Blog How to recruit drivers for your startup

How to recruit drivers for your startup

Jul 12, 2023

9 min read

Imagine you’re on a bus that’s speeding toward a cliff. You have two options: sit back and hope the driver knows what they’re doing, or take the wheel and steer the bus to safety. Which one would you choose? If you’re a startup executive, you know that being a passenger is not an option.

You are a driver, a leader who takes charge, makes decisions and guides your team to success. You need every member of your team to “amp it up”, to be drivers. In this blog post, we’ll show you how to develop a driver mindset and foster a culture of drivers in your startup.

Table of contents:

  • How Amp It Up inspired us to hire drivers
  • What is a driver/passenger mindset and why does it matter for startup?
  • This is what drivers look like
  • A COO with a driver mindset
  • How can your team adopt a driver mindset?
  • Quiz: Is your direct report a driver or a passenger?
  • Startup scenarios: Passengers vs Drivers

How Amp It Up inspired us to hire drivers

The book that inspired us to adopt the driver mindset is Amp It Up: Leading for Hypergrowth by Raising Expectations, Increasing Urgency, and Elevating Intensity by Frank Slootman.

Slootman is a successful tech leader who has led four different companies including Snowflake ($1.6B in ARR), ServiceNow ($5.4B in ARR), Data Domain (acquired by Dell Technologies by $2.4B), and Borland (that was first acquired in 2009 for $75M).

We love his book because it shows us how to:

  • Find other drivers and keep them in the driver’s seat, fostering a high-performance culture
  • Set ambitious goals and create a sense of urgency
  • Focus on execution and hold ourselves and others accountable for results
  • Align ourselves with the vision and mission of our company and our clients
  • A driver mindset is what we look for, train for, coach for, motivate, and empower our team to do every time.
  • We’ve even added it to our Viva values to make sure it pervades into our culture.

What is a driver/passenger mindset and why does it matter for your startup?

Some of the most successful startup founders in the world are drivers. Think of Brian Chesky (Airbnb), Drew Houston (Dropbox), and Kevin Systrom (Instagram). They all share a common trait: they are leaders who can envision the future, align their teams with their mission, and execute relentlessly to achieve their goals. As a startup founder, you are also a driver. You have the passion, the ambition, and the courage to create something new and valuable.

But being a driver yourself is not enough. You need to surround yourself with other drivers who can help you scale your business. Drivers are not passengers who just sit back and enjoy the ride. They are co-pilots who take ownership, initiative, and responsibility. They are problem-solvers who can adapt, innovate, and overcome challenges. They are collaborators who can communicate, coordinate, and cooperate with others. If you want your startup to grow, you need to have a team of drivers who share your vision and your values.

A driver is not just someone who does things, but someone who makes things happen. A driver is not just someone who follows orders, but someone who sets the agenda. A driver is not just someone who works hard, but someone who works smart.

This is what drivers look like

In the analogy of the bus going off a cliff, a passenger would simply buckle up while a driver will do anything in their power to get the bus going in the right direction.

According to Slootman, drivers are people with a strong sense of ownership for their projects and team. Drivers are people who make things happen, move dials, and stop at nothing to achieve their goals, while passengers are people who follow orders, avoid risks, and settle for mediocrity.

These mindsets can be found anywhere in your company. We’ll use a COO’s profile to make an example, but remember that all roles at all levels can be drivers.

A COO with a driver mindset

A COO who is a driver actively participates in defining the high-level goals and plans of the company and provides input and feedback based on their operational expertise and experience. They don’t just wait for instructions or directions, they contribute to shaping the strategy and direction of the company. They also dynamically translate high-level goals and plans into operational steps and metrics, tailoring and refining them for their teams or functions. Driver COOs make sure that everyone knows what to do, how to do it, and why it matters.

A driver COO also communicates effectively and frequently with the internal and external stakeholders, proactively sharing and soliciting information, feedback, and opinions. They don’t work in isolation but build relationships and trust with everyone involved in the company’s operations. They also identify and address any misalignment, confusion, or conflict looking to clarify, resolve, or prevent them. They don’t ignore or avoid problems, they face them head-on and find solutions.

A COO with a passenger mindset would rely on the CEO or other executives to provide them with market insights, customer feedback, competitor analysis, and industry regulations that affect the company’s operations. They would not proactively seek out or verify this information themselves. They would follow processes by the book even if they could be improved. If any misalignment or conflict would arise, they would find someone to be held accountable and continue doing things the same way for years. In essence, the passenger COO would be able to recognize problems and opportunities but fail to act on them.

How can your team adopt a driver mindset?

Frank Slootman’s book also teaches us that culture is not optional. It is the foundation of any company. Culture needs to serve the mission of the company and reflect the values and behaviors that drive performance and excellence. You can’t afford to have a weak or inconsistent culture that undermines your goals and vision.

It’s easier when the company is small so start as soon as possible. If the company is larger, it might take more time and should be done in a different way: intentionally look for opportunities to drive it into a high-performance one without striping the company of its own culture.

That’s why hiring for aptitude is crucial. The people you hire bring elements of culture with them and influence the culture they enter. You need to look for people who share your vision, passion, and drive. Find coachable people who can adapt, learn, and grow with your company. You also need to make sure that they understand and embrace your values, not just in words but in actions.

