Something in the water Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

When Jorn Lyseggen founded Meltwater Group in 2001, he spent the first two years interviewing more than 3,000 people to hire 200.

“My life was really an endless travel from one recruitment to another,” he says. “I traveled all across the world. I did all of the recruitment of the company well into 2006. The reason I did that was I wanted to make sure that the people joining initially, those were the people I would know really well, the people that I knew would be the future managers and the role models and carrying on the culture and the company values as the company was growing. I think that has been an extremely invaluable investment, and I could see that clearly as the company was growing.”

While a lot of new businesses may focus solely on the business plan and meeting financial targets, Lyseggen instead chose to focus primarily on the people side of his business, which delivers business solutions based on search engine technology, cloud computing and biometrics.

“One of the things I’ve always been thinking about in growing our company is management,” the CEO says. “Growth has been linked closely to our ability to attract, train and develop managers. With management, you also create infrastructure to build an organization.”

In order to successfully grow Meltwater, Lyseggen had to hire, coach and train the right people — and sometimes had to make hard decisions, too.

Hire the right people

Without great people, your business isn’t going to flourish, which is why Lyseggen took such an active role in this process early on.

The first thing he looked for were people who really embraced the world around them.

“That can be very different from you in personality,” he says. “That can be very different from you in terms of skill sets — that is all very valuable. [But] it helps to embrace the world in a somewhat similar fashion — that you have the same perspective on life and the world. Some people can be very negative or positive, to use a very simple differentiator, but if you look at the world in a somewhat similar fashion and you’re striving for somewhat similar objectives in life, then it’s much easier to work together and much easier to create an aligned approach and an overall aligned strategy.”

He also looks for people who care about others.

“If the person has an interest in other people, then that person is caring for that person and interest naturally develops and relationships naturally develop, and you get the manager that builds teams and structures, and … they create a much stronger organization than if you had a manager that only wants to get to the targets and isn’t particularly interested in people,” Lyseggen says.

To get these kinds of people, he had to carefully listen during the interviews.

“If you’re listening to what that person says, how they describe people they interact with both in the interview process but also in that person’s life, how they value what perspectives of people that come into their life, people they’re working with, how they describe friends, family, [then] you quickly get a feel for whether that person has a feel for people or not,” he says.

Ask the right probing questions that will help you get to the heart of these issues in the interview process.

“Encourage people to talk about things that they’re proud of, that they did that was an accomplishment, and who they would share that with and why was that so important and significant for them,” he says. “Another question I really like is what is the biggest challenge of your experience, perhaps a major setback that really shook you, and it was really a, perhaps, fall for yourself. Have that person describe that, and get a sense for how that person described the situation himself or herself and for other people involved is often very insightful.”

Then the last question you have to ask is actually directed toward yourself.

“At the end of the day, is this a person I would like to go out and have a beer with or is this a person I would like to invite home for dinner or stuff like that,” Lyseggen says. “Is there a fundamental personal chemistry? If there is that, then there is a good basis for a good, strong professional relationship, as well. At least it’s much easier if you have that chemistry. All the other things come easier and faster. When I say I ask myself, it’s not only myself but it’s as much the team as well that I use to recruit.”

Coach and train

When Lyseggen went to his children’s school to hear a teacher speak, he was surprised to hear her say that teaching children to read and write was easy because all they need is two things.

“One, they need to feel loved, and two, confidence grows from a sense of accomplishment and mastery,” he says. “I thought that was so profound and universal, and that is one of the things I try to live by in coaching, as well. That applies to people at all levels and all ages. People need to feel safe and loved somehow and have confidence to continually grow as they feel the sense of accomplishment and master of the topic at hand.”

This starts by spending time with people.

“First, I think the most valuable thing you can give anyone is your time,” Lyseggen says. “There is nothing as precious as your own time. Sometimes you don’t need to know what to say to a person; you just need to sit down and listen to that person and give that person attention. That person will know you care and are willing to take up your time. Even if you don’t have anything insightful to say or answers or solutions to the problem they have, it’s the fact that you were there and gave them your time. That actually goes a long way.”

Then you also have to be honest with people.

“One of the most effective ways to really show that you care about people is to be honest and tell them about their weaknesses and their shortcomings when you see those,” he says. “People really take a real liking to that when it’s done in a respectful way and it’s done on a foundation of trust and integrity.

