Sunday, January 3, 2016

Startup CEO: Make It Hard For Me to Recruit Your People


As a recruiter, I am in a unique position to tell startup leaders why their people are leaving. I see startups from two vantage points: There are the ones I recruit for, and all the others that are fair game for me to recruit from. I learn a lot about both types of companies. A person I am trying to recruit is a wealth of information about his or her employer – which has sometimes convinced me to switch gears to go after the company as a client rather than as a recruiting source.
You may wonder why I’m writing this post to help startup leaders make my job more difficult. It’s because I love startups and want them to succeed. I’ve been recruiting for two decades for a wide variety of situations and recruiting for startups is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I love it with a passion. I don’t want your people to be poachable. But this won’t stop me from trying.
I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but what prompted me to finally write it is a post by Mark Suster on leadership. I can diagnose the problem, but I won’t necessarily know the cure. Mark’s post is part of the cure. If leaders take Mark’s advice, they will make it very difficult for me to lure their team members away from them.
For the record, I want to say that there are fewer people that I have more empathy for than a startup founder. I am even guilty of a bit of hero worship and have made business decisions that are more in their best interests than mine. I recognize the inordinate pressure faced on a daily basis and, as a result, the type of resilient, self-reliant people they need on their teams; people who don’t need to be coddled, who can roll with the punches. But people are people, even people who love working at startups. They need reassurance, to feel valued, to know that what they are doing matters. This might even be part of the makeup of the type of people attracted to startups; they want to do something that really matters. They also need to know that you as a Founder/CEO keep your promises and that you tell the truth.
You need to make the decision of whether you can afford to spend the time, effort and/or money to replace anyone on your team. Weigh that against what it would cost you to do a check-in with them – or any other effort that it would take to remind them that they are an important member of the team and of value to you.
Here are some of the reasons prospective candidates either call me or will take my call – other than my sales and marketing ability and how great my client companies are:
  • There has been a significant change at the company or affecting the company and no one has talked to them about it. The CEO has not checked in to see how they are feeling about the change or whether it causes them any concern. This could be a significant hire, a significant fire (or someone leaving the company period), a change in product direction, a missed company goal, something that came out in the press, an action taken by a competitor, etc.
  • They were hired with a certain career expectation and something has happened to threaten this. For instance, someone is hired as “Director of X” with the possibility of becoming VP and then a C-level person is hired with a similar skill set, making a VP role less likely. Or another role is created that takes on some of the responsibilities that would represent a promotion for the person and someone else is hired for that role.
  • Someone is initially hired as a direct report to the CEO, and then a new layer is created and the person has a new boss.
  • The vision and/or mission they signed up for is not the vision/mission lived out on a daily basis. In fact, anything that is stated but doesn’t match up to real life can be disheartening. Anything.
  • The job was described differently than what they have experienced, and this has not been acknowledged. This is a wound that is hard to heal.
  • Similarly, they were promised something at hire that has not come to pass and this has not been revisited with them.
  • The culture was misrepresented. Huge. Startups are 90% culture. (Arbitrary and maybe exaggerated percentage, but you get the picture.)
  • The company is in trouble in any way and this was not communicated before the job was accepted.
  • The CEO denies the team of something that he/she does not deny her/himself. Or conversely, the CEO expects things of the team not expected of him/herself. (Yes, the CEO’s job is different and a lot harder but there is this perception that “we are all in this together.” And everyone expects that when the company succeeds, you are going to experience the biggest win so your self-sacrifice is a given.)
  • The Founder/CEO does not recognize her/his weaknesses as a leader and does not compensate for this in any way (such as hiring someone to make up the difference) or is not perceived as trying to improve.
  • The team member was hired at a lower salary with the promise that this would be rectified – and it hasn’t. And hasn’t even been discussed.
  • Anything that happens that affects the company’s viability or sustainability – such as product ship dates being missed, anticipated funding not received, necessary hires being prolonged. You may not be able to give reassurance that everything will be okay, but discussing this with your team will possibly buy you some loyalty, and some time. In those situations where the CEO is openly communicating, I am more likely to hear from people that they are not ready to talk yet because they want to give the situation a chance — but that I should check in later (which I do).
  • If anything is happening at the current company that was the reason the person left the last company.
This is not an exhaustive list, although reading it may have been exhausting. There are some things that you cannot control. What you can control is your communication. Poor communication from a leader is perhaps the biggest contributor to helping me succeed in recruiting away their people. Unfairness and dishonesty are high up on the list as well.
Some reasons were omitted from this list because it’s just whining. I don’t want to poach your whiners for my client companies. Those you can keep.
I honestly hope you will make my job harder.  And remember to read Mark Suster’s post.

