The Top Five Traits to Look For in Prospective Startup Employees


Most successful entrepreneurs will tell you that the fastest way to kill a startup is to hire the wrong people. It’s true. As someone who has helped build multiple startups, I cannot overstate the importance of assembling a stellar core team. They are the ones who will transform your ideas into reality, and help you achieve your vision.

So, how difficult can it be to assemble a strong team? Most startups tend to focus on hiring the smartest, most qualified people around. But the truth is that sometimes, companies with the best talent and IQ flounder and fizzle out because their employees couldn’t work well together, or because they were undisciplined or unreliable, or because they just weren’t driven enough. So, as important as it is to hire people with talent and expertise, it is equally important to look out for certain other traits as well.

Here are some of those traits that I believe every startup should identify in prospective employees in order to build the best possible team:

Passion and Drive

In a startup, you need people who are willing to go that extra mile, and the only way they’ll do that is if they are passionate about what you’re trying to achieve. People excel when they care about what they do. So find someone who shares your enthusiasm for the organization’s goals and vision, and is driven to do what it takes to get there. No one should have to be micromanaged. Once you throw the ball to them, they should be able to take it forward – just like one of our project managers at MetricStream did. For eight years, he was extremely proactive about identifying what needed to be done, and then getting it done well. For example, recruiting strong talent is hard when you don’t have a recognized brand, especially on an international scale. Prospective employees felt his passion and excitement, allowing him to not only build a stellar team, but deliver market-leading solutions to our customers. Today, he is a well-respected executive vice president at MetricStream, managing 400 people.

A “Never-Say-Die” Attitude

The road to success in a startup is long and hard. Most of the time, there is much more unknown than known. And at every turn, seemingly insurmountable challenges and obstacles will greet you. So hire employees that display the resilience to meet these challenges and pressures head-on. No doubt, mistakes will be made, plans will not work, and setbacks will occur. But your team should be able to bounce back quickly, and deliver results.

When I was at IBM, we had a product with major quality problems. Customers were returning these products left and right, which caused the sales people to lose their commissions. However, there was one sales representative that didn’t have any customers return the product. He overcompensated by being extremely attentive and responsive to his customers, ensuring repair service personnel were proactive. He refused to let this product issue affect his business.

Flexibility and Adaptability

Working in a startup means improvising, and doing more with less. Often, it involves reworking and revising business models and strategies multiple times. Evaluate whether prospective employees will be able to adapt to this dynamic business environment without getting overwhelmed or frustrated.

Apart from these traits, look out for employees who are open and willing to step outside of their comfort zones, and take on responsibilities outside their core tasks. When we were facing challenges with our sales model at MetricStream, and needed to improve our win rates, we asked our CFO to take over sales. Although he had never led a sales organization before, he had the skills and competitive nature to drive success. He took on the new role willingly, and built a strong sales organization that over-achieved its targets.

Trust and Collaboration

The lack of effective teamwork has ruined many promising startups. When choosing a team, it’s important to identify people who cooperate and communicate well, resolve differences of opinion quickly and mutually, and count on each other for support. It’s just like in football: when a quarterback throws the ball in the air, they are throwing to an empty space, and they trust their receiver will get there and catch the ball before it falls to the ground. Teammates who trust and rely on each other are better positioned to execute ideas faster and more effectively.

Openness to Taking Risks

Risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin. If your startup wants to effectively capture new market opportunities, your team must be willing to take the risks necessary to get there. That being said, your team should also be able go in there with eyes wide open—they must make calculated decisions by fully understanding the implications of the risks that lie ahead.


Building a startup is a lot like entering into a long-term relationship, so hire people whom you think will stick by your side through thick and thin. And remember—the relationship has to be mutually beneficial. If you want to attract and retain good employees, offer them good salaries and benefits that are important to them (i.e. healthcare, emotional/social rewards or flexible office hours).

Finally, if you want a good team, put it at the top of your strategic agenda. Many startups tend to focus more on other pressing issues such as finding investors, paying bills, or building a customer network. The truth is that hiring employees is your most important task because it can make or break your company. Invest substantial time and effort, and give it the importance it deserves, and it will surely pay off in the long run.

Shellye Archambeau is CEO of MetricStream, a Palo Alto, CA-based company offering governance, risk, compliance, and quality management solutions to enterprises in the pharmaceutical, medical device, high tech manufacturing, energy, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, food and beverage, and automotive industries. Follow @metricstream

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4 responses to “The Top Five Traits to Look For in Prospective Startup Employees”

  1. Chris Young says:

    Excellent wisdom, Shellye…

    I especially appreciate your point – “…if you want a good team, put it at the top of your strategic agenda.” A solid team beats out a group of individuals every time. There is no one as smart as all of us.

    Smart companies work on their teams continuously.

    Keep rockin’!

  2. Jack FlorioJack J Florio says:

    Being both an angel investor and involved in many start ups myself, I applaud your article.

    One item I would add (or expand on and reinforce as it may be in your Trust and Collaboration) is PERSONAL INTEGRITY ! In a start up things can get rocky and with a “do or die” attitude there can be a tendency to want to take some actions which one feels they “have to” for survival. This is a slippery slope.

    Early in my career I was told by a mentor and someone I respect “Reputation is based on what an individual does when everyone is watching;
    Personal Integrity is how that person acts when there is no one watching. … If you build your leadership around personal integrity, people will follow you because they trust you and believe in you. … They know you’re trying to do the right thing”

    This is the kind of leadership – across the team – that is needed in a startup;

  3. Geri says:

    Love this article and I agree with you 100% I worked several years at a startup fraud department. One thing that worked so well for all of us was not only cultural diversity but diversity in our training, skills, and we had an extremely talented leader who empowered us to do our jobs provide guidance or talk us through some challenges. One day while I was in the elevator two people were talking about our group and how effective we were, what sticks out in my mind is when one guy said our department was like the marines. We supported each other no matter which function under our directors umbrella there were. Fraud operations, investigations, revenue assurance etc. I’ve never come across this type of company since we were bought out. Again, strong effective leaders, managers, and staff. None of us had identical technical skills so we all had a niche to ourselves. But the traits we had in common were those you listed. We once did a Myers Briggs testing had some laughs but also helped us see who we are and build more skills in areas that were a challenge for us. Sorry long post but great topic!

  4. Ryan Timberlake says:

    Employees are the pillars of an organization and it is their productive capability which takes an organization at higher levels. All the traits you have discussed here are valuable and necessary for employees. Hiring a low caliber employee does no good and organizations are becoming dependent on quality executive hire services to fill the vacant or required position in the company.