No candidate is perfect, so clarity about the necessary requirements and more importantly the tradeoffs is vital.
Firstly, there is a functional role for a job and this should be clearly specified; for example, understanding marketing is pretty important for VP Marketing candidates. Secondly, and more importantly (and ironically, usually unacknowledged or even proactively denied by many founders), you should consider non-functional requirements. In entrepreneurial and fast-growth companies, there is far greater need for: team-management skills, leadership skills, recruiting skills, and selling skills (yes, selling skills – every employee sells the product, the company, themselves and other employees, both internally and externally).
Focusing solely on functional requirements misses crucial skills.
Beyond definable requirements, there’s a need to assess contribution – think of that as “value addition” and the ability to “challenge the senior team’s thinking in a cooperative way.” The latter is more important than the former and mostly ignored in hiring. Why is it important? Well, since the ground rules for markets and competitors are seldom fixed in entrepreneurial environments, every senior team member must question and stretch every other team member, no matter what their functional area. You are usually dealing with new business models, new markets, new channels or new strategies therefore conventional wisdom may not apply. You need a balance between hiring an expert in the area and a great athlete who is flexible and can adopt to your domain. This is what I call experience or gene pool diversity. They need to go beyond their functional skills to contribute to the debate on strategy, competitors, recruiting, go-to-market strategies or product specifications. You get the idea! While not every member of a senior team has to possess an “extra-functional” role, the more members that can contribute, the more agile and responsive the startup will be. This is often the X-factor for many successful organizations.
A key executive should make all existing team members better at their job.
Prior to engaging with any candidates, compile a brief or a specification for the position. It is important that your whole team agrees on what that specification is. I am amazed at how often major disconnects exist without the team members realizing it. A checklist of:
Fit with corporate culture
The brief should be circulated among current key executives and signed off by each. Be careful about where to seek advice. I often say it is important to know whose opinion is valuable in which context. A person isn’t automatically qualified to offer advice simply because they have been a VP Marketing elsewhere. Have they seen rapid growth and big success before? Are they familiar with the requirements of a fast growth, your desired scale, or your big ideas startup?
When you have multiple candidates, assess each against the same criteria defined in the brief and compare the various candidates in a table. This goes well beyond the basic spec, which often does not even exist on paper. Again, use people from your sister portfolio companies to help define a spec for the position.
Also keep in mind the matter of a team’s “experience diversity,” which usually adds to better discussions, more responsiveness and agility to market circumstances and changes. This is covered separately in our note on gene pool engineering of a team, but should be part of evaluating the final candidates. Engineering in diversity of experiences, markets, even biases into a team, can dramatically increase the probability or scale of a team.
Remember, by the time it has 50-100 employees, a good startup should have two or three senior leaders who can step up and be the CEO, if a change is needed. Keep that in mind during all executive recruiting activity.
I encourage entrepreneurs and CEOs to create positions for strong candidates – even if that position doesn’t exist. One seldom goes wrong with “collecting talent” even if one does not have a role or can’t afford it! I personally assess the quality of a CEO by determining if they’ve built a strong enough team to meet this requirement. I realize strong is a relative term, but consider asking sister portfolio companies or your venture capitalist to help you assess “strength” against the best teams in your industry.