What no one talks about when building a team: letting people go

Written on 17th September, 2013
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One of the things I enjoy most about building a company is to focus on culture, and to think about how we can create a team which is a joy to be part of. A large part of this is creating a set of values and trying to gather people who feel at home amongst each other.

As part of this focus on culture, we have done quite a few things rather early at Buffer. We started to think seriously about culture when we were just 7 people and put our values into words shortly afterwards.

A realization my co-founder Leo and I had shortly after this was that if we truly want to focus on creating a great culture, it is inevitable that some people won’t work out and we would have to ask them to leave the company.

There is very little written on the subject of firing people, and it’s a hard thing to talk about, especially when you are still small. However, one of our highest cultural values is transparency, and for some time I have felt we were not being true to our values by not talking about this.

The journey to the current Buffer team

To put things in perspective here: Buffer is now a team of 13, and in the journey so far we’ve actually let 6 people go. For us, we’ve luckily never had financial struggles, all of these decisions were based around culture-fit. It’s hard work to hire people and even harder to fire people, so a team of 13 feels rather small for the efforts we’ve been through so far. At the same time, this team of 13 is a real privilege to be part of.

Hiring for skills vs hiring for culture

When I started Buffer, I had no real idea what culture is. We grew quite fast, and my intuition was to fill the gaps we had with the most skilled people I could find.

Once we reached 7 people, I started to see the importance of building a cohesive team that works well together and is a lot of fun to be part of. A large part of this is defining the culture and finding people who are a great fit for that culture. That’s when we put our culture into words and created our cultural values.

Once we had put our culture into words, that’s when we started to much more rigorously hire based on the values. In fact, it’s really hard to hire for culture-fit until you have your values in words:

“‘Cultural Fit’ is only a valid hiring criteria if you can accurately define your culture” - Chris Yeh

With our culture in place, we’ve evolved our hiring process and we focus a lot on the culture we have. This means finding people who are positive and happy, with a focus on self-improvement, who have gratitude, are humble and are comfortable with our extreme transparency. We have what we call a ‘Buffer Bootcamp’, essentially a 45 day contract period with 1:1 meetings for feedback at 2 weeks, 1 month and 45 days. A lot of this is to see whether Buffer is a good fit for the person joining the team.

With this more rigorous process, we found that some people didn’t fit the culture and letting people go was inevitable. Surprisingly, the very act of letting people go has shaped our culture more than anything:

"I think some of the core decisions that impact culture are who you let on the bus and who you make sure gets off the bus. The values that determine these decisions really shape your culture. Similarly, who gets rewarded and promoted within your company really shapes your culture. So, it’s the actual every day operating decisions that most shape your culture." - Dave Kashen

Culture is not about right or wrong

Although we’ve let 6 people go, these were all great people and they all did fantastic work. We just realized that they were not a perfect fit for our culture, so it made sense to part ways.

I would even go a step further and say that keeping people around who are not a great culture-fit is one of the worst things that could happen to someone. It has almost always been a mutual feeling when I had the conversation to let someone go: they felt some relief. I even have this quote on my wall to remind myself to think in this way:

"Waiting too long before acting is equally unfair to the people who need to get off the bus. For every minute you allow a person to continue holding a seat when you know that person will not make it in the end, youre stealing a portion of his life, time that he could spend finding a better place where he could flourish." - Jim Collins

Why letting people go is part of the process

I think firing someone is perhaps one of the hardest things you have to learn as a founder. Another key realization for me has been that letting people go is a continual part of growing a great team.

No matter how awesome our hiring process is, it’s inevitable that sometimes the person is not a great fit. Now that we have grown to 13 people and had to make tough team changes along the way, we’ve started to see a ratio emerge. We now know not to be surprised if about 1 in 4 people we hire doesn’t work out. It helps to know this possibility in advance.

"If you are super-scrupulous about your hiring process, you’ll still have maybe a 70% success rate of a new person really working out — if you’re lucky." - Marc Andreessen

This is probably one of the hardest areas of learning I’ve experienced as a CEO. I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 months thinking this through, reading as much as I could about it and getting lots of advice. We’re still at the very beginning, but it is comforting to have got to a point where this is a bit less scary.

Have you had to let people go while building your company? What do you think about the priority which should be placed on culture-fit? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

A special thanks to Leo, Carolyn, Belle and Sunil for reading drafts of this.

Photo credit: Katie Tegtmeyer