P.S. If you are losing people and want an honest and educated opinion about the problem, reach out to me. I’m here to help.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Case for Hiring Remote Team Members

As I gear up to re-launch my recruiting business under a new name and brand (to be announced), I have been giving a lot of thought to the values of this company.  One of these values is flexible work.  Marissa Mayer made the headlines when one of her first actions upon joining Yahoo! as CEO was to eliminate remote work situations. I understand that in some situations working remotely is not ideal or even plausible, but my guess is that it could work in a lot more situations than what currently exists and that this would promote a company’s ability to hire the best people possible for job openings.  Flexibility might be a company’s most powerful weapon in the war for talent.
As the stakes become higher in finding the right person for a role, a company will most likely need to make some compromises.  In the circles within which I recruit, primarily, technology startups, for many roles it is becoming an employee’s market.  There are roles – for instance in “marketplace” companies – where there are few people on earth who actually are in similar roles and filling these roles presents a time-consuming and complex recruiting challenge. For other fields like acquisition marketing, the demand far exceeds the supply of well-qualified leaders.  One compromise may be to hire the next-best candidate who is local and can be in the office on a regular basis, rather than the person with the ideal background in another state who may not be able to relocate but could come into the office for a few days each month.   Or the compromise may be to hire the latter.  In this case, technology creates the possibility of regular real time communication and even face-time with team members who cannot be onsite daily.
Flexibility might be a company’s most powerful weapon in the war for talent.
My own experience with successful remote working relationships certainly informs my opinion.  I worked for a retained executive search firm with offices only 20 minutes away from my house, but because I had young children and also traveled regularly, I wanted to spend as much time at home as possible during those days I was in town, often working two to three days a week from home.  Not only that, I actually got more work done at home because I didn’t have the distractions of the office, and I was more inclined to get back at it after the kids were in bed.  Of course, I was not combining work with also providing full-time care to my kids, but I was much more present and visible than if I was away at the office.
One argument against working remotely is that it does not foster teamwork and collaboration.  This has a lot to do with the type of people you hire and how you manage them.  For several years, I worked freelance with a recruiting firm where I never met most of my coworkers in person.  To date, this is one of the most collaborative and cohesive teams I have experienced.  I attribute this to the personality and ethics of the person running the firm and the quality of the people she was able to attract and retain.  By the way, most of the team members were moms who worked part-time or had flexible schedules to work around things like school pick-ups. 
In my own firm, as I began to expand and needed to add recruiting assistants, I did not intentionally recruit moms, but two of my team members work part-time from home so that they can devote ample time to raising children.  Because these women are responsible, committed and efficient, they get a lot done and I am continually amazed at how much they care about their work. 
One of the things I hear in discussions about diversity is how women who opt to leave the business world for a season to raise their kids are a valuable resource that businesses are missing out on because of the lack of opportunities to engage these women on a part-time, flexible basis.  I believe that the companies that can create innovative solutions that allow them to harness this powerful resource will have an advantage.  I intend to build a company that models this.
While there are valid reasons for requiring team members to be onsite, and I actually sided with Marissa Mayer in her decision given the circumstances, I wonder how many company leaders limit their ability to engage the best possible talent – which might mean a remote working relationship – as a result of personal bias, a lack of creativity or even laziness.  If there is any community that should be able to find innovative, non-traditional ways to engage talent, it is the community I am crazy about – the tech startup world.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Simple Truth about Building a Company & Hiring



I recently added this statement to the homepage of my website:

Here is a simple truth: Great companies are comprised of great people.

If you hire, how often have you created your list of hiring criteria by first asking the question, “What is it that I want my company to be known for?” (or department, or team, or nonprofit…)

What is your definition of a great company?  You can change the words in the above statement:  Innovative companies are comprised of innovative people.  Customer-focused companies are comprised of customer-focused people.  And so on...

What are the descriptors that you want to be evident about your company?  Do these same descriptors show up in your job requirements?  Do you interview for these attributes?

After an interview with one of my clients last week, the candidate commented, "I was really impressed with the quality of the team. If these top-notch people who obviously could choose where they want to work, made the choice to work here, this tells me a lot."

The core team and the leadership team that you hire will determine the quality of subsequent hires, in other words, who is attracted to your company, and as a result, the culture you create, and your company's identity.

The smaller your team, the more profound the influence of each hire.  

Regardless of company size, the higher up in the organization a leader is, the more this person will influence what your company becomes, especially as this person begins to hire.  

Building a team requires careful architecture.  Create a blueprint early on that includes the attributes and qualities that you will look for in hires. This should be in direct correlation to the vision you have for your company. 


Friday, February 20, 2015

Eliciting Candor from References

Most references will not intentionally give you negative information. Yet, when you are considering hiring someone onto your team, the candid feedback of people who have worked with the candidate is one of the most valuable sources of pre-hire insight.

How do you get this candid feedback?  By asking questions that give the reference permission to share candidly without putting themselves in the position of saying something that can be perceived as directly negative or critical.

