Struggling To Staff Your Startup? Hire For Fit, Invest in Growth

Struggling To Staff Your Startup?  Hire For Fit, Invest in Growth

Until now, I have focused on how an entrepreneur influences his or her company’s work environment. Now I would like to shift gears to discuss how to find the right employees. 


It is no secret that a young company’s greatest assets are its people. Good ideas are commodities, rarely as brilliant as they appear on paper. It’s execution that separates winners from losers. (Granted, luck and good market timing don’t hurt either). And who does the executing? Employees do, of course.  Unfortunately, hiring and retaining the right people is a difficult task for any company. It’s even harder for a start-up.


Why? Because start-ups are living organisms that constantly grow and change, making it difficult to define needs and scope roles. They also have fewer resources, financial and otherwise, to devote to the effort. Nonetheless, new ventures must take the time to define what they need to drive growth, because with no clear picture in mind, the appropriate resources will be difficult to find.


So, where do we begin? Well, while “learning by doing” is the name of the game, a smart entrepreneur takes cues from those who are getting it right. So let’s start with what is commonly known. Start-ups are dynamic environments that require flexibility, determination, and problem-solving ability. Similar traits include adaptability, creativity, initiative-taking, a sense of humor, and a willingness to wear multiple hats, and pitch in where needed. These “soft skills” are then coupled with “hard skills” demanded by the business model. For example, a mobile payments company may require people who can program for multiple platforms, and uncover consumer insights in low-income markets.


Let’s assume you conquer the difficult task of identifying the appropriate characteristics and skills. Where will you find the people who have them? This is a significant challenge faced by employers everywhere. In the US, you’ll hear lamentations from all corners—companies, economists, government—that there are too few qualified applicants to fill vacant positions. This is an economy that currently boasts painfully high levels of unemployment . (Last Friday’s job report had some good news, but we’ll have to watch the trend.) The challenge is equally bad, if not worse, in an African context.  From inadequate education systems to brain drain, African entrepreneurs face an uphill battle when sourcing talent.


However, for every intractable problem, there’s at least one person actively solving it. In the context of this article, there are two: Herman Chinery-Hessy and Ken Njoroge. Each has an inventive approach to managing human capital, and neither has let labor market challenges prevent him from cultivating talent. Here’s what I mean.


Ken Njoroge is the Founder and CEO of Cellulant, an innovative company that builds mobile commerce ecosystems, boasting operations in over 10 countries.Cellulant recently inked a deal with Barclays Africa to provide mobile and internet banking services as part of its “One Africa” strategy, and has run Standard Chartered Bank’s mobile commerce platform for the last three years. You would think that as a techie, Njoroge would hire for technical skill first—when he can find them.


Not so at Cellulant, where hiring for cultural fit is a priority. However, once a match has been identified, the team will work with candidates to find an appropriate role. Given the gap between the skills companies like Cellulant need and what is readily available, this approach may seem obvious. Nonetheless, Njoroge clearly understands how this investment will fuel his company’s long-term growth, a point highlighted during his interview with Tujarane Nairobi


Do you spend a lot of time and money on training? It is difficult to find talent of any kind in the market. We are in a unique industry and a lot of time and money is spent on training—but this is the asset of the business that makes us competitive.


Sounds like a “win, win” for all concerned, doesn’t it? Of course, this strategy is probably more easily acknowledged than executed. But as the saying goes, knowing is half the battle.


Herman Chinery-Hessy is the Chairman and Founder of SOFTtribe, a true pioneer in Ghana’s IT industry. Chinery-Hessy launched his software solutions company, described as “the largest and most successful software company in Africa”, in 1991. In 2004, after years of successfully building products from scratch, SOFTtribe partnered with Microsoft to develop applications based on its Dynamics NAV platform. This enabled the company to reach a wider audience and win larger contracts.


For Chinery-Hessy, finding the right people boiled down to re-organizing his work streams to match the capabilities of his employees. In an insightful interview with CNN’s African Voices, Chinery-Hessy described how he applied manufacturing principles to his operation, breaking down complicated tasks typically performed by highly-skilled programmers into simple ones he could teach anyone to complete. (For those of you familiar with Samasource, this reminds me of the “microwork” phenomenon).


In those days I think one of the secrets to our success was the tricks I learned from manufacturing.  …the reason why developed countries can build planes is that they package the work into simple tasks…and they master them, and then as a team and as a group, they are better than one artisanal type person, one craftsman, who’s trying to build the same plane.
…I took those principles to software development. 


He and his staff created extensive function libraries and trained people assembly-style, enabling them to produce high-quality, reliable programs. Once employees became proficient in the basics, SOFTtribe invested in developing their creativity, a rare skill for those accustomed to rote learning. As a result, Chinery-Hessy was able to create the talent pool he needed, instead of competing for programmers that were likely to be hired away.


We also learned we had to groom our people because of the rote learning system that existed in Ghana…a lot of the programmers were coming and were not as creative as would be required for the kind of work we were doing. Well, we were able to harness whatever they had in terms of putting them on the assembly line, but then we groomed them for creativity so they could take over from us. 


Dr. Peter Capelli, Wharton professor and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, affirms the logic behind these approaches in his article for the Wall Street Journal, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need.”Capelli asserts that employers “need to drop the idea of finding perfect candidates and look for people who could do the job with a bit of training and practice.” He goes on to state that “jobs can be organized in many different ways so that candidates who have very different credentials can do them successfully.”


For a superb macro-level analysis of the African technology skills gap, check out Will Mutua’s piece on Afrinnovator, “Mending Africa’s Tech Skills Gap & Tapping into its Youthful Population to Power Innovation in Tech & the African Renaissance.”


The bottom line is that Africa has an abundance of valuable raw material— people and natural resources—that is ripe for development. Surely, there are no easy answers. But if you choose to hire for fit and invest in growth, solutions could be closer than you think.

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