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How to interview key hires August 25, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in hiring, HR, interviewing, start-up, startup, startups.
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Startup founders often need to hire people into areas that they don’t know anything about. This can be a technical founder hiring a VP marketing, a business development founder hiring a VP Engineering, or a product management founder hiring a VP Ad Sales. Often these hires are some of the most importantthat a company makes as they fill the holes in a founding management team.

There are three things that you should test a potential hire for:

1. Technical Skills
2. Cultural Fit
3. Performance Skills

Technical Skills: These are the skills strictly required to do the job. They are typically based on training or past experience. Examples include ability to program in Ruby on Rails, ability to run an Search Engine Marketing campaign, ability to sell 6 figure ad deals to movie studios etc. Resumes provide a good first screen for technical skills.

If you do not know anything about the field of the candidate that you’re hiring, your ability to discern their level of technical skills is limited. You should have a domain expert (who does not need to be an employee of the company – advisers, investors and friends can fill this role) interview your candidate to make sure that their expertise matches their resume. Having more junior employees within that function interview the candidate (ie having the team interview the boss) can be helpful but is not always enough. Often more junior employees don’t fully appreciate the full scope of their bosses’ jobs.

Cultural Fit: Companies are groups of people, and all groups of people have culture. This can include styles and modes of communication, work norms, modes of decision making and many other elements that can be difficult to define. Any team members can interview a candidate for cultural fit.

You have to be careful not to let “cultural fit” become a code word for suppressing diversity. The key question to ask is not, “Is this person different from the norms of our company culture?”, but “Could this person be effective in their job given the norms of our company culture?”. For example, consider a startup comprised only of recent engineering graduates with a norm of getting to work around noon and working until 3am, that is considering hiring a VP of Marketing who has to leave the office at 5pm to pick up her kids from daycare. It isn’t reasonable to ask if the VP Marketing will be in the office at midnight. It is reasonable to ask if the VP Marketing will be able to do all the required communication and coordination with the engineering team during the five hours that they will both be in the office together.

Performance Skills: Whereas Technical skills tell you if a person can do a job, Performance skills tell you how well they can do a job. These include characteristics such as attention to detail, problem solving, initiative, leadership and team work. Anybody can interview a candidate for these characteristics. However, there is a trick to doing this effectively. Asking someone “how tolerant are you of ambiguity?” is not a good differentiator. One of the most effective techniques I have come across is called behavioral interviewing. When I was GM of Netscape I put my entire team through the Skill Analyzer training from Novations to learn this technique of interviewing. I thought it was extremely helpful in creating a structured, standardized interviewing process.

Later I’ll talk about some of the key elements of Behavioral Interviewing.

Comments»

1. Andrew Chen - August 25, 2008

Those are some great tips. I followed up your post with thoughts on how a startup should determine its hiring needs. So before the interview, how does a startup decide it needs to actually hire someone?

Post is here:
http://www.conotes.com/blog/how-to-pick-startup-members

2. Jason - August 26, 2008

Useful tips. thanks

3. todd sawicki - August 26, 2008

great post jeremy – especially liked the way you dealt with diversity of culture and focusing on whether a different approach might yield an effective individual.

4. David Mullings - August 26, 2008

This is a great post and I look forward to the follow up.

I especially liked the part about cultural fit because and what is the right question to ask. I think that startups tend to suffer most in that area – not knowing if someone will fit in and so hiring people just like the founders.

5. shinkaze - August 26, 2008

I find that all interviews break down to three questions.

1.) Can they do the Job?
2.) Do they want to do the Job?
3.) Do I want to work with them?

6. How to interview key hires II: Behavioral interviewing « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - September 10, 2008

[…] in HR, hiring, interviewing, start-up, startup, startups. trackback Recently I posted about how to interview key hires, focusing on the three areas to test a potential hire on: 1. Technical Skills 2. Cultural Fit 3. […]


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