People Management

Thoughts on team building in a small businesses.

 · 6 min read

Recently, a very active ERPNext user mentioned in an email that he was very impressed with the way the ERPNext team was managed and asked me what made it tick.  It was an interesting observation, because I don’t think I am very good at it. This observation was also made by someone else whom I know well. So maybe there are some things I do right.

To be honest, I have made every mistake in the book as far as recruitment and people management is concerned. From choosing the wrong people, letting them stay for too long to not giving enough direction and feedback, and not selecting the right people for the right job, I have done it all. To be fair, I don’t think people management is an easy job. All humans are extremely creative, resourceful, complex and independent. The trick is to identify what works for you. Here are some random experiences and thoughts regarding people management for small businesses.

Availability

General advice one gets about selecting people is, select the best, or people who are better than you. In reality, most companies, specially small businesses, cannot attract such talent and even if they do, few can retain them. So given that you cannot start with the best talent, you need to work with what is available. 

Our society is heavily biased in favour of large enterprises. Most highly skilled and motivation people want to work for large enterprises because offer stability, large social and work networks, exciting workplaces and smart and ambitious co-workers. Most graduates queue up to join large enterprises simply because they are familiar. So small business have to find people who are skilled in some areas but unskilled in others. For sure, certain people fall through the cracks, but such occasions are very rare. So a founder / owner of a small business, must always be prepared to hire semi skilled people or people who do not meet all expectations.

Motivation

The first thing I want to know about a person is what makes him or her get switched on. How high are they on the ambition scale and if they are low then how do I make them go higher. To understand that I want to know about their backgrounds, what they did in school, what are their likes, dislikes, when do the eyes light up, when do the smiles broaden. To plot their future, its important to know their past.

The biggest problem here is that due to availability, most people come from a very flat trajectory. They did okay in school, they were average in their previous job, they have little ambition or hope of going much forward. Maybe they are so out of touch with their inner selves that they never think about it actively. This means that you are probably going to end up spending a bit of time with them, trying to just make them get in touch with their inner ambitions. Sometimes it feels like a futile exercise, but I am not sure if there is any other way.

No Restrictions

Most companies have elaborate rules and mechanisms of work. For me, its simple, do anything that contributes to the organization. Not only can you get rid of unwanted bureaucracy, but also free up a lot of energy that gets wasted in having useless restrictions, like what time do you come to work. Most of this thinking has been inspired from 37signals but I think it should apply to a lot more organizations than people think.

Having a no-restrictions work place is not easy if you have never tried it before. Sometimes it may seem that its not working, but it needs to be given time and has to be complemented by a goal driven culture. Intrinsic motivation takes a much bigger role than external motivation because you have let go of the things that are measurable (like how many hours did you work).

Cynicism

I think the defining mood of my generation is cynicism. As young people entering the workforce in the beginning of the millennium, we feel that we have been let down by all our institutions, beginning from our schools to our governments. We do not embrace our organizations with an open heart and commitment and we are not here to make friends. This is because, we have been cheated so many times before, that we prefer holding back rather than appearing stupid. This cynicism is so deep rooted that it is extremely hard to make people truly commit themselves to a cause.

Specially in a creative environment like software development, there is no better way of unlocking creativity than letting people know that its cool to be stupid and its okay to make mistakes. Encouraging mistakes is also a great way to reduce cynicism. Sometimes its very hard to look at a damaging mistake and say its okay, but it helps to look away and let the person accept by themselves they mistake they have made. If they do not realize then it can be pointed out at a later point, when they are a bit removed from the issue.

Nature of the Relationship

One of the few good business books I read was the theoretical “The Modern Firm” by John Roberts. What I remember is that when the relationship between the organization and the employee breaks, the person who leaves the job is a much bigger loser than the organization. Because when the person leaves the job, that person leaves all the social networks, intellectual property and a lot of the skills that person would have learnt will all be rendered useless. The company on the other hand, still gets to keep all the work done by the person including the wealth created or added. An employee creates a lot more capital than what is paid as salary.

So its really important to look at the insecurities of the work relationship from an employee point of view and try and address this. The employee must see a long term benefit to the contributions made other than just the salary that is paid. This can be done in many ways, including giving public recognition of the work, involvement in strategic decision making, equity and many other things. What works in our case is also that since we are an Open Source company, a lot of the wealth created by the employee is also a part of the commons.

Diversity

I actively look to hire people from different backgrounds and skills and attitudes. I think diversity makes us a much balanced outfit because we think from so many different perspectives. Not only cultural diversity, every person must also have different behavioral characteristics that are complementary to each other. For example, in our development team, I am the starter (of new projects), Anand is the finisher and Nabin is the maintainer. In this way we use our complementary skill to cover up for each others weaknesses.

Closing Thoughts

In the end, no matter what one does, people management is never going to be a perfect science. Most of the people who have worked at Web Notes have liked it here. Most have been surprised when they were asked to leave, but that is the hard reality of life. Given a choice, I would hire people with much higher skills, internal motivation and strong work ethic and would never have to fire anyone.

At ERPNext, I am personally very happy with what we have achieved as a small team, but for some reasons (or many), I have not been able to change the graphs of many of my team members to a more upward trajectory. Even though everyone gives their best effort, I still want to them to question the definition of “best” effort. This will require even higher commitment to the organization and the cause. How will I get there? I have no idea (yet).


Rushabh Mehta

Rushabh is a software developer and founder of ERPNext. He usually writes about the startup experience, open source and the technologies he is working on.

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