At Lab42, we have tried several approaches, some of which are borrowed from our startup friends. Below is what has been successful for our team.
- Network, even when you do not have an open position. Talk to everyone who comes recommended by someone you respect and trust, even if the timing is not right. It’s important to build rapport with people you want to hire when the time is right—maybe once you have the funding, or when that dream client signs on the dotted line. That way, you’re not starting at square one when it’s time to hire, and the candidate feels valued right off the bat.
- Duplicate the traits that make employees successful. As your company grows, you’re likely to see certain common traits in employees who are a good fit for the company and successful in their given role. Try to duplicate these key traits that make employees successful as you screen for potential candidates. For our team, we’ve discovered that the most important traits are a fundamental knowledge of the market research industry, a client-services mindset, a sense of urgency, and a propensity to be cost-conscious. For our sales team, in addition to the traits above, we look for candidates with not only sales experience, but also strong account management experience. Since we are a small team, account management skills come in handy when there are multiple clients and projects to juggle at a given time.
- Simulate a day-to-day task during the interview process. If time permits during the interview process, you should schedule time for a candidate to simulate a ‘typical day’ exercise, allowing you to gauge real strengths in action and preview the working dynamic among team members. We have found value in having candidates go through an exercise close to what they will be doing on daily basis, even for non-technical roles. A surprise side effect of this is pre-bonding for new team members, not to mention the time it saves time in initial training, as it helps add perspective when they have been through key tasks before. For example, we have potential sales candidates do a mock sales presentation either on what they are currently selling or how they would pitch us to a prospective client. The purpose of this is not so much to evaluate the content of the presentation, but to notice the ‘soft stuff’ that they will take with them from one job to the next. To accurately gauge skill sets for more analytical roles, create an Excel test that mimics day-to-day tasks. If time is not on your side or you’re looking to make a junior hire, try a mini preview exercise by asking candidates to prepare something in advance of the in-person interview or assigning ‘homework’ afterward. This step is especially valuable for startups as you will gauge how the candidate works with limited direction.
- Take note of email communication. Observe how well candidates express themselves in emails and their timeliness in follow-up. This not only indicates their level of interest in the position, but it also lends insight into their overall communication style. It is important that their style of communication is a fit for your business, especially since this skill can be particularly difficult to adjust.
- Be candid about current challenges. Given that startups compete with more established companies for the same candidates, you may feel pressure to sell candidates on the opportunity during the interview process, often at the cost of being candid about the challenges and areas that need improvement in your company. Unfortunately, this could result in dissatisfaction and disappointment for the new hire, as they ultimately may feel that you withheld valuable information from them. This is also a good opportunity to see how the candidate reacts and offers to be a part of the solution.
- Get the team involved. It is valuable to involve multiple people in the decision process, from screening candidates and conducting interviews to being involved in post-interview decisions and conversations. Specifically, try to get more than one current employee involved at each stage of the process, with multiple people taking part in the same interview. They may perceive a candidate’s response differently, and it’s valuable to get all perspectives. If you are the primary decision maker, you should also be cognizant of the fact that people may be inclined to hire a version of themselves. Remind your team that new hires should share the same company values, but ultimately, shouldn’t be an exact duplicate of existing team members.
- Create an agenda. When multiple team members are involved in the process, set an agenda so everyone is clear on the schedule and their individual roles in the process. Doing so ensures that you get clarity on key topics that will drive your decision to make the hire. It also makes each conversation more worthwhile and productive.
- Check references. This may seem obvious, but get in touch with their previous bosses and colleagues. Even if the candidate provides references that are likely to sing their praises, it’s important to take the time and be thorough at this point in the process. Do your best to avoid asking leading questions, and don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. Listen for nonverbal cues, such as their tone in expressing the candidate’s areas of improvement, which can be more telling than what they’re actually saying. If you feel they are being vague, try to pull more out of them by asking open-ended follow-up questions. In the past, I’ve been inconsistent with thoroughness and have rushed through this step, in an effort to fill a position quickly. Now, even for roles that I want to fill immediately, I make it one of my biggest priorities in the hiring process.
- Be upfront with leap-of-faith candidates. There may be some candidates who aren’t a perfect fit, but you decide to take a leap of faith anyway—maybe they need a little more experience or need to develop a certain skill set. In this case, once you decide to make them an offer, be as candid as possible about areas in which you would like to see them develop. It sets expectations right off the bat and gives candidates the opportunity to step up to the challenge.
Building a team with the right mix of talent and expertise takes significant time and energy, but it’s all worth it when you find the right person for the job—not to mention the gratification in seeing how each individual helps the team move forward in a new way.