Jan 29 2009

hiring as a core competency

Most startups spend plenty of time working on things like their product plans, requirements docs, market studies and the like. They are important aspects of running their companies and the kind of things that improve with collaboration and varied input from as well as from the iterative and inclusive process they typically require. You’d expect to find documents related to these sorts of activities on an intranet or company wiki and you’d expect that they’d be included in the occasional board package and discussed with advisors.

I’d suggest companies add something else to this list: a detailed overview of how they conduct hiring.

Most start-ups will tell you that hiring great people is one of the most important determinants of a company’s success. Why then is the process of hiring generally treated as a completely ad hoc exercise? In my view this leaves to chance and happenstance something that is much too critical to the successful operation of a business.  Here are some ideas I was recently kicking around with one of the companies I work with that takes the hiring process extremely seriously (and as a result has been extraordinarily picky about who they’ve brought on board).

  • Have a job description. I get it. You’re an early stage company and "people wear a lot of hats" around your shop.  Whatever. Get over that and write up a description of what you’re looking for.
  • There’s more to the job than the "to do" list. A good job description should include more than the daily task list for the job at hand. What kind of individual are you looking for? What kind of company culture are you trying to create? What personality traits are necessary for people to be successful at your business?
  • It’s not just the hiring manager’s job. I’m a big believer in having potential job candidates meet with people from across a company. This holds whether you’re in a 5 person start-up or a 10,000 person organization. I strongly believe the companies make better hiring decisions when more people are involved.
  • Try before you buy. While not everyone is open to a 30 day consulting gig before they come on full time, your interview process should include some kind of working session so you can get a good sense for how your job candidate works. This could be a product requirements meeting, a UI/UX discussion or building a sample financial model. It’s a great way to involve other people from the company even if they are not a part of the direct interview process and a well designed session should give you a good sense for how your candidate can contribute to the business.
  • Aim high. In the fast paced world of start-ups there’s a natural tendency to need to get everything done yesterday – including that latest hire.  As a result, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that someone is "good enough" or "better than not having anyone".  Not true. Don’t settle in your hiring. It’s better to delay a product/release/market launch to find the right person for the job than to hire low and suffer the consequences. A bad team member brings the productivity of the entire team down.
  • Trust your gut. Isn’t this true of most things in life? It’s definitely true of hiring. If you have a bad feeling about someone, move on.
  • If it’s not working, call it. This is such a cliche, I almost didn’t include it. But it’s too important not to mention. It’s part of the old adage "Hire slow and fire fast" but if it’s not working out, it’s time to move on (see "Aim High").

Much of this post stemmed from a conversation that I had with one of the companies that I work with. At this company we had a long discussion with the entire company (at the time only 7 people but we’ve repeated this company wide conversation as we’ve grown) about how to avoid hiring mistakes and the stake that everyone around the table has in making sure that we bring only great people on board.

So talk openly at your company about your hiring practices and work as a group to come up with your own plan for how you’ll make hiring a core competency . . . and then put all that on your wiki so you don’t forget it.