Metamorphosis Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

When Stephen Dukker was studying to become a doctor, he started a computer consulting business to help pay his tuition.

After growing the business to 200 employees, he eventually quit school to run the business full time, even though it took him a year and a half to come clean with his mother that he’d left school.

While his mother may have been disappointed, it was the start of a very successful career for Dukker — and a realization that people were key.

“I had quite a well-refined understanding of the importance of people and of their personality characteristics as an ingredient of success, apart from just their technical capability,” he says.

Dukker would go on to found several different ventures, including eMachines, which made $817 million in revenue during its first year. Today, Dukker is chairman and CEO of NComputing Inc., which provides computer access for a very low cost by allowing users to tap into a shared computer by using a special device.

He has learned over the years that beyond capital, having the right people is critical to business success.

“You have to have the right team put together that knows how to operate in times of adversity, how to control expenses, knows when to spend, when not to spend, how to balance the investments between getting new customers as well as supporting the customers you already have so you maintain a happy customer base,” Dukker says.

Throughout this experience, he’s learned how to identify what he needs, ask the right questions and then hire different people as the business changes.

Know what you need

When Dukker was interviewing a chief financial officer candidate for an early-stage business and explaining the company, the man said that he didn’t think he’d like to continue in the process. He had always had a good team of people who he could make better and had never operated without a net below him.

“There are quite a few executives who are technically superb who cannot operate in an environment where everything is not clearly defined and laid out,” he says.

Now on his sixth early-stage company, Dukker has learned that the people you need initially are different than those you need later in a company’s life.

To start, he looks for someone who has strong expertise in his or her technical area, whether it is marketing, accounting or sales. But then you have to go a step further.

“The other thing you have to look at is building a team with the right kind of contrasting and compensating personality styles and types,” Dukker says. “I tend to have a very binary view of the world, and I divide folks into what I call the process type of people, who get joy out of adjusting the dials and having the perfectly crafted, well-oiled machine versus what I call the victory dancers, who basically make the deal, jump and down they go for the brass ring, identify the opportunity and run after it.”

He says it’s important to balance your team between the two types.

“You can’t build a company that’s all one kind of personality or the other because one tends to be perspiration-based and the other tends to be inspiration-based,” he says.

Dukker says he’s more like the brass-ring person, so he needs people to help balance him out.

“You have to select personality types that complement each other to build a team that not only comes together and collaborates but, at the same time, challenges each other through different styles and different ways of looking at the common problems you have to address,” he says.

Another important aspect in putting together a team is making sure you get transparency with those you’re bringing in.

“When you recruit people from larger organizations, who have tremendous skill sets, more often, they develop styles of communication that are, for lack of a better word, political,” Dukker says. “Managing information to keep everyone well-balanced as opposed to understanding that in an early-stage company, people have to tell it like it is and be willing to accept the lumps when things are screwed up and the positive elements when they have successes.”

If you’re an early-stage business, the people who are coming in to your organization also need to be flexible.

“People need a higher degree of flexibility and willingness to share the fuzzy edges around the responsibility areas, where the greater motivation is to do what it takes to get the business growing and seize the opportunity that exists today as opposed to getting bogged down in structural or political-type issues,” he says.

Having all of these attributes is key to having a successful team of people when you’re starting to grow.

“[These] often make the difference between the kind of executives and team members who can help a small business grow quickly to become a medium and large company versus one that gets bogged down in terms of teaming difficulties, which result in grinding a boat anchor while you’re trying to run,” Dukker says.

Ask the right questions

Once you know what you need to have to be successful, then you need to ask the right kinds of questions in the interview process to identify if the candidate in front of you will embody those traits. This can be a tough process, but Dukker says to start with trying to figure out what makes the candidate tick.

“I actually try to find what gets them passionate, what gets them irritated, what makes them happy, so I’ll ask them about things that they felt were particularly successful in their careers and how their people react to them,” he says.

He says the key is to ask questions beyond your typical interview questions that just get at technical capability.