“People get to hear things that perhaps a lot of people are thinking, and it can be down to their personality or the way they do things, things that people in general wouldn’t comment on because it would be awkward. But if you are able to share that with them in a friendly, loving and caring way, I think that really helps people improve and grow and it also shows that you care and that you’re looking after them and looking after their best interest.”

You also have to know when to have that conversation.

“You should be cautious — be very careful and not do it too early,” Lyseggen says. “Only do it when you feel really comfortable that there is a mutual trust established. The situation is you give somebody … honest feedback, and sometimes honest feedback can hurt. Even as glowing and caring as you can be, it can still hurt. The most damaging thing is if it’s not based on a trustful foundation, so you can never do that unless there is a fundamental trust present.”

When you can have that honest conversation, you open up the door for improvement in your people.

“It starts with the person saying, ‘That’s an area that I feel lots of confidence in,’ or, ‘I think that is one of my weaknesses; I think I can perhaps do it, but I don’t have the confidence to do it,’” he says. “The first step is a

dmitting that that is an area that they don’t have confidence in or that is an area that feels wonderful. Admit it, and then you have to embrace it. Once they admit it and are able to talk about it, then you can work on that.”

You have to ask them probing questions to find out how to help them develop that area.

“What are the situations that you feel more confident?” he says to ask. “What are the ingredients that you’re looking for that will help you feel strong in that area? What situations do we need to expose you to so you can get the training to get the mastery to accomplish this? … Just talk about it. Then you can actually deal with it.”

Once you talk about the problem and the possible solutions, then move forward.

“Basically, you create a plan,” Lyseggen says. “Often what is the case is the person actually actively pursues or seeks situations where their experiences are more exposed. Often, if you have a weakness and you want to hide it and you want to not deal with it, you avoid situations where your weaknesses are exposed, but if you are able to talk about it and get a commitment and decide you want to turn it around, then you’re in a mode where you try to find situations where you are exposed to it.”

He says to follow up on that plan formally each quarter, but you can informally check in with that person on a monthly basis just to see how they’re progressing.

He says, “On paper, it can seem simple, and on paper, it can seem like a good thing, but it needs to be followed up on and executed and scrutinized on to deliver the results you’re looking for.”

Make the tough choices

Even after doing all of these things, Lyseggen has come to realize that not everyone he hires actually works out, and that’s the last piece of building the right team in your organization.

“That is something you should feel very sad about, but I also think that is part of building the company,” Lyseggen says. “If you build the company, there are people who join the company that it’s not the right place for them, so you have those experiences, as well, which is part of being a manager.”

This is especially heartbreaking for him because it often destroys relationships that started out well, but just like the other aspects of finding and coaching talent, there is a right way to go about it.

“Part of it is to really be honest — to be honest and to be sincere,” he says. “There is a difference between criticism of that person as a human being and criticism of that person in terms of what they do.

“There should be a clear distinction between the two. … You can create that love and create very personal strong feelings. As long as you’re able to distinguish between the person and the actual work produced by that person, and you can do that in a loving, caring way and honest, then in my experience things are working out well.”

It’s also critical that you act quickly in making these decisions.

“Do not to wait too long because if you wait too long, things can entangle and it becomes an irritation to both parties, and both parties enter the dialogue irritated with the other person and frustrated, and that irritation and frustration then can color the conversation,” he says. “If irritation and frustration is colored with disappointment, (then) it is, of course, not positive for the outcome. If you let the process go too far, I’ve seen that frustration and irritation can color the conversation and create that hard situation.”

So when’s the right time to let somebody go? It varies based on every person, position and company, but Lyseggen has a general rule of thumb.

“If you start to talk about that person too often, and when you talk about that person, it’s typically not in a positive way, it’s more about problems, if that happens too often, then that’s a good indication that you have to act on it,” he says. “It’s probably good for both parties, as well, because it’s not in that person’s interest to be in that position where their skills and potential aren’t fully appreciated or it’s not a good match with what the company needs, and then it’s better for that person to move on to a different company where they can blossom and really reach their full potential.”

By focusing on recruiting and coaching people as well as making the tough people decisions, Lyseggen has seen his business grow from nothing to 700 people across 50 offices and $100 million in revenue last year.

“That’s all done organically and with home-grown management,” he says. “When I think of what we’ve done, that is something that I’m very proud of and [it] is the most rewarding thing.”

How to reach: Meltwater Group, (415) 829-5900 or www.meltwater.com