all know a company is only as good as its team, which is why the hiring
process is so critical as you build out your venture. And anyone who
has made a bad hire along the way (as most of us have) knows that hiring
the wrong person can cost you far more than time and money. It
ultimately makes the difference between market leaders and market
laggards - or worse still - failed ventures entirely.
what can we learn from this? As I transitioned from an entrepreneur of
two decades to a VC over the last decade I was determined to study this,
and observed the same fundamental mistake made over and over again.
Startups often hire the brightest talent
they can find, expecting it to mean they will produce the greatest
results, without checking for whether those hires are the best fit.
fact, some startups in their enthusiasm recruit aggressively, selling
hard, or paying up to get the perceived best person, only to find they
just don’t fit. With all the right intentions, I see great
entrepreneurs, founders, investors and even boards use substantial
powers of persuasion to compete for what they consider the best
candidates. But with all the will in the world, a force-fitted hire may
work for some period of time but ultimately it will be rejected like a
misplaced organ transplant.
And finding people who fit does not
mean giving up on diversity. Personally, I believe strongly in the
benefits of diversity in teams and organizations. In fact, by definition
diversity allows a company to collect from a fuller range of talents,
capabilities, and learnings available in the labor pool. And I've also
seen first-hand that:
- diversity fosters more innovation and creativity;
- diverse backgrounds and experiences bring broader problem solving skills;
- different perspectives and 'lenses' born of diverse backgrounds help teams find solutions that might otherwise be overlooked;
a global customer base, a diverse workforce can better personally
relate to and understand international needs, styles and approaches.
- what should you do to ensure a prospective hire is a great fit? This
article shares a framework comprised of three areas of focus critical to
leveraging this framework, you should be able to build an A+ team of
hires that will play an integral role in your company’s success. The
three areas you need to address are:
1. Will they reinforce and add to your culture?
2. Will they really love the job?
3. Can they be successful at the job?
As simple as these steps seem to be, they play a vital role in bringing on the right type of hire.
Step 1: Will they reinforce and add to your culture?
question is important in that you don’t want to fall into the trap of
simply hiring for smarts. Many founders like to start with IQ
measurement, which is important (and will be covered in Step 3 below).
However, even the brightest person will fail if they are disrespectful
of your values, divisive or political, and unable to socially connect
with your team. So, your hiring process could start with a focus on CQ
(Cultural Quality) and EQ (Emotional Quotient).
Cultural Quality (CQ)
evaluating for Cultural Quality, you need to ask yourself: does this
person naturally align with your cultural values, work ethic, and style
of working? As part of this process you should feel comfortable with (or
better yet – inspired by) their passions, beliefs and aspirations.
In fact, there are specific interview questions designed to help you asses CQ, such as: What are you passionate about?
being mindful of CQ, each person involved in the hiring process should
be able to rate the cultural quality of fit of the candidate and should
ultimately check their gut instincts. The result? A hire that will be
additive to you culture and have a positive impact on company morale and
success rather than be dilutive or worse still divisive.
*If you haven’t declared your culture explicitly, take a look at approaches related to Company Formation because it’s foundational to this process and serves as a key filter for CQ and hiring.
Emotional Quotient (EQ)
CQ is EQ, which speaks to how aware people are of themselves; their
fellow players and how they build functional connections and
relationships that are appropriate to the situation.
This is an important measure in a startup hire for many reasons, such as the need for speed, multipliers and intimacy.
by definition have limited resources and the number one way they can
compete with larger players is by moving fast. That requires people
adept at what I call “speed teaming”. This involves the formation of
cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams that would simply be too
organizationally onerous or politically challenging in larger companies,
yet absolutely advantageous for startups. And individually, good
startup hires are great at experimenting and failing fast, yet learning
even faster. (I call this having a high “learn/burn” rate and it’s vital
for startup investing) This all takes a certain EQ in a team not just
with good EQ (collectively across the employee base) multiply their
effectiveness externally. For example, they are able to build
relationships with key partners that provide leverage in their sales and
marketing. And they build better stakeholder relationships in general
that improve their support base, costs or time to market with supportive
supply chains and even investor groups.
as a last example, EQ is critical for early customer intimacy, an
often-crucial part of the startup success formula. This intimacy helps
shorten the time and distance in market feedback cycles and drives
faster product cycles, fosters loyalty and translates into critical
elements in a business like low churn rate.
Without EQ in your team from the outset, a startup is likely to sub optimize or worse still face significant challenges.
sure you can think of many other reasons to recruit for EQ, so be sure
to include them in your hiring scorecard. It’s often proven to be a more
important measure than IQ in business success, and critical for a
functional startup. Example questions to get you started include:
- What do people think of you?
- What work relationships are you most proud of and why?
- What environment do you like to create?
… see the presentation below for other questions
you can see, in reviewing the first step alone there is a lot to
consider when interviewing candidates for your venture. Invest in
thinking differently about your hiring process and you will find
Step 2: Will they really love the job?
For an ideal hire, you’ll seek out your candidate’s passions and aspirations and check for alignments with the vision and mission of your business and the role you want them to play.
they are inspired to go after the goals you are pursuing and see their
particular role as meeting their own aspirations then they will likely
be a good hire. Why? Because they will be doing the job for their reasons - not just yours. You’ll tap into their energy – while inspiring them with yours – resulting in a mutual fit.
don’t worry about being too literal on this front. Few people - other
than the founders or real natural entrepreneurs – may have vision.
