Dec 12 2004

The Hiring Challenge

The Hiring Challenge

Fred had a great posting a couple weeks back called The Talent Economy.  In it, he writes:

The CEOs who survived the downturn with their companies intact proved that they were tenacious, creative, hard nosed, and financially savvy. Now they are waking up to find out that the game has changed. They have to start focusing on the people side of the business a lot more. Hiring, managing, and retaining the talent is back at the top of the priority list.

Retaining good people has always been at the top of my list, even in the dark days.  But hiring and managing in an environment that’s once-stagnant-now-growing presents some real challenges.  Many of these aren’t unique to startups — it’s always tough to find A players — but there are three things I’ve observed that are uniquely tough about hiring in an entrepreneurial environment:

1. Defining the job properly.  Most open positions in growth companies are for newly created positions, and even jobs that are open for replacements have usually changed since the original job was created.  A newly-written, clear, crisp job definition is an essential first step in the recruiting process.  But more than just spending the time to write out bullet points for key responsibilities, hiring managers in startups need to do two important things.  First, they should recognize that today’s job definition may evolve over time, try to think about how it might evolve given the nature of the business, and make a determination about what level of generalist vs. specialist makes the most sense for the position.  Second, and the is the one I’ve seen more people get wrong than right, is to vet the job description with anyone inside the company with whom the new employee will interact, in order to get everyone on the same page with the roles, responsibilities, and the inevitable changes to existing roles and processes caused by the addition of someone new into the mix.

Finding the time to do it right.  Most managers in small companies are at least a little overworked (sometimes a lot!).  And most cash-sensitive small companies don’t want to hire new people until it’s absolutely necessary, or more specifically, until it was absolutely necessary about a month ago.  This mismatch means that by the time the organization has decided to add someone, the hiring manager is even more overworked than usual — and can’t find the time to go through the whole process of job definition, recruiting, interviewing, and training.  This is one of the biggest traps I’ve seen startups fall prey to, and the only way to break the cycle is for hiring managers to make the new hire process their #1 priority, recognizing short term pain in the form of less output (prepare your colleagues for this with good communication) in exchange for longer term gains of leverage and increased responsibility.

Remembering that the hiring process doesn’t end on the employee’s first day.  I always think about the employee’s first day as the mid-point of the hiring process.  The things that come after the first day — orientation (where’s the bathroom?), context-setting (here’s our mission, here’s how your job furthers it), specific skill training, goal setting (what’s your 90-day plan?), and a formal check-in 90 days later — are all make-or-break in terms of integrating a new employee into the organization, making sure they’re a good hire, and of course making them as productive as possible.

UPDATE:  Joe Kraus has a great post on this topic as well.