Building Great Teams: Unicorns and Rockstars

Evan Chen
Evan Chen
January 19, 2021
Snowboard performing at the CNE in Toronto by Takahiro Sakamoto
"It's hard," he explained to me, "and probably one of the most important jobs you have." I was speaking to a fellow founder the other day about hiring. And to be honest, the sentiment holds whether I'm talking to startup founders, business leaders at major corporations, or the General Manager at a hotel. I hear a common mantra: "Hiring is tough. And good talent is hard to find."

I'm sure for those reading, it's not exactly a surprising statement.

When I was younger, I opened a local business, a small tutoring center. Later, I would move on to leading engineering teams at companies like Facebook. And now, I've got the reins at Akia, a hotel text-messaging company. Through it all, I've had to find and recruit all sorts of people. The mentality of my peers, those around me, have never wavered.

Unicorns and rockstars. We're looking for unicorns and rockstars, the best and the brightest.

I've come to hate these terms, honestly.

So through my experiences, I've interviewed high school students, college dropouts, Standard PHDs, Ivy League grads, etc. with one goal in mind: find the unicorns and rockstars.

The problem with statements like this is that they're easy to say. You can never be wrong if you're giving this kind of advice, nor will you have taken a misstep if you set it as your goal. But it's bad advice. There's no meat in the statement, and it fails to define what best even means in this circumstance. In reality, most people will hear this statement and begin to look for the greatest people on paper; those who check all the boxes. But nobody has built successful companies or teams by checking boxes. On the contrary, the only criteria of having built a successful team is the results they drive.

A team of average candidates, who drive amazing results, is the actual success story here. Data has shown the difference maker here is going to be management and leadership. I'm not talking about having charisma or vision here, things like are unlikely to apply if I'm the Operations Lead at an independent boutique hotel. What I'm talking about here is setting goals for your team, giving just a little bit of purpose, and using data to drive your day-to-day decision making.

"There are no bad teams, only bad leaders. The leader's attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance—or doesn’t."
— Leif Babin, Extreme Ownership

Leadership makes up the difference with average teams. But data and execution makes up the difference when we are average leaders.

When I was at Facebook, we tracked all internal metrics and their performance over time. We tracked employee satisfaction, we tracked the effectiveness of our managers, we used sales ops to calculate, down to the dollar, the effective revenue generated each time our sales team held meetings. This is not some privilege of large technology corporations, small businesses and hotels have tools available to them, too. Hotel General Managers should understand the value of a 5-star review. They can run in-stay surveys to understand what aspect of their hotel is likely triggering costly negative reviews. And they should be tracking the performance of these KPIs over time.

Having this data means leaders make decisions from a place of confidence. Ideally, they take the additional step and help their teams understand those metrics. Leaders who educate their teams on the why of goals will find that the additional sense of purpose will drive their team's motivation. When you combine goals set against that data with motivated teams, hold them accountable, you'll discover that a team of unicorns and rockstars was maybe not so hard to find after all.

hotel front desk staff on the phone

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