Startups like to hit the ground running, but taking a more strategic approach to hiring will set them up for sustained success
Congratulations, you started your own company. That dream you’ve nurtured for years is finally becoming a reality. You’re striking out on your own and you’re going to be the boss. After that initial euphoria, if you’re like a lot of founders, you might get a twinge of panic and think, “We need to hire more people if we’re going to really get moving.”
Sometimes, founders’ hands are forced because venture capital comes with investors’ expectations that they’ll allocate a certain percentage to hiring. Other times, all that cash is burning a hole in founders’ pockets and they want to assemble a dream team. Imposter syndrome starts to creep in, and they want to hire experts, forgetting it was their own skill and hard work that launched the company in the first place.
But, warns Brianna Rooney, CEO and founder of strategic talent partner TalentPerch, moving faster doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hire more. There are probably people in the core team launching the company with you who have the transferable skills necessary to take on a host of assignments. This will give you the time necessary to establish the company culture and values that will attract the right kind of people, keep them, and result in sustainable hiring.
Before you just go hiring willy-nilly, it’s important to set the company’s values. Hiring is a two-way street, and the people you bring on want to have a positive experience and be a good fit just as much as you want them to.
“What do we care about? What are our values?” Are important questions for founders to ask themselves so they can instill those values in their companies, and then go out hiring.
“If there’s something that you value, then you have to make sure every single person you bring in values the same thing,” Rooney said. “Because if you don’t, you’re going to have so many issues throughout.”
Once negativity and lack of communication seep into the workplace, they can spread like wildfire, and productivity goes out the window. The environment can become toxic and ruin the vision you as the founder had. No employee, no matter how skilled, is worth bringing on if they have that effect.
Once you’ve established those values, make them a part of the interview process when it comes time to hire. On paper, a candidate might seem like the perfect fit for the job, but they have to be a fit for the culture too.
“If you don’t stay strict asking questions about their soft skills or about values, you’re going to go on different tangents and focus on the work, as opposed to additionally, ‘What can the person bring to the culture?’” she said.
The work matters, of course, but life in a startup is often about pivoting. You need people who can embrace change, embrace failure, and put their skills to a host of different tasks.
“As a startup, you have to figure out what it is that you want then go find those certain people.”
A bit down the line, you have the culture in place, the company is not just surviving but thriving, and you’re ready to grow. It’s crucial to have strong leadership and management in place at this juncture. As the team grows, founders have less time for individual interaction with everyone. You need a solid structure to keep the values as an everyday part of the work.
Too often, Rooney says, companies just promote whoever has been there the longest when they might not be the best fit for a management role and might not want to be a manager. Junior staffers are going to need mentorship and structure. They’re going to need constructive feedback. They going to need the company to help them grow.
“I would first make sure that your hiring managers and managers have been trained to do that,” Rooney said.
Ask managerial candidates why they want to be managers and what their leadership philosophies are. It’s one thing to be very good at the tasks they’d be overseeing others on, it’s quite another to be a good teacher and a good leader.
Then you can identify what skills might be missing from upcoming projects and whether you can cross-train current employees to fill the gaps or if you do need to hire more people. Don’t fall into the trap of hiring for just one project.
“When you hire someone, you have to have a year plan for them,” Rooney said. Companies focus on the first 90 days because studies show they’re critical for retention, “but I think you have to think of a year, and if you think anything less than that, you’re going to get into some problems.”
If you are going to hire, you want to attract the kind of employees you want by showing what it’s like to work at your company on your website and with tools such as LinkedIn Showcase Pages.
Include details about the manager and team new hires will be joining and illustrate why a candidate would want to work for your company.
Onboarding & Retention
Transparency is hugely important throughout the hiring process, but it shouldn’t end there.
“I’ve seen so many companies completely drop candidate experience once they sign the offer letter,” Rooney said.
That’s when it should just be ramping up. Have everybody in the company take a moment to drop the new hire a note welcoming them to the team. Mail them some company swag with a handwritten note making sure to convey that you care about them and are excited about them coming on board. Make the experience one that is personalized yet easily replicable for future hires, so it becomes part of the culture.
Keep lines of communication open when they start work. Make sure their manager is there and working closely with them the first week and give them at least one training buddy they can go to with questions. Ideally, you’d give them two training buddies, one they can go to with specific job-related questions and someone in another department they can talk to more broadly about the company and the culture.
Make sure they know what success in their position looks like and put it in writing.
“So, if I’m joining your company, then I already know that I need to complete XYZ and I need to complete it by this time,” she said. “Not only have you talked to me about it, but I have documentation on it.”
After the initial onboarding period, check in frequently. Don’t wait for the yearly performance review, set aside a few minutes every week or two — and at the close of important projects — for a brief conversation. It can just be chit-chat or asking more important questions like, “Do you still feel challenged at work? Is this still the job that you really like to do?”
These questions often go unasked because leadership is afraid of what the answers might be. They might have a sense an employee would be a better fit in a different department or doing other tasks, but they don’t want to have to train someone else to replace them.
You can’t keep them forever. Eventually, people move on to different roles, different companies, or even launch their own startups. Let them know that whenever they do leave, you’re dedicated to them leaving as a better version of themselves, Rooney advises.
That’s how founders can get the most out of their hires and the most out of their startups.