What makes a great startup employee? Egoless, thoughtful execution

What traits define a great startup employee? I asked this question to Dave Ginsburg, a friend and former colleague of mine who has led the marketing and operations functions at multiple high growth startup companies after having built a very successful consulting career at firms like TrueAction, Accenture, and Scient.  He’s now heading up the Post Sale User Experience and Support function at one of the fastest growing SaaS startups in the world. Below, he took the time to answer that question as well as provide other career advice that can help startup employees at any stage of their career.  –John

You’ve managed lots of people during your career.  What makes a superstar startup employee stand out from the rest of the pack?

It’s a three word answer in my mind:  Egoless, thoughtful execution.

While mistakes happen, I’ve come to realize the unequivocal importance of recruiting.  It’s assumed and basic that one should hire smart, well educated, and experienced people.

Yet, these attributes alone do not create superstars. Not by a long shot.

If one is willing to stop and think about the impact of an initiative (on the customer, revenue stream, etc.) and truly understand the objective and drivers, s/he has earned a gold star.  Next, if the individual has unrelenting focus on execution and they are  unwilling to accept excuses — they are armed with a powerful one-two punch and will always find a way to succeed.  Then, finally, if they can successfully execute without caring who gets credit or putting their name in lights, they are a superstar.

How did your consultancy/agency background prepare you for success when you moved over to work within client companies as an employee, rather than a consultant?

It was critical.  It taught me to always focus on Discovery and Due Diligence on any task at the outset.  Rather than just digging in with preconceptions, there is enormous value to spending time gathering information, speaking with all the cross-functional players, and understanding the client’s strategy and pain points.  To do so in a very unemotional, non-political, and collaborative way is as much an art as a skill.  Consultants do this day in and day out.  It’s not about the “how we got here”, it’s more about what can be done and how that action is linked to strategy.

Additionally, consulting experience provides the confidence to emphasize the value of a fresh perspective.  It allows the tools to reject the “you don’t understand you haven’t been here for 3 years” attitude.

Finally, never underestimate the value of attacking a problem methodically.  Again, consultants are trained to do just that.  Not to say there’s a one approach solution, but bringing an approach to problem solving, project management, ideation, etc is golden.  There’s a lot of benefit to applying diverse experiences to seemingly dissimilar situations.

It takes a bit of courage but the pay off is big.

What career advice do you wish you had received earlier in your career and why?

A few statements I may have heard early in my career but ignored them . . . and in retrospect wish I hadn’t:

a)  Always find the smart young people in an org and work with them, collaborate with them, or mentor them.  They will push you in so many positive ways.

b)  Recruiting is critical.  A Players Hire A Players.  B Players Hire C Players (because C Players make B Players look good).  All it takes is one compromise to degrade the quality of an entire team.  In my experience, it’s better to endure and wait than settle on a hire.

c)  Attitude counts.  Being known as someone who is easy to work with and positive overcomes nearly any other shortcoming.

You must get approached frequently by early- or mid-career professionals looking to network.  What are some networking mistakes you see over and over?  What do you consider a networking best practice, and why?

The biggest issue I see is a bit of a disrespect for one’s time.  Treat the networker’s time as gold.

Here are some other examples of things to do (or not do) when networking:

  • Don’t call someone out of the blue or send follow-up emails if they don’t respond to your networking request within a day.  People are busy and often want to help but have other priorities at the moment.
  • Ask for 15 minutes and respect the clock.  Be organized and specific.
  • Let me offer to help you network but don’t push.
  • Be gracious.
  • My personal pet-peeve . . . follow-up and let me know what happens.  If I’ve introduced you to someone and you connected, did it work out, what did you learn – did you get an interview, a job, etc.

And finally, respect the Karma.  Make time for others and help them.  It’s the right thing to do.

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