he will love the opportunities in our team so much that he will give up his previous dream, but since we’re not in lack of superstars we can hire — I prefer not taking the risk. Especially when this person never proved his capability to be a long-term player, and probably has even proven otherwise.

Going back to how I opened the post — I will look at it as my personal and professional failure if any of my team members will leave Aidoc’s A.I. team after less than 5 years. And when I say “5 years” I actually mean 20 years, but my experience has taught me it’s better to sound realistic so people could connect to what I’m saying, and in an industry with a mean-employee-lifetime of 1 year, even 5 years barely sounds realistic.

But “5 years” is the the best mixture of something that sounds realistic enough to be believable (all of us heard about some rare unicorns who are friends of friends of friends that did it even in companies that don’t provide tenure), and unrealistic enough (a stretch goal) to serve as a “compass” guiding the way — rather than a concrete number.

The reason this is super-important to me, is that I believe that a place that fulfills this goal — is a place where people are highly satisfied, motivated, challenged and are developing their career in routes that make them yet again satisfied, motivated and challenged.

To me this makes sense even in the “cold” business sense (at least for companies like us that build themselves to be long term companies, because it does come with short term costs), and creates the type of magic circle that is exactly what a company needs to continue attracting the best-of-the-best, in their masses. This is the type of company that I would like to work for, and that’s why this is what I intend to build.

That’s why I decided to reject that candidate (even though in the short term he could have been extremely valuable to our company).

Having an open discussion with my team and a few other colleagues and friends about this, has made me elucidate many other important considerations you need to take if this resonates with you, and I will try to cover some of them here as well.

Keeping people for the long-term means you will need to persevere even in periods of their life where they will have less time, attention or motivation for work. People build families, have kids, undergo personal crises. I think our company has already proven it is extremely accepting and supporting for several team members who were in such situations (since we’re a small company I won’t go into details here, but I can say that my team is 30% female which is something many other companies are avoiding for this reason exactly).

At the same time, we have limits as well and we’re striving to be transparent about them. For example — we have decided as a policy for the A.I. team that currently we will not hire or keep team members that are willing to work only part-time (unless it’s for a limited period that can be decided on a personal basis). We completely understand people who feel this lifestyle is good for them as a permanent thing, but it’s something that we decided to put outside of our boundary (and is out of scope for this post).

Another thing, is that really strong people, like the people we hired so far and plan to continue hiring — will want to advance fairly quickly. They want to be more challenged as time goes by, and get new roles with more responsibility and authority (technological, managerial or both). I am keeping this in mind and doing several things about it. During the interview process I try to understand what directions the candidate wants to advance to. If I think it’s not realistic at all, I will probably give that candidate up, because otherwise we’re heading towards a pre-determined crash. Anyway I think it’s pretty rare that someone that good will also be unrealistic about his goals.

Another thing I’m doing to help my team advance in the directions that they are interested in pursuing — is taking that strongly in mind when tasks are delegated, and having a continuous and open discussion about how well their tasks are serving their professional development towards their goals in the weekly 1-on-1 meeting I have with each person in my team (and truthfully on average these meetings occur once every 1.5-two weeks :) ).

Of course, as a hypothetical example, if someone decides he wants to be a team leader one month from now or he’s going to leave, and we don’t feel he’s ready for the role — we will try to convince him to stay anyway and might unfortunately have to let him go. I can say with high confidence that even if we don’t feel he’s ready at the moment, we will do anything we can to build a realistic plan and do every effort to make him the best team leader he can be and help him fulfill his goal. I can also say with very high confidence that our management team is among the top qualified teams for this kind of personal development.

I cannot promise I will succeed with this goal, and I’m not even sure it’s realistic. But I do believe the only way to do the unbelievable is to dream big (and be very thorough and relentless in making your dreams come true). I could fail, and statistically I have very high chances to fail.

I will look at it as my personal and professional failure if any of my team members will leave Aidoc’s A.I. team after less than “5 years”.

VP A.I. @ Aidoc