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the challenge

Powered by Search founder and president Dev Basu, in his Toronto office on January 10, 2013.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue.

Dev Basu is proud of the culture he has created at the digital marketing agency he founded in 2009, and he wants to preserve it.

At Toronto-based Powered by Search Inc., there's "not a lot of hierarchy" and "almost no bureaucracy," says its president and chief executive officer.

"We like having fun with the work that we do, and not taking ourselves too seriously. We hire people that we would like to be friends with as well."

In many ways, Powered by Search's culture is shaped by the age of its employees: Mr. Basu is 24, and he says that the median age of his nine employees is 25. "So it's very young, and very vibrant."

But, as the company – whose 2012 revenue was above $1-million, with "double-digit" growth from the year before – continues to grow, "we're noticing that our clients are getting more and more mature. We're focusing on mid- to large-sized businesses. And that obviously requires a different level of marketing and business acumen."

To gain that acumen, Mr. Basu wants to hire a dedicated business development manager. But after reaching out to his own professional network, he says he's found that "there's not a whole lot of very qualified salespeople that are in the same age bracket as the median age for our employees ...We just haven't seen that combination of being very young, and [being] very good at sales."

To find the experience he desires, Mr. Basu believes he'll need to hire someone at least a couple of, and maybe several, years older than the company's current roster of employees. He worries, however, that age may become a challenge in finding the right cultural fit.

"I think there's an overlap between finding the right person [and] the right set of skills and history or experience," he says. "If the person is used to a more structured environment, where they've got very definitive goals and a more traditional way of approaching business development and sales, that might not meet the cultural requirement we're looking for."

The Challenge: How can the company attract more experienced business development talent while preserving its young startup culture?


Peter Cappelli, co-author of Managing the Older Worker: How to Prepare for the New Organizational Order and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania

The answer begins with being clear about what your culture really is. Culture is about norms and values. "Young" isn't a statement about culture. If the culture is one where people like to have fun at work and who don't take themselves too seriously, there are plenty of people who are not young who want that as well. The key is just to find them. You do that by being very clear to candidates about how your place works, the good and the bad – and it's not all good.

It's important to be aware that not everything about typical startup operations is functional or good. People lack experience, so they make a lot of mistakes, and it takes them a period of trial and error to get things right. One of the reasons for bringing in people with experience is to change that pattern. Do you really want to bring in – and pay for – someone who has a lot of experience about what practices work, and then not make use of that experience?

More generally, it may be nice to imagine that your small company will still operate the way it does now when it gets bigger, but that is a pipe dream. Rules and procedures become much more necessary when organizations grow. Your young workforce isn't going to stay young forever. Do you want to remain a small, informal place that is fun but not really very efficient or effective? Or do you want to be a bigger, more successful company that is more formal and where you might have to work to make it fun. Think carefully about what you really want.

Keith Sinclair, president and CEO, The Harris Consulting Corp., based in Winnipeg

Age is not as critical as fit. For people to function together effectively, they should share the same values and goals. This is less determined by age than [by] cultural fit and compatibility. Two people of the same age are not necessarily compatible, especially if they have differing personal values, perspectives and/or goals.

An experienced business development manager should be able to relate to a diverse audience and age level, clients and associates alike. She/he can act as a mentor and coach to the wunderkinds as they grow and develop their business.

In determining the selection criteria, take stock of what matters most in terms of values, culture and goals, then gear the hiring process accordingly. [The company] will benefit from someone who prefers a dynamic, entrepreneurial environment, but who also understands corporate protocols that will be invaluable to this young team, together with the credibility, relationships and competence that come with experience.

Dave Hale, CEO of Ottawa-based Soshal Group

I'm a 24-year-old CEO running a quickly growing business whose average age is 27. As we started to recruit more senior talent, we wanted to retain our culture, which we accomplished through the following:

Vision: You must clearly articulate your company's vision to current and potential employees. Doing so will allow prospects to understand your business and where they will fit in. Hiring great people is as much about their fit within your company as your company's fit in their lives.

Culture interviews: Soshal Group has a three-step interview process: résumé review and reference check; culture interview; and formal interview. The culture interview is conducted by two randomly selected members of our team (no executives allowed) to assess the person's fit within our team. If they get the green light, we invite them to the formal interview with executive team.

Respect: We always thought that it would be challenging to manage people twice our age but, in reality, it is much simpler than managing employees that are the same age. Mutual respect is the key to success. Older employees will be more likely to respect you as a young entrepreneur and, in return, you must respect them as a career professional.


Be clear about the company's culture

Make sure any potential hires have a firm grasp of the firm's norms, values and way of doing business. Make culture interviews part of the hiring process.

Realize age does not determine fit

Change your mindset to understand that culture is more about values and goals. Seek someone able to work with diverse colleagues and clients.

Be open to change

If the goal is to benefit from a new hire's previous experience, recognize that he or she may bring better ways of doing business.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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