I always start by asking questions that invite the reference to speak positively about the candidate, before asking those few questions that may potentially be less comfortable for the reference to answer.

Here are some of the questions I ask in reference interviews that seem to elicit candid responses:

  • We don’t expect to hire the perfect person, but if Jen was hired, we would like to be prepared to reinforce her where needed – we would be committed to her growth.  What do you see as an area of growth for Jen?  In other words, what could she change with coaching or professional development that would make her even more effective?


  • What type of work environment would be the wrong setting for Peter? 

  • What is the most important thing the person hiring James should know about him?

  • On a scale of 1 – 10, how effective was Tanya’s work? (What would have made her rate higher?)

  • Most of us perform more effectively with certain types of support in place.  What type of support did Rachel need to be most effective?


My new favorite reference question generally comes at the end and the response to this question supersedes anything else the reference may have said about the candidate

  • On a scale of 1 – 10 how does Rohan rank compared to others you've known in a similar role? (If less than a 9 or 10, I ask what would have made him a 9 or 10.  If a 9 or 10, I may also ask what made him stand out from the crowd.)

Depending on whether I have time, I may ask one or both of the following:

  • Is there anything that I should have asked you and didn't?
  • Is there anything you were hoping I would not ask you?

These last two questions generally elicit little more than a chuckle – but the few times the questions have been answered, the information has been crucial.


What is one especially effective reference question that you always ask?


Note:  I wish I could claim credit for all these questions.  I've borrowed along the way, in particular from my previous employer The Dingman Company.  The "new favorite" is borrowed from Scott Cook, Co-founder of Intuit.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

An Outstanding Approach to Hiring... well, except for one thing...

I just came across a well-thought out post by Preet Anand, CEO of BlueLight on how his company hires.  It is well worth the read, and better yet, as a launching point for designing your own hiring process:

How We Hire: An inside look at our process

The only exception I would make to this process is the timing of the pre-interview survey, described here:

Before meeting, we send a candidate a quick 10-minute survey. This has two purposes:
1) It gives us context on the candidate before we meet. Why are they interested in our company? Why join a startup? What questions do they have for us?
2) It’s a pretty clear sign that someone isn't that excited about your company if they won’t spend 10 minutes to take your survey. This stops us from wasting time and lets us focus on folks who are very interested.

I would argue that at this stage it is fair that someone isn't that excited about your company.  You may not be getting "folks who are very interested" so much as people who more open to a new opportunity -- for whatever reason. 

Asking a prospective candidate to complete a questionnaire before they have had any live interaction with a member of your team may weed out some of your best prospects -- someone who is happy in his/her current role and very busy succeeding at it.  Too busy succeeding that they don't really have the time to complete a questionnaire for an opportunity that has mildly piqued their interest.  

The questionnaire may feel like jumping through a hoop; something you are asking them to do for your convenience rather than for their benefit.   

If the prospect is that appealing, offer to have a 15 minute conversation allowing the person to ask questions.  To best understand how to approach the conversation, start the call with "Why did you think it might be a good idea for us to talk?"

You may decide that you don't want to invest time in wooing candidates and are satisfied with the lower hanging fruit.  This may be a realistic concession for where you are in your business and the time that you have to invest in recruiting, and can still result in great hires. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Caring About Customer Care

I owe an apology to the owner of the upscale pizza franchise located a few miles from my home.  Well, it used to be. I drove by this evening and noticed that it had closed down.  I wondered if the inept customer service I received was representative of the factors that caused this restaurant's demise.

Three times in the past several years, they messed up my takeout order and I never complained to the owner.  After the second of two orders where the wrong items were prepared or items were missing, I stopped frequenting this restaurant for about a year.  When I decided to give them another chance, it did not take long for the errors to resurface and for me to abandon them as a lost cause.  It wasn't just the errors that were made, but the nonchalance of the staff.  No sincere apology or offer of compensation (a free salad?) for my trouble.  Rather than merely voting with my wallet, I should have complained to the owner.

I recently had the opportunity to help a client add three people to the Customer Care team, including the VP.  It was a grueling search for a very selective startup CEO.  This company is one of the leading startups in LA and the CEO's acute commitment to outstanding customer service is certainly at the heart of the company's success.

Seeing this CEO's example makes me wonder about the owner of the pizza restaurant. If he was fully committed to a high level of service, would he have more proactively ensured this?

As a consumer, I have complained bitterly about the demise of customer service in our culture.  But the aforementioned search was eye opening. Poor customer service, in the end, is not due to hiring inept people. It is due to a lack of commitment by management.  If customer service is truly a value, it will be evident in the company's culture and in its practices.  And this will include how the customer service team is hired and compensated. As I interviewed candidates for my client's Customer Care team, I was pretty shocked at how low some of the customer service professionals were being paid. I also met many frustrated customer service leaders who felt that their desire to offer outstanding service was not in complete alignment with the priorities of the company's leaders.  This was often one of the key reasons I was able to engage them in a conversation about leaving.  I came away from the search with increased appreciation for how committed many customer service leaders are, but often without the support of their senior management.

