This is a guest blog of Hannah Keal. Hannah is Managing Partner at our partner Unleashed, a far-from-your-average consultancy that supports high-growth businesses scale both successfully + sustainably.
Founders, you’re missing out on some skills.
As a startup People person, I’m often asked by founders to help them define roles that are going to be key to their business’ future success. This process is both vital and wrought with challenge.
It’s important especially for early stage businesses because every single hire is going to impact both the success of the company and your emerging culture.
It’s often difficult because this might be the first time you’ve hired for this role – and even if it’s not, if you’re still in the weeds of defining or expanding your core offering (which most startups are) it’s highly likely that there will be some ambiguity about the shape the role will take.
There are a few tempting traps that you might fall into under these circumstances.
- ‘The bucket list’ – you’re hedging your bets here and listing every single skill that you might need in this role. Just to be on the safe side.
- ‘The right here right now’ – instead of accounting for the fact that the role will inevitably grow and change as the business or function scales, you might design a job description based solely on what you need right this second.
Both of these come from a very human place – ‘the bucket list’ approach – relates to our fundamental need for certainty. If we plan for, and hire for every eventuality, then it feels like we have a bit more control over the future of our business. However, in practice, there can be tonnes of problems with this approach. Firstly, no matter how many recruiters you speak to, this
person unicorn will be bloody hard to find. Secondly, you’ll skew your applicant pool – it’s well established that men will apply for roles when they meet 60% of the criteria, whereas women tend to apply for roles where they’re nearer the 100% mark. So you’re cutting off a huge potential talent pool. Finally, if you do find your perfect match, you’ll inevitably end up leaving them frustrated and demotivated if the job they end up doing in practice actually doesn’t allow them to use their skills in the way they want.
The ‘right here right now’ approach is equally problematic. Why? Well, again, it comes down to a misalignment of expectations. If you hire without considering how the role might evolve with the business, or you don’t make explicit that the role will change and evolve over time (like most roles in a startup!), then you’re again not setting you or your new hire up for success. At best, this is a steep learning curve, at worst it’s a recipe for an early and potentially painful exit.
So what to look out for instead?
I would argue that instead of taking either ‘the bucket list’ or the ‘right here right now’ approach, founders should instead focus on two things.
Firstly – cultural add – i.e. what will this person bring to the table that will help us cultivate the culture that will enable us to be successful. Notice that I say ‘culture add’ here rather than ‘culture fit’ – that’s completely deliberate. Of course you need to find someone who’s aligned with your company values, but to find an amazing person who helps enhance and develop the culture, it’s important to look beyond people who merely ‘fit’. All too often hiring for ‘fit’ = hiring in your own image.
Secondly, I believe there’s some core skills and behaviours it’s useful to screen for that come in handy within the startup environment. I’ve chosen to focus on 3 of these below that I believe are important for the vast majority of roles and are often overlooked.
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Coming in hot to kick us off I have… systems thinking. There is a lot of good work out there on systems thinking tools and mindset (highly recommend this primer), but in essence, I like to view this as the ability to approach complex problems with context.
If you boil down some of the core reasons why startups fail – failing to connect with customers, lack of product market fit – a lot of this comes down to an inability to look at things in a systematic way.
Failure to understand what you’re disrupting before you dive headlong into disrupting it. Failure to consider that customers are actually people with a complex set of motivations and needs rather than simple archetypes. Failure to account for structural and legal blockers. The old adage of moving fast and breaking things sounds snappy, but when the ‘things’ are stuff like laws or customers trust, then you generally run into trouble. Moving with velocity is important – but so is equipping yourself with context.
The more people you have in your business that can be curious and passionate about the nuance of what you’re trying to tackle and see the whole picture rather than just part of it… the better.
To test this, try: setting your candidate a practical test based on a problem you’re actually facing. Set a clear brief that asks the candidate to consider the broader context and set aside time to explore that context. Consider also how the candidate is able to clarify different parts of the complexity, make connections between these parts and think long term.
Strong opinions, weakly held
Generally speaking, early stage businesses operate with change as a constant. If this is the case, you want to hire people who are not just capable of changing their mind, but actively embrace that change (because it signifies learning and growth).
This growth mindset is absolutely key if you’re striving to create a diverse team where constructive conflict thrives and different perspectives are welcome. You can build this over time by creating a culture of psychological safety, but it’s also not a bad idea to look for it whilst hiring.
To test this, try: simply asking ‘when was the last time you changed your mind about something important?’ – be sure to dig into what it took for them to completely take a U-turn on their own opinion. Someone who flip flops can be as detrimental as someone who stands by their opinion ‘till death.
Building a business is f**cking hard. I’m sure this will be news to no-one, least of all founders. It’s a damn sight easier if you hire people who value kindness and want to create community + look out for one another. I’ve written elsewhere about the value of building kinder cultures and to do that at scale, your early stage team members need to role model that kindness.
Kindness is easy to dismiss as ‘soft’ and ‘fluffy’ – and I’ve even often heard people describe cultures as being on a scale from ‘supportive’ to ‘high performing’ but in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The concrete behaviours that demonstrate kindness on a day to day basis are absolutely essential to a high performing, aligned, mission driven team. If you’re planning to grow at a fast pace, kind teammates will ensure that no-one gets left behind in the transition by taking the time to check in with each other and talk about the impact of that growth. Recognising each other’s individual and collective achievements is key to helping people see the connection between the work they’re doing and what the company is trying to achieve. The ability to empathise helps prevent silos developing within your team and encourages the sharing, rather than hoarding of information.
To test this, try: asking ‘what do you really value in a teammate?’ or ‘what kind of culture would bring out the best in you?’
I hope you’ve been making notes and have enjoyed this rundown of the important, but often overlooked things that you should look out for in your next hiring round. Now, put it into practice and let us know how you get on!