But hiring is not enough. You also need to nurture and reinforce your culture every day. Culture doesn’t happen by accident or by good intentions. It requires deliberate and consistent action from everyone in the company, especially the leaders.

A tip to do this is to make an acronym for your values, as Slootman did on DataDomain. He used “RESPECT”, explaining what each letter meant in practice. They didn’t settle for the over-the-surface definition of the word but went further. Like the R in “Respect” meant “being interested, responsive, helpful whenever possible, and never ignoring someone who reaches out to you”.

You can do the same with your own values, and take them to the next level so they actually add value to your company. And don’t forget to involve your regional or international teams, as they can foster different subcultures if not aligned with the main one.

Quiz: Is your direct report a driver or a passenger?

This is a short quiz for startup leaders to evaluate their direct reports and see if they are really drivers or passengers. This is how it works: the more ‘yes’ answers, the bigger probability of having a driver in your ranks. The more ‘no’ answers, the more likely you have a passenger in your team.

  • Do they find problems and actually fix them (as opposed to just seeing them and not doing anything about it)?
  • Do they feel a strong sense of ownership for their projects and teams and don’t wait to have further instructions but take the lead?
  • Do they demand high standards for themselves and others?
  • Do they exude a sense of urgency?
  • Do they say “why not” more often than “that’s impossible”?
  • Do they move projects forward by figuring things out (as opposed to stagnant projects because they didn’t know what to do)?
  • Do they take responsibility for their actions (as opposed to constantly shifting blame when things don’t go as planned)?

“One of my favorite things to look for when testing whether someone is truly a driver is their “figure-it-out-ability”. Do they have what it takes to get around the roadblocks we’re going to face? We run into them every day — showing me they can figure things out and move the needle tells me there’s a good chance they’re a driver”

Fineas Tatar, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Viva.

Startup scenarios: Passengers vs Drivers

Using the same quiz, we’ve developed 3 different scenarios to show you what two mindsets look like in the same circumstance.

Scenario 1: Getting ahead of your competition

Your platform has reached a breakthrough in three product features even though only one of them is enough to get (very) ahead of your competitors. How do you think your direct report would react:

A driver would make plans to launch all three features not comprising on quality or deadline. Instead of saying it’s impossible, they would try to figure out ways to make it work, involve the team, ask questions, do research, and bring solutions to the table. They are very involved in driving your value proposition to the next level. A passenger would make an effort to work on just one of the product features because that’s enough to get ahead of the competitors. They wouldn’t be excited about the challenge but also wouldn’t oppose publicly it if it meant being in direct strong opposition to the majority.

Scenario 2: Preparing for your next board meeting

Your team member has tasks for your next board meeting but doesn’t really know where to start. Do they take ownership?

A driver would take full ownership, would gather information from stakeholders to make sure the deliverables would exceed expectations, would look for feedback along the way, and have it ready well before the deadline so edits can be made. A passenger wouldn’t do anything until receiving further instruction or would reach a deadline with little to no information. Once this happens, they would blame other team members for not having their information on time to consolidate for the presentation but won’t bring it up before then.

Scenario 3: Hiring and retaining talent

Your direct report is a team leader who, since the last layoffs, has a team of frustrated engineers. They are not part of the Talent department but do oversee the work of these engineers and know about their emotional state. They are also aware of how difficult it is to find the right hire and how expensive and time-consuming the recruitment process is. How does your direct report react to this?

driver would speak up about this to other members of the executive team and work toward a strategy to lift the engineers’ spirits. Instead of joining the engineers’ frustrations or sharing gossip, your direct report would use the company’s values to motivate their team and talk to Talent to create a strategy to retain them. A passenger might speak up about the problem but do nothing if they aren’t asked directly and given a specific solution by their peers or superiors. They might even succumb to pessimism or gossip in hopes of being empathetic to their team. A passenger leader wouldn’t care if the company had a large employee turnover or about the expenses that this represents.

How We Amp It Up at Viva

At Viva, executive assistants apply the principles and practices from Slootman’s book to their daily work. They believe that executive assistants are not just passive followers, but proactive leaders who anticipate, solve, and empower. Viva EAs don’t just do what they are told, they go the extra mile to constantly add value.

To amp it up at Viva, executive assistants communicate clearly and frequently with their executives and their teams. They prioritize the most important and urgent tasks and projects and use the best tools and systems to streamline their workflows and processes. EAs collaborate and share best practices with their teams, seek feedback, learn, and improve their knowledge and resources constantly. EAs are always searching for ways to enhance value and create an impact..

We wrote a blog post about this called “What to expect from a great executive assistant” with the driver mindset approach going from good to great.

To promote this driver culture in our remote team, we make sure they stay connected to our values by having weekly meetups, #FeedbackFridays on Slack to promote and celebrate our culture (based on our values), and extensive training for all newcomers so they understand and live our values. We empower our senior team to act as owners and not as employees. We also make sure the standards are raised high every time. We constantly ask our team to go from good to great.

Key takeaways

Being a driver in your startup is not easy, but it is rewarding. It will help you grow your business, your team, and yourself. It will also help you surround yourself with other drivers and create a culture of excellence, urgency, and intensity that will set you apart from your competitors.

If you want to learn more about how to be a driver in your startup, or how to lead drivers in your team, we invite you to check out our Leadership section in our blog. You’ll find more tips, insights, and stories on becoming a great leader.

Was this resource helpful?

Thanks for your feedback!

Recommended for you