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The Myth of the Self-Starter

Let me tell you about the best people who have worked on my teams:

  • They’re insatiably curious. That means they ask a ton of questions, which gives them deep insights into what we’re trying to accomplish, from a variety of perspectives.
  • They’re highly biased towards action. That means that when they spot a problem, they don’t wait for permission — they start testing out solutions.
  • They take ownership. That means I don’t need to keep monitoring the problem — they’ve taken it on and will continue trying new things until the problem gets resolved.
  • They embrace challenges. That means their skillsets are constantly evolving, because they’re frequently doing things that they’ve never done before.

Now let me tell you how many of these people walked in the door with these skills on day 1: NONE.

The technology community is in love with the idea of the self-starter. We are obsessed with fighting over the prospective hires who boldly state their abilities and leap forward to take on new challenges. These people, we say, are the ones with the passion and the drive to get stuff done. We aren’t interested in the people who don’t display that passion.

The problem is, almost no one figures out on their own how to do these things and be an amazing self-starter. It’s something you learn from observing others and having that type of role model or sponsor. Which means that if you came from a non-college educated family (as I did), or a lower socioeconomic background (as I did), or simply came late to technology, you don’t start your career already having been exposed to these role models. (I went to Harvard and I still didn’t start my career realizing that I needed to volunteer for stretch projects and greater responsibility. It’s not an easy mindset to ‘fix’.)

Recently a number of tech companies — Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter — have released their diversity data, and it’s universally pretty dismal. And I keep thinking of this myth of the self-starter. No one wants to hire people who aren’t “self-starters”, except there are probably genuinely disproportionately few innate minority or underprivileged “self-starters”.

And I highlight “innate”; because I absolutely believe that a good manager can igniteself-starters. Not every prospective green hire will turn into a rockstar, but surprisingly many can, if given some explicit sponsorship and guidance.

In my experience, it doesn’t take long. You find one stretch project for someone and tell them that you trust them. They deliver on it. You tell them how they could have exceeded your expectations, then you find them one more opportunity for growth.

And often, that’s all it takes. The experience of being successful becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Delivering results gives people the confidence to be more curious and push back more. Asking more questions allows people the ability to spot potential problems on their own and formulate solutions. Figuring out one or two problems reassures me that I can delegate more responsibility to them.

I have (and have had) some really incredible people work for me. It’d be nice to credit that to my amazing management prowess, but honestly that’s not it. It’s that these were people who had tremendous potential — but wouldn’t have been “pattern-matched” as self-starters. Any manager who gave them opportunities and recognition could have uncovered that potential. But it means that we need to be mindful that we aren’t prematurely excluding people because they don’t (yet) show that self-starter potential.

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