Ginni Lisk, head of people operations at Forward Partners, shares her advice to help entrepreneurs build a great early-stage team.
You have founded a business, you’re keen to make your first hire(s) and you’re too busy as it is. How do you ensure that these are the best hires you could possibly be making? And, how on earth do you find the time? Here are some do’s and don’ts for early-stage team growth. Remember, no business will succeed without great people.
Be honest. Good founders hold mirrors up to themselves. What are you good at? What are you getting better at? Start with a core transferable skill; are you technical, are you commercial? What’s your training? Then go further. How do you respond to stress? Are you disorganised? Are you good at North Stars, or are you best when you’re in the detail? Are you a natural motivator? Don’t be afraid of hiring people that are better than you.
Get feedback on your personality regularly from trusted sources and get comfortable articulating your weaknesses… in a tiny company, you’ll be found out quickly, so it’s much better to own it from the start, give a realistic preview to candidates and find complementary talent that adds strings to your bow.
Resource plan. Once a recruitment process becomes panicked, it always difficult; plan hires well in advance of the date you need them. Your core business plan shouldn’t be just numbers; factor-in the additional skill you need, and when. This is crucial to meeting company goals.
Design jobs effectively. In supporting any of our portfolio companies at Forward Partners, I always want to see that enough rigour has been put around designing the role before it’s taken ‘to market.’ You need to design something compelling; ‘rolling your sleeves up’ and ‘hashtag startup’ are accepted norms in early stage companies, and therefore only go so far. It’s totally possible for you to design an awesome, well-rounded role even though you’re at an early-stage. Remember that people want purposeful work, and don’t try and cobble a new role together around a small core remit. Keep it lean; if you can get the work done by improving internal process or systems instead of hiring, you should do that.
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Once you’ve designed a great, meaningful role it’s crucial that you…
…Know your talent pool. Always remember to take the lead from the external talent you’d like to hire; what are high impact career trajectories in this field and what do these people want in a job? Keep this research front of mind, and alongside an effectively designed job, you will avoid creating a ‘shopping list’ of disparate criteria, and avoid hunting for a unicorn.
Hire potential. Wherever possible, founders should aim to hire someone for whom the opportunity represents a step-up in their career. By offering a promotive move, you are more likely to find hungry talent and people who are passionate about pushing the needle for your startup. Work out where you can enable or train your new starters and build flexibility into your search criteria.
Asking the right interview questions will help you to understand the individual’s potential and help you ensure a mutually transformational hire.
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Network.. and then network some more, in the right places. Keep your resource plan in mind and when you’re on the train or in your Uber, read profiles on LinkedIn. Blocking out 30 minutes of your day purely to send messages, connection requests or to get a ticket to the next meet-up might not feel business-critical, but over time it increases the chances of your next hire being at your fingertips. A strong network of talented full-time potential hires is a great enabler of early-stage companies; as is a strong network of freelancers, contractors, mentors and experts who can parachute in or give you some advice to get some work out the door.
Start thinking about values. Yes, now! We’ve all seen the clichéd buzzwords of communal area wall space in offices. Most companies don’t spend enough time defining core values. As a founder you have the opportunity to build real values from the ground up. What values do you demonstrate as a leader? Do you need to adapt your behaviour to better demonstrate the behaviours you need to bring into the business? How do you really want people to work and what do you intend to recognise people for? What signal do you want your values to send to your users or customers? Forming these ideas early allows you to be constantly making values-matched hires, from the beginning. Your values will then evolve as you grow; taking an iterative approach will mean they constantly work for your business and are organically honed, over time, by the whole team. Over time, this will support not only your talent acquisition, but recognition, retention and development; helping you identify your future leaders.
Oversell or give an unrealistic preview. If you are building your first team at this earliest phase of your business, it’s crucial to build a realistic picture of the challenges you are facing and avoid dissonance when the new person joins.
Hire people when you don’t have time to manage. Self-starting, autonomous and high impact people are what early stage companies need, and you should be assessing these attributes during your interview process. However even the highest performers still need to be enabled; to have access to support and guidance, encouragement in tough times, and recognition in good times. Even at an early stage, as a leader you need to find the time for this – otherwise all the effort you put into your recruitment might end up wasted when it comes to retaining your awesome people!
Be too informal. Yes, you should be yourself and you have to demonstrate those values and behaviours we already covered. Of course, make time by meeting candidates outside of core office hours; absolutely, take people to lunch, grab coffees and be flexible and personal, and send those startup signals, however there is nothing worse (for the company or the candidate) than a series of standalone meetings without a sense of progressing conversation. My silver bullet? Make sure that for any candidate you bring in for a final interview, you have 90% confidence they are the person for the job. Give them a task to present back to you and make sure this is their new job to potentially lose – not their opportunity to convince you to offer. If you think this way and put more pressure on your earlier stages of the interview process, you will learn more, and dig deeper each time you meet the candidate, ensuring only the very best talent-matches make it through to your latter stages.
The caveat to my silver bullet? There is no silver bullet. Every founder is different and every early-stage business is different. What I can say is that the inability to effectively and emphatically communicate your early stage idea; why your product is important, whose lives you are trying to improve and what problem you are trying to solve is a warning sign. Don’t focus on growing your team until your idea is clear.