I was recently advising a friend of mine who wanted to expand his team and hire some senior executives, and it occured to me that others could benefit from some of my thoughts on recruiting. As you know, hiring is a critical component in the success of any company. People and their ability to execute are what separates the winners from the losers in any industry. Hiring the wrong person, particularly in an early stage company, can cost you dearly. On the contrary, hiring the right person can make a huge positive impact creating significant leverage through what I call the A-Player domino effect. So here are some of my random thoughts on hiring new executives. I tried to make this as logical and short as possible – some of the thoughts below can clearly be expanded into longer posts.
1. Build a target profile: Put together a specification of the role, responsibilities, required experience, and intangible qualities you are looking for in a senior hire. Share the specs with your board for additional feedback to make sure everyone is on the same page with respect to the person needed and the major goals and objectives. Many times, the specification itself can highlight bigger issues about company direction if everyone is not communicating and on the same page. Does a board member want to change the goals for next year? Is everyone aligned with that change? Understanding who to hire and what their goals are incredibly important – hiring a person without having a spec will result in failure nine out of ten times.
2. With the specification in hand, put together a target list of potential companies where you can find this executive. The ideal companies are in the bullseye and others will be in concentric circles one or two removed from the center. For example, if you have a network security startup, the obvious players will be other security companies that sell similar products at similar price points with a similar distribution channel. One concentric circle out from the bullseye could include networking companies that have a similar business model and distribution channel. From an experience perspective, the perfect candidate will be someone who has had a VP role (if you are looking for a VP) and worked at other large brand name companies as well as been successful at earlier stage entities. Like in darts, it is not easy to get a bullseye (unless you spend too much time in the local pub), so you need to think of all of the tradeoffs that must be made in terms of the characteristics of a new hire which will include qualities like leadership, requisite experience, and domain knowledge. In general and depending on the role, I tend to prefer leadership and experience over domain knowledge and hungry, up and comers over rich and happy.
3. Begin the search – look in your own network – trusted people you or your board have worked with before always come first as long as they meet the spec. Putting a spec together eliminates the need to do favors and hire friends. If you can’t find someone in your network, bringing in a knowledgeable executive recruiter can help. The right firm will always help you find the person not necessarily looking for an opportunity – many times that is the person you want for your company. When picking a search firm, I prefer boutiques or small, highly focused shops which tend to have the partners doing the work and making the initial calls to prospects. Your executive recruiter is an extension of your company and must be able to give a great pitch to high level prospects. A recruiter who gets it and can properly sell the story to prospective hires will truly help the company.
5. Make hiring a priority – You have to stay on top of the search. If you are using a recruiter, I suggest having weekly status calls in the calendar with members of the search team, typically one or two from the company and one or two board members. Regardless, if you want to bring high caliber talent in quickly, you have to make hiring a priority. The more time you put into it, the more you will get out of it. Whatever you do, do not slowroll the process and leave people hanging. Change a few meetings, etc. if need be, to get in front of the right person sooner rather than later.
6. Reviewing resumes – Resumes are not everything but what I look for is a person’s story. Do they have a history of demonstrated success? Have they worked at other blue-chip startups or well known companies and been a top player? Were they responsible for delivering meaningful results and contributing to the success of the company? These are just some of the things that cross my mind when reviewing resumes. A history of working at companies that repeatedly failed will certainly worry me.
6. Interviews – It is always good to have a proper blend of selling and interviewing in your first meeting. Many times you will know by a person’s resume whether they have some of the experience needed to do the job. Obviously you will want to dig into specific examples of how the prospect overcame challenges, drove new initiatives, led and hired a team, etc., but always leave some time to do some selling on the opportunity. Assuming you like the prospect, you should get another set of eyes like some of your VCs to meet with the candidate and interview him. As you meet a number of prospects, chemistry becomes an important determining factor in hiring. The superstar on paper may not always be the best fit for the team if the chemistry is not there. I always like to use the Detroit Piston/LA Laker analogy. Both teams had consummate professionals playing at the highest level of basketball but the team with all of the superstars did not come out on top – there was no chemistry. As you move a candidate further in the process, doing backchannel references are the most important ones you can do. That means you need to call some of the other VCs and execs at prior companies who are not on the candidate’s reference list. You can learn alot about a person from these checks. I have passed on a number of candidates based on some negative backchannel references.
7. Close them – now you have the right person, get the deal closed as quickly as possible because as I have said before the longer it takes to close a deal, the more chances it has to fail.