Your first hire should be leadership

The first person you hire is very important. It defines who you are as a leader and what kind of organization you’re creating. If your intention is to scale the organization that you’re founding, then I have one piece of advice; your first hire should be leadership, not your assistant.

I can confidently say, those that follow this advice will have a much better chance of success than those that don’t. Why is that? Below are two reasons.

It will define the kind of leader you are.

Are you a Manager or a Director? Managers hire people to do things for them. They manage people. They put out fires. They set the priorities for his or her team. Those working underneath Managers rarely feel empowered, and for that reason perform within a predefined box. You need to be better than that. You need to start trusting people to make decisions, and that should begin with your first hire. Directors by contrast surround themselves with empowered people, and for that reason they are able to achieve more.

If you begin bringing on empowered individuals with your first hire, then you will be on your way to building a powerful team. Over time your team will make all programmatic, financial and HR related decisions. This will allow you to focus on achieving your organization’s mission and vision.

My first hire was a woman who had never worked in a non-profit organization before, had no management experience, had no experience working with government, and who thought I was bat-shit crazy to have started an organization that donates libraries to schools I couldn’t locate. With all of that said, she told me she wanted to take on the challenge, and she had a positive attitude. She was our first Country Director, and on her first day she was a Director of one; herself.

It will define the kind of organization you are creating.

I have always only been interested in creating an organization that will outlive myself. What I mean by that is, if I get hit by a car today, then the organization will continue to grow after I’m gone. I have succeeded in some manners, but in others I have not. Where I have succeeded it has been because I hired and empowered the right people.

Our core four-person leadership team has been with our organization since the beginning. Look at that sentence. Nowhere did I mention “I” or “me” or “mine”. That is by design, and is engrained in how I lead. The organization I founded is not my creation, it is the collective work of countless people, but more specifically it’s been the work of three early hires; Belinda Yu, Nichole He, and Christine Wang. Those three people, along with myself, form our Internal Directors, and we set the direction of our organization.

Without that core group I can honestly say we would not have donated 2,000 libraries impacting 500,000 children over the past eleven years. I truly believe that.

I have no money to hire leadership!

Get used to it. You’re starting a non-profit organization, you’re probably broke. Stop complaining. I said hire leadership, I didn’t say you had to match the Country Director’s salary at Microsoft. If you’re stressed out hiring your first team member then you should get a job and call it a day. You don’t need boat loads of money to bring on your organization’s first Country Director.

During the interview process sell the candidate on your vision, set aggressive goals for where you’d like to see the organization in the future, and scale his or her salary based on the organization’s performance. Look for passion; not experience.

Our organization exists today because the first person I hired was empowered to create an organization we both would be proud to work for. You should do the same.