“I like to ask questions that will kind of put the candidate off-balance a little bit,” he says. “I don’t mean being provocative or off-color, things like that, but rather ask questions that are unexpected because generally, off-the-cuff answers give you the clearest indication of how a person thinks.”

He also tries to look for experiences in his own career that may elicit responses from them, such as making a comment about how difficult it is to work with PR people and seeing if they agree and if they run with it.

“Then listen very carefully about how they personalize an experience that I might describe, which attempts to frame the particular issue that I’m looking to clarify, …” Dukker says. “They run for a while, and you get a really good indication for the person beneath the veneer.”

Getting beyond the veneer is critical to getting a successful team member for your organization.

“The person you’re interviewing is not necessarily the person you’re hiring, so to speak,” he says. “When we go out and meet new people, particularly in the context of looking for a job, we’re putting on the best face — the face that we think will be most successful in terms of landing the job. It’s the job of the interviewer to kind of piece through that and get to the person underneath and sort out if that will work.”

He says that 75 percent of failures in hiring at the senior-executive level revolve around personality issues as opposed to technical or job competency issues, so that’s why it’s so important to take time drilling into a person’s personality.

“There are people who, when faced with pressure or adversity, get angry with their colleagues and become screamers,” Dukker says. “There are people

in adversity who become highly supportive. You have to find a way to tap into it, and it’s usually through storytelling — ‘I remember when I did this; how about in your career?’”

This technique is very effective because it’s more real than, say, hypothetical situation questions.

“As the person who’s interviewing, when the interviewer asks you for episodes in your life that are relevant or something, you start telling a story that’s genuine, and it comes from inside, and I watch very carefully as people talk about these different things for where I see inconsistencies between what I’ll call the canned presentation of who they are and what motivates them in business versus what I see on a more extemporaneous side,” he says.

Adjust as you change

While the CFO that Dukker talked about couldn’t be successful in the early stages of his business, executives like that often thrive in environments where rules and processes are already in place, and these are the types of people you need as your business changes and grows.

“As time goes on, you select for people who know how to take a manufacturing organization that does 1 million units a year and take you to a manufacturing organization that does 5 million units a year,” Dukker says. “That’s a completely different skill set from the person who created the original structure. Now you’re looking for people who like to adjust the dials perhaps more than the person who’s going to come in and say, ‘We want to change absolutely everything,’ which can be disruptive at many levels in the company.”

To start, Dukker likes to ask a question that seems like it has nothing to do with business but that he’s found to be quite telling: When you go to the amusement park, what drives you? There’s a big difference between the people who want to go on all the fastest, biggest rides and the people who prefer to appreciate the machines and how intricate they are in how they operate and keep people safe.

“There are people who tell you, ‘I like the machine,’” Dukker says. “The other says, ‘You point me at the target, and I go “bam” for it.’ People tend to self-select in that area. And further, if they don’t know why you’re asking the question other than to understand their personality — because you can’t really ascribe to what’s more valuable to the interviewer — people tend to answer those questions genuinely.”

Asking questions like this is important because not everyone will be as honest as that CFO candidate.

“Most people, when they’re interviewing, are very focused on getting the job, and that’s where you have to start asking that question to begin to understand whether they have the ability to create structure,” he says. “This you have to do by understanding and asking questions about their business-related personal life, how they deal with challenge, what makes them feel thwarted.”

He says these kinds of questions will help you determine if someone finds lack of structure exciting or if he or she is the person who thrives best in structure.

Taking this approach of determining whether someone is better early on or later on will help your business thrive. He says that if you can do better than 60 or 70 percent in your hiring percentage, then you’re doing pretty good, but when you make those hiring mistakes, just realize that it’s part of business and learn from them.

“Over time, through making mistakes, you begin to learn more about how to understand the personality dynamics of the person you’re talking to,” Dukker says. “Again, this concept of chemistry, teaming, comes up regularly in terms of why companies succeed and why companies fail.”

How to reach: NComputing Inc., (650) 594-5800 or