Startup recruitment – reject show-offs, clowns and mavericks …

Bryan Keating - possibly the world's best Chairman

Bryan Keating – possibly the world’s best Chairman

From the warmth of my temporary California base this week I noticed with interest that successful scaleup Futuregov is advertising publicly for an Executive Chair. Why with interest? Well really it’s because these types of appointments are so rarely advertised in a scaleup or SME.

This got me thinking about small business recruitment in general and what a dark art it is. Staying with the Exec Chair campaign for a moment, I can understand fully why Carrie & Dom are going down this route – it widens the selection pool beyond their own (extensive) networks and it’s a more transparent, open and fair process. But will it get them the right or best candidate? I’m not sure. Inevitably, processes that open some doors also close others.

In my world, the more usual way to bring someone into your small business as Chairman or a NED is to go out to your network and then make direct approaches to people, or a person, that you think may be suitable. A number of conversations take place behind closed doors and the “target” individual will make a decision based on any combination of the following and more – do they like your business, do they like you, how much else have they got going on right now, does your opportunity complement or conflict with their other current activities, can they see clearly how they will add value, what are you offering them, how’s it going to look on their own cv, are your exit aspirations linked to their available forward timescales, etc

Many of the sorts of people that I might approach if I was seeking an Executive Chair would never participate in a public recruitment process. They wouldn’t wish to be open and transparent in their dealings or intentions and they simply wouldn’t compete in a public way with others – definitely not. So well done Dom & Carrie for being brave enough to run a process that rules those people out and good luck with finding the right person.

There’s a wider issue here and one that I’d never really thought about much – despite having spent an awful lot of my own time during the past 10 years actively recruiting people into my own teams. At a dinner in Dublin last year I found myself sitting next to the head of a very, very large software company’s 2,000 person development team. We chatted away and inevitably the conversation turned to how difficult it is for a small business to recruit decent tech talent. My dinner companion at this point happened to say to me that he has a rule whereby he never recruits people via recruitment agencies or headhunters. Never. No exceptions. His reason for this was simple and straightforward. He believes that only second rate candidates use their services. He recruits only via his company’s new graduate programme and he sometimes interviews people recommended by others in his network or team. His further rationale when I challenged him a little on this was that he may occasionally miss a good person in this way, but the amount of time he saves by not bothering with or interviewing “bad” candidates was considerable and the trade-off was worth it. It also saved him from the nuisance factor that recruiters & headhunters introduce into your business – once they’ve placed a candidate with you they continue dialogue with your employee so that they don’t miss an opportunity later to make more commission when they can persuade that person to move again.

Later on I thought about my own career path and realised that I’ve only ever formally applied for two out of the numerous jobs I’ve had in my working life – once as a new graduate (I got my first job by applying via an advert placed in the Guardian) and again when I was moving to a new country (Northern Ireland in 2000) and didn’t have an existing network. Everything else I’ve ever done has come to me through my network.

Recruiting the right people into your team is the hardest job of any startup or scaleup CEO. I don’t care what any recruiter or HR person says about this, recruitment into your team is a nightmare and often it’s completely random as to whether or not the appointment you make turns out to be a success. Drawing up endless criteria and scoring lists of candidates against them? For the most part a complete waste of time and energy and it turns the process into something akin to the very worst excesses of procurement. Recently I’ve heard of a couple of people in my own network who’ve been encouraged to apply for vacant posts by the Chief Executives of those organisations. Both have gone on to apply & attend interview and both were unsuccessful. What’s that all about? Were they being used as stalking horses by unscrupulous Chief Execs wanting to make up their interview numbers or was it that the panel had a scoresheet that had to be adhered to on the day and therefore the Chief Exec was over-ruled or outvoted and their preferred candidate ousted by someone who happened to interview better on the day. (Rookie startup CEOs – this is something else to definitely watch out for – the professional interview performers – great at interview but by the end of Week 1, you realise with a sinking heart what a dreadful mistake you’ve made.)

Instead, satisfy yourself in the first 5 minutes that the candidate really wants to work in your organisation for the right reasons and has a clear view of where and how they can add value. Also, reject all show-offs, clowns and mavericks, no matter how interesting or compelling they seem. Believe me – all they will bring to you is a huge time sink and disharmony in your team.

For me, this is an interesting topic because despite having built world class startup teams several times over on a shoestring, recruitment is something I’ve struggled with over the years. I’ll readily admit that some of the worst and most personally painful mistakes I’ve ever made in business have been recruitment related.

Interested to hear your views, hints and tips for others on small business recruitment so please do share in the comments section below. The photo above is of Bryan Keating, the best Chairman I’ve ever worked with or for. Although having said that I’ve always loved the story about how the founders of the Innocent drinks company used to employ a 50p piece in the early days that they referred to as “The Chairman”. They flipped it for a simple heads or tails decision when required. I don’t know if the story’s true or not but certainly food for thought Dom & Carrie?

3 comments

  1. Thanks for this Mary, have to agree with the policy regarding recruiters. We cut them out of our processes about two years ago. It forced us to create a robust graduate recruitment offering. As a result we have recruited & trained better people, built our own brand and saved a fortune in the process.

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  2. I wholly agree with this article on so many levels. On one side, as an interviewee, I have always found recruitment companies to be an absolute waste of time. The job applied for is never the one they put you forward for, wasting both the time of the candidate, and the new company they end up forwarding the details to.

    On the other side, I’m setting up my own company and have to wonder just how much visibility that can be achieved through advertising solely on your own website. How do the top candidates find your role?

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  3. Lots of nodding going on as I read your blog, Mary. A few pauses though.

    While I deeply agree, based on past experience, with the approach of ‘growing your own’ when it comes to great talent and fit, I can’t help feel that your dinner fellow with an employee base of 2000 has the luxury and the time to allow this talent garden to flourish.

    I work with early stage tech companies who are in a hurry (the haste driven by scarce funds) with anywhere from 5 to 50 employees and in the main (a few notable exceptions) they don’t have the skills themselves, time or resources to run a graduate programme. As the founder / CEO of the company is building the business, s/he will have to go looking for the skills they don’t have – a graduate programme isn’t going to work without a core set of skills being available in-house.

    And so I focus my support at helping these founder / CEOs effectively navigate and maximise the resources available to them – their network, my network, social media and yes, recruiters. I wrote about it here: http://versaripartners.com/hire-like-cisco/. When it comes to recruiters, I have found that it boils down to finding the high performing agents within agencies – this is often by trial and error, a costly if somewhat necessary endeavour for early stage companies.

    Most agencies now reach out to passive employees (in the old days it was called headhunting) and so I don’t agree with the premise that second rate talent is all that agents can offer up (I’m paraphrasing). High performing agents will find great candidates, even those that aren’t coming to them.

    As for selecting and securing an