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Hiring Executives for a Fast-Growing Startup – Best Practices

high growth startup hiring executives

While an applicant’s resumé may get their foot in the door, the final decision often comes down to gut instinct: how does the hiring manager feel about an executive candidate? We’re only human after all – and humans are naturally prone to unconscious bias and errors. It is very hard for us to accurately predict how someone will perform in a role or a company culture based on one (or several) 60-minute encounters. This helps explain why almost half of all executive hiring is unsuccessful.

These miscalculations are particularly disruptive at the executive level of fast-growing startups, where personnel decisions can make or break a company that’s angling to grow as quickly as possible. In order to maintain momentum, it’s crucial to have a system in place that identifies, vets and hires the right people for senior leadership positions at the right time (which is often before you actually need them).

For this reason, I have invested in a robust system of checks and balances, based on industry best practices, to set Torch and our management team up for success. This includes developing a detailed job description for each role with clearly articulated objectives as well as a recommendation for how to allocate their time in a given month or year. While it’s impossible to limit error entirely, I have found that clarifying these expectations from the beginning has significantly improved our hiring process.  Because I know firsthand how challenging it can be to hire top executive talent in a startup environment, I wanted to share my approach.

Provide a Detailed Scorecard to Match Performance Criteria

In the 2008 New York Times Bestseller, Who, Geoff Smart and Randy Street describe “The A Method for Hiring” in an effort to solve for the low success rate most companies have when it comes to identifying the right candidates for executive roles.

One of the best practices Smart and Street introduce is a Scorecard: an amplified job description that outlines the purpose of a position within the organization and clearly articulates objectives and outcomes, as well as the core competencies this person is expected to bring to the table. In other words, the Scorecard outlines:

WHAT the Job Entails

The Mission is an executive summary that is clear, direct, and digestible for anyone who reads it. In my Scorecard, the Mission sums up what I strive for every day:

CEO of Torch Leadership Labs will evangelize the mission and leverage the impact of the company by articulating and aligning all staff around a clear and focused strategic vision.

HOW the Job is Completed

Objectives should be defined in finite terms. When looking to hire the best of the best, this is your opportunity to set the bar high so you will attract people who have what it takes to meet your standards.

My Scorecard outlines seven Objectives detailing what success looks like for this role.. Each Objective is then broken down into actionable activities to avoid any misinterpretation. For example, here are the activities associated with one of my top priority objectives, recruiting:

  •    Support/oversee the acquisition of world-class talent by focusing the company on a coherent recruiting strategy.
  •    Coach additional members of the team on recruiting best practices.
  •    Actively participate in recruiting meetings at strategic stages of the funnel.
  •    Support the professional development and happiness of key hires to ensure great retention.
  •    Maintain long-term relationships with “A players” throughout the tech industry to expand the recruiting network.
  •    Pull referrals from the expanded personal and professional network.
  •    Create partnerships with top executive recruiters and be Torch’s primary liaison to those recruiters.

WHO Can Fill the Job

Finally, the Scorecard should outline several competencies that your ideal candidate will exhibit. I’ve outlined 12 Competencies in my Scorecard, including:

  •    20+ years of operational experience with multiple leadership roles, including significant management experience.
  •    Strong analytical and quantitative skills.
  •    Equally comfortable as an IC, manager, and leader.
  •    Substantial expertise in some areas of leadership, operations, tech, entrepreneurship, organizational development, and management. Ability to learn and fill in skill gaps to scale with the role.
  •    Coaching experience: remain highly in touch in order to remain up to speed with the most relevant coaching practices. Ongoing commitment to personal development via therapy, mindfulness, reading etc.

In mapping my job description to this three-part format, I’ve outlined what my days should look like and how success will be defined. This approach can help you offer candidates a clear set of expectations in advance of interviewing or accepting the position. Beyond the recruitment process, however, Scorecards can be a helpful tool for evaluating performance and aligning around key business outcomes and responsibilities.

Illustrate How Time Will Be Spent Throughout the Year

One of the most valuable parts of a scorecard is the pie chart that visualizes how you expect an executive to spend his or her time based on their key objectives. This can be especially critical in a startup environment where leaders often wear many hats. Here is an example of how I expect to spend my time as Torch’s CEO over the course of a year. Keep in mind that the allocation will shift from day-to-day depending on where the company is in its evolution.

This birds-eye view has helped me identify when my commitments are out of balance and holds me accountable to the rest of the organization by providing insight into my priorities. This level of transparency also offers a reference point when I need to push back on certain requests in order to stay focused on my mission.

Build an Interview Pipeline

As I alluded to earlier, hiring an executive ultimately comes down to the connection between candidate and hiring manager. Especially at the senior leadership level, it’s a two-way street – there needs to be a mutual spark.

Given the importance of these roles, it’s recommended that you plan for multiple rounds of interviews, which can be quite time-consuming. This is another instance in which the Scorecard can save you time by serving as a guide for these interactions.

In their book, Smart and Street recommend a four-step interview process:

  • Screening Interview – This step is designed to whittle the field down to only top candidates. Aim for no more than 30 minutes focused on career goals, professional strengths and weaknesses, and past performance.
  • Walkthrough Interview – For those that pass initial muster, a second in-person interview will delve deeper into their background. In this interview, ask questions about educational background, and get into specific details of their previous jobs, how they performed, what they accomplished, and why they left.
  • Focused Interview – In this interview (or series of interviews), the Scorecard should inform most of your questions. Prompts will be based on the objectives and competencies you’ve identified. The goal of this step is to get a sense of how the candidate aligns with your Scorecard.
  • Reference Interview – Finally, if you’re confident in the performance of the candidate thus far, reach out to a select number of references for a brief phone call to verify your hunch.

In my experience, the Scorecard has been an invaluable tool when it comes to hiring for any position, but particularly for leadership positions. When you get it right, a great executive can have a profound, long-term impact on the business’s strategic direction, culture, and financial performance. Moreover, the risk of getting it wrong is that much more palpable in a fast-growing environment where the stakes are exceptionally high. For that reason, I recommend investing a little extra time in setting yourself and your company up for success in this department.

To see my Scorecard in full and how I’ve defined my role for Torch, click here to download the PDF.

Download Sample Scorecard