Your start-up should hire radical generalists…here’s why

mid-market, generalists

While “the big idea” is the driving force behind a start-up, without the right team in place, that’s all it will ever be: a big idea. 

This is where hiring what I like to call “radical generalists” comes in. These individuals are obsessively curious, natural explorers of ideas, keen experimenters and measured risk-takers. Radical generalists are a great fit for start-ups, as they can work across multiple roles at once and thrive in environments that move at pace.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the past few years in my role at Airwallex. Here are my tried and tested tactics for seeking out generalists, and how to get the best out of this talent pool.

1. They’re curious, and found outside a traditional hiring approach

Start-up life has been such a game-changer for me. No two days are the same, and I get to sink my teeth into all sorts of projects. Airwallex, alongside the other start-ups I’ve been involved with, offer a constantly evolving environment with new challenges to solve.

This suits radical generalists, who don’t like staying in one lane for too long. If you want these characters on your team, create and communicate a role that promises to mix it up and provide multiple changes of scenery along the way. 

Finding this type of talent can be difficult. You’ll need to be proactive and spend time sourcing on various channels including LinkedIn (I’ve found outreaching to individuals for a casual chat can be quite effective), as well as attending events and being visible in the broader start-up community. 

One of my favourite questions to ask in an interview is: “Teach me something I don’t know in the next minute or two.” This allows candidates to share what they’re curious about, while also allowing you to see how they approach clarifying questions and provide set context.

2. They’re courageous and comfortable to own their mistakes 

This isn’t a case of the cliched “What’s your biggest weakness?” interview question. 

Workplaces are fertile ground for mistakes, errors and poor decisions. There are no good days without bad ones too. No one is immune – from CEOs to the newest intern.

The blame game is never helpful. Instead, you want to bring on board high performing individuals who will confidently raise their hand and admit to any failings, take the hit and document any learnings for the rest of the team: a win-win for all. 

These individuals thrive on transparent feedback and use it as fuel to continue their personal growth journeys.

3. They’re considerate and know when to move aside

You may find that hiring a bunch of generalists within the same team means they want to work on similar things, akin to magpies drawn to shiny new things.

It is, therefore, essential to look for a type of generalist who is capable of knowing when it’s their time to lead, but, just as importantly, when to follow or get out of the way entirely. 

In interviews, I often ask potential candidates if they’ve ever delegated the leadership of a project to someone else, or better yet, had someone in their team run point because it was in the best interests of the business. Their answer will tell you if they possess the ability to recognise what role is needed in a particular situation. 

Generalists come in many shapes and sizes, but look out for candidates who demonstrate curiosity, courage and consideration to find the best fit for your start-up.