December 5, 2018

Does your tech start-up have a talent blind spot? a CATA Video Op-Ed by Hilton Barbour and Chris Janzen

Does Your Tech Start-Up Have a Talent Blind Spot? Chris Janzen & Hilton Barbour on CATA TECHNOW from CATAAlliance on Vimeo.

Hilton Barbour, Business Leader. Strategy & Culture and Chris Janzen, High Performance Coach & Facilitator join CATA TECHNOW for a video interview (8 minutes) with CATA CEO, John Reid on their Video Op-Ed  entitled, “Does your tech start-up have a talent blind spot?”

For Messrs. Barbour & Janson, one of our greatest challenges is freeing up people to be at their best. You will gain insights for your enterprise as it globally competes for top talent, and then works to retain that talent through excellence in culture.  

Both Mr. Barbour and Janzen have joined the team of CATA TECHNOW Analysts ready to comment on issues and topics of the day on CATA TECHNOW.

 Does your tech start-up have a talent blind spot?

Canada’s technology sector is enjoying a richly deserved moment in the global spotlight.  

With all that attention – from the media, investors, global competitors and even politicians – the pressure on leaders and founders to deliver has never been higher.  

That pressure tends to lead leaders to double down on making the ‘machine’ of the business pump harder or faster: operations, processes, business functions, etc. But this is often done at the expense of the ‘engine’ of the business: your people.

Are you possibly ignoring what is undermining your talent? 

The fatal assumption that leaders make is that the talent they hire is the fully engaged and passionately motivated talent that shows up and shines at work everyday.

But it doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface to recognize that the pressure on people to perform and produce at a consistently high level takes a toll. Particularly in the tech and start-up space.

There’s the psychological impact of pivoting.

The countless hours of grinding.

The expectations to exceed last quarter – often with fewer resources or tools.

Hoping everyone remains upbeat and positive while riding the emotional and mental rollercoaster from start-up to scale-up to IPO. 

So why are we typically so mediocre when it comes to equipping our people to better navigate the rapidly rising demands and pressures? 

In countless candid conversations we’ve had with start-up founders one confession is reiterated time and time again. 

“If I’d known how critical the talent and culture component was, I’d have spent way more time and attention on that part. Even more perhaps, than the time spent thinking about our product or where our funding was coming from” 


 A stunning admission but, for those who’ve experienced the direct impact of tolerating what undermines talent, not a surprise. 

As clichéd as it may sound, time and again people are the only sustainable competitive advantage you have.  

Thankfully we’re seeing an increased importance placed on hiring Chief People Officers and building out expertise than go beyond the traditional operational elements of HR. This superlative article from Buffer goes into tremendous detail – and offers great tips – about the hows, whys and wherefores of building an cohesive People Operation that looks at Talent and Culture in a deliberate and strategic fashion. 

We’d encourage you to read and re-read the article and take its points to heart. 

For our part, we believe organizations need to do a better and more deliberate job on two simple dimensions. 

Fuelling what’s inside their employees – that element we call capacity. The capacity to be innovative. The capacity to be creative. The capacity to attack a thorny problem with zeal.  And, like the capacity of any object, how is that capacity built, sustained and nourished?  

In spite of advanced technology and workplace flexibility, the majority of today’s workers are more overloaded, distracted and out of balance than ever before.

Meetings are plentiful yet largely unproductive and often frustrating, email is essential yet addictive, focus is critical but hard to achieve, and long-term success is the stated goal yet short-term results are the urgency.

Expecting our people to continue at this pace is unsustainable.

Intentionally nurturing the capacity of your people is a competency that organizations can learn and, more importantly, must practice if they’re going to expect to get the very best from that expensive and highly-sought-after talent that walks into their offices (and incubators) every day. 

Fostering what’s around their employees – that element we call environment or, more specifically, culture. Does the culture truly respect breakthrough thinking or just what the founder thinks is great? Does the culture allow for full and deep debate when tackling a particular difficult problem or is the need for consensus more important? Are there mechanisms to allow the quieter, more introspective problem-solvers participate or does the culture celebrate the loud and outspoken alphas? 

Sadly as the conversation around culture has grown in volume, some pesky stereotypes and plain old fallacies still persist. 

Is culture is an exercise in foosball tables, open plan, dog friendly and caffeine-infused WeWork digs? NOPE.

Culture is the way your employees behave to fit in. The way they act – and critically – the way they make decisions based on fitting in with those around them. Behaviours like collaboration, problem solving, teamwork and design thinking are all directly impacted by your culture and not by whether or not there’s a ping-pong table and beer cart on Friday. 

Is culture is organic? YES and NO. Yes a culture will evolve, change and adapt – even more so if you go through a period of rapid scaling and an influx of new faces – but astute founders acknowledge they play a crucial role in guiding and directing that evolution and that culture can’t be left entirely to chance and serendipidity.  

Just like nurturing the capacity of what’s inside your people is a founder’s responsibility, taking a full-on and deliberate role in defining and creating an optimal culture is the founder’s too. And critically, you know that investors, angels and P/E firms care deeply about details like key employee retention, turnover and utilization when they’re making their bets. 

In fact as the talent shortages for key roles deepen across Canada and the global tech sector, it wouldn’t be too much to imagine many pitch meetings beginning (and abruptly ending) with a discussion on the talent capacity and culture of the organization.  

As Canadians we’re incredibly proud of the flourishing tech start-ups and scale-ups we see blossoming around us. There is a palpable momentum and magic that is intoxicating. 

However, to sustain that growth there must be deliberate focus and efforts on growing the capacity and culture, and to stop tolerating what is undermining your people’s performance.  

If Canadian tech entrepreneurs and leaders can nurture that secret sauce, we can forego derivative descriptors like Silicon Valley North and truly become the center of Canadian competitiveness.

 Let’s get to work. 


 Hilton Barbour

Chris Janzen

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