I am encouraged by several of the startups I work with, that represent a new breed of company where customer service is taking a front and center stage role in the company's value system, with the CEO leading the charge.  As a result of this trend, the demand for top-notch customer service leaders is growing.

Perhaps, it should not have come as a surprise in reading a recent article in the Harvard Business Review that a company's identity and culture are strongly intertwined with the company's strategy for creating value for customers. Not only this, I have also seen from my own behind-the-scenes peek into companies by attempting to recruit from them that a company with happy team members is more likely to have happy customers.

At Techweek Los Angeles last month, I sat in the audience as a local startup founder and CEO talked in glowing terms about his company's culture.  I nodded along with him because I had recently spoken with several members of his customer care leadership team whose experience matched what he described.  And, not surprisingly, this same team has won numerous customer service awards in recent years.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Anticipating the Other Company's Counteroffer

“I’m doing the happy dance!” the candidate wrote to me in an email shortly after receiving an offer from my client.  Within a week, the candidate sent an email to the client, reneging on her signed offer letter.  Bias aside, my client offered the better job opportunity, the most promising upside potential, and the more progressive culture with happier team members – all the reasons that the prospective employee had been excited about the new opportunity to begin with – and yet the loyalty the person felt to her current executive team had a strong hold over her.  
They made promises that from the outside-looking-in seemed questionable.  They apologized for neglecting her and promised to be more attentive to her career progression.  But, old habits die hard and I will not be surprised in the least bit if her situation returns to the level of dissatisfaction that first prompted her to respond to a recruiter’s inquiry.*
When you extend an offer, realize the precarious nature of the period following the offer acceptance while waiting for the prospective team member to finish her or his final weeks at the current company.  Proactively find ways to stay connected.  Keep in front of him or her a vision of the brighter future that awaits.
I can think of a particular situation that illustrates this point.  When I shared with a client, shortly after she extended an offer, that I strongly suspected that her prospective team member would receive a compelling counteroffer, the initial response from this very rational and clear-thinking CEO was "But he signed an agreement and this is clearly a better opportunity.  He's a big boy.  I don't need to hold his hand." 
Yet, a decision to change jobs, no matter how rational, will have emotional and relational implications.  Even in a less than ideal job situation, you can’t underestimate the potency of the shared history and relational equity the current employer can leverage.  Add to this, the natural human tendency to trust the known over the unknown.
After decades of helping to connect companies with the most attractive talent in the marketplace, and making some mistakes in the meantime, I can say with certainty that if you are hiring away a superstar from another company, assume that the current employer may go into overdrive in their efforts to convince the person to stay.  
It didn’t take much persuading for my astute client to figure out what she needed to do. This CEO stuck to her convictions about not “hand holding” but, in the weeks following the offer, she did begin to actively engage the prospective employee on different levels and in ways that were completely natural -- sending a welcome gift and congratulatory champagne, meeting over dinner for a preliminary strategy session to plan out action steps, soliciting his input for upcoming decisions, inviting him into the office to select his new laptop and a few office furnishings, and so on.  Other team members also kept in touch, expressing their excitement that he was joining the team.  The team at the new company did an outstanding job of helping the soon-to-be team member feel vitally connected before his official first day on the job. 
Meanwhile, his current company extended an unbelievable counteroffer including a title and pay increase that he had not anticipated in his wildest dreams.  However, during these last ditch efforts to keep him on board, guess who the superstar prospective hire used as a sounding board?  You may have guessed – his soon-to-be boss, based on the relationship that had begun during the interview process and that continued to be carefully nurtured during the transitional stage. 
As a recruiter, I also played an instrumental role, but what won out in this situation was the very clear match between the opportunity offered by my client and the candidate’s goals and aspirations and – equally important – the culture that the candidate was being invited to participate in, and the relationship that had begun to develop between the new team member, his new boss, and the rest of the team. 
Successfully withstanding a counter-offer doesn’t just begin after the offer is extended.  This starts during the recruiting and interviewing process.  The process must include transparency, full-disclosure, and laying the groundwork for a relationship of mutual trust and respect.  This goes a long way. 
Some questions to ask in the interview conversation:
  • What do you value most in your current role?
  • If you could change anything about your current job/company, what would that be?  Have you tried to initiate any of these changes?  What happened?
  • What are the three main criteria that you will use in determining whether to accept an offer?
  • If you decide to join our team, what could your current employer do to change your mind? 
*Within three months, this person contacted me to let me know things had gone awry and that she was actively looking.