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The Most Important Question To Ask New Employees

Groupthink can set in for new employees in mere days–which is why you should ask them on Day One what’s wrong with your company.

The Most Important Question To Ask New Employees
[Photo: Flickr user Raymond Gilford]

When something isn’t working out quite right, CEOs are often the last to know. But not at Emerald Therapeutics.

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The biotech startup tasks all new hires with an unusual mandate: each new employee must fill out a “fresh-eye journal” criticizing and analyzing all aspects of the company. Newcomers are asked questions like “Describe a decision that the company has made that raises an eyebrow for you?” And their feedback is read by company co-CEOS Brian Frezza and D.J. Kleinbaum.

Brian Frezza and D.J. Kleinbaum

Frezza and Kleinbaum say they came up with the idea a year ago to help their startup avoid the trappings of corporate dysfunction and groupthink. After all, they founded Emerald with the idea of taking advantage of such weaknesses in the biotech industry.

New employees are the best at seeing problems and mistakes that CEOs and other longer-term employees have already accepted as commonplace, the CEOs say.

“You basically have this one-week window where they’ve not gotten into the daily workings of what we consider normal,” Frezza said. “We ask: Is there any situation where the emperor has no clothes on, that we don’t know of?”

New employees get three months to fill out the journal.

With 18 employees total, Kleinbaum and Frezza have reviewed seven journals so far. But the technique comes at a critical period for the four-year-old company.

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On top of its research looking for cures for viral infections like HIV and Human papillomavirus (HPV), the company is months away from launching of new kind of “cloud” laboratory that’s been in the works for years. Early in 2015, they’ll start offering scientists worldwide the service of sending in samples to be automatically analyzed by robots that can do the same experiments over and over again with a click of a button. Biotech companies will contract with Emerald Therapeutics to do basic analysis, giving their own researchers more time for specialized analysis.

Emerald Therapeutics mostly employs scientists who are taught to write code, meaning new employees tend to be critical thinkers. The journals are fast becoming an important way of keeping the company on track, even if it hurts to read them, the CEOs say.

“It’s a harsh experience being on the other side but very necessary,” Frezza said. “I call for a two-drink minimum for a fresh eye journal.”

Sometimes a fresh-eye journal highlights an overlooked company weakness. For example, a newly hired software engineer had criticized the company’s testing framework, saying it wasn’t rigorous enough and could lead to error-ridden research. So the CEOs put more resources into strengthening the testing framework, even though the move might have slowed down business.

The journals also ask employees to think about what’s going on at Emerald. The second question they ask is: “Describe in your own words the rationale behind why the company might have made this decision.”

Kleinbaum said that posing that question has helped employees consider the company more thoughtfully. For example, one employee immediately complained that the company held a lot of annoying meetings. But after a few weeks, he went back in his journal and revised his complaint, saying that some of the meetings served a purpose and helped things run more smoothly.

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The fresh-eye journals aren’t the only unusual thing about the company. Kleinbaum and Frezza work as co-CEOs who rotate on and off duty, keeping the company covered for much of the day.

The odd rotating schedules started out as a way to accommodate Frezza’s work finishing his PhD studies at The Scripps Research Institute while luring investors in Silicon Valley. The rotating schedule guaranteed that one CEO could immediately respond to any question posed by venture capitalist during their early years.

Now the schedules are more about allowing both CEOs to operate when they’re at their best–Kleinbaum in the morning and Frezza at night, while giving both some space to think creatively. Kleinbaum clocks in as early as 5:45 a.m. and rotates off work around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. Frezza starts his days around 11 a.m. and ends his day around midnight. They say the schedule gives them time to reflect on their work outside of their “regular” hours.

“When you’re a CEO you spend your entire time putting out fires, and it can feel de-stabilizing,” Frezza said. “It’s hard to take long views. I think it helps to have quiet time . . . to think about more than what’s happening in the next three days.”