However, the candidate should at least be able to relate to your goals
in some way. Good leaders help people see the impact individual roles
and objectives can have on the bigger picture, ensuring employees feel
they really can make a difference.
Through this approach, you
can at least tap your potential recruit’s personal aspirations and
determine if they naturally align with those of the position offered. At
a minimum, make sure they are not opposed to it.
In the end, no
matter the assigned role, people tend to naturally fall back to doing
what they enjoy. Therefore, try to uncover their passions early and
check if they meet your needs and have a place on your team.
put, people who are passionate about what they do tend to take pride in
and thrive in their role…and the results and rewards typically follow
Step 3: Can they be successful at the job?
Evaluate for IQ and EKS balance
is often the easiest question to answer as it relies on more tangible
measures of your potential hire’s capabilities. IQ is very important,
but not every role is about IQ, so I strongly advocate breaking a job
down into the required Experience, Knowledge and Skills so that
candidates can be appropriately assessed beyond just how intelligent
The key question I always ask is:
- What is the most relevant Experience, Knowledge or Skill (EKS) you bring to the job?
(Obviously you have to drill into the EKS that you need to match your job spec.)
This question brings out the basics and if they’re listening the key word is “relevant”. This will tell you how much thinking they’ve done about your particular job and how (in their mind) they fit it.
All of this said, there is one area in particular I love to dig into - experimentation and problem solving.
If you’re going to make a difference as a startup, hopefully it’s a big
difference! And that may imply a breakout strategy or a breakthrough
discovery or even invention, and at least some experimentation. Example
- How do you experiment?
- In your previous role(s), what did you learn, prove and act on?
- What are examples of problems that arose and where did they lead you?
about what EKS is relevant to you and what attributes might be
important to the particular job you’re hiring for. And whether it’s
intense creativity for a hire in your design team or at the other
extreme, plodding patience for your support group, weight them on your
hiring checklist appropriately. One oft forgotten that’s pretty nearly
always required in a startup for example is risk tolerance.
Identify the A players
all want to hire ‘A’ players – and this can be accomplished by looking
at three important ‘A’s. With Ability being the first ‘A’, that we’ve
largely covered, two more to look for are Aptitude and Attitude.
EKS is great. But with the rapid growth and change typical in a
startup, you need the Aptitude to be able to adapt and learn new skills
and knowledge or you’ll just as rapidly fall behind. Personally, I look
for quick learners who are hungry to self-educate and are adept at
handling change. Remember, if you’re going to make real breakthroughs,
you will require a willingness to fail fast and learn even faster, as
you break into new areas with undefined outcomes or boundaries.
brings into play the other ‘A’. Attitude. Pursuing breakout
opportunities requires the right Attitude toward things like problem
solving, persistence, and participation in a team.
early stage startups for example, I look for self-starters with
positive attitudes who have the courage to embrace challenges as
opportunities to learn and not just for themselves, but also from and
A-players not only have the right Ability but also the right Aptitude and Attitude.
The + factor
this world of hyper-competition, people often extend the notion of ‘A’
players to looking for A+ players. The best startups are clear that they
have to have an edge in pursuing talent and they find ways to define
it. It can be elusive, and I have talked to many startups about this.
Everyone will have their own way of defining what makes their team stand
out. But what might be in that A+ for you? There are three things I
look for: Athletes, who are Self-Aware and truly Authentic. They’re all
pretty obvious qualities, but specifically relevant to startups.
(not necessarily literally physical athletes, though that can correlate
too) often triumph over adversity, using their strength of mind and
trained goal driven persistence. And startups in particular need the
agility of an Athlete to adopt to change as discussed earlier.
also love working with people who are self-aware because they are easy
to work with and they are open about their self-professed strengths and
weaknesses. This makes it easy to add people around them to complement
them and set them up for success. They then usually team better with
others and are amenable to mentoring and coaching.
last but not least, the hire really needs to be Authentic. Believe it
or not I find some people have even convinced themselves of some things
they really are not! For instance, a sales person may convince you with
their selling skills that they are a fit when they really aren’t.
Nothing against sales people, as I was one once, and respect the role.
But it’s their job to sell and you don’t want to sell or be sold in an
interview. There need to be authentic synergies between the startup and the hire.
Make Each Interview Count
ensure a great fit, you need to be strategic with your interview
process. This includes developing thoughtful questions and listening
closely to the answers. The slide show below includes a compendium of
many of the questions I like to ask, but consider them as guidelines and
nothing more. They are simply my own way of getting you to think about
how to get to know a candidate. Keep in mind: every job and every
candidate is different (and therefore every interview unique). Some of
the best interviews I have enjoyed have gone completely off script and
conversational in a natural way. In the end, I still try to cover the
key aspects that enable me to understand a potential hire thoroughly.
highly recommend you find your own personal approach to interviewing,
based on your startup’s culture, and then add your own style to it. For
example, sometimes to get my candidates to relax, I take them for a
walk. Ultimately, however you do it, you need to feel comfortable with
the real person in front of you.
And that brings me full circle to
conclude where I started out. It really is all about fit. If you can
work your hiring process to evaluate whether you genuinely have found
someone who can be successful in the job; love it for their reasons too;
and reinforce your culture, you are likely onto a great hire. It will
be a mutual fit, one that will not require you selling them to join you.
They will know it’s right for them, just as you will know it’s right
And as ever, with humility, I am curious to hear what you
have learned from your hiring experiences that we may share for other
entrepreneurs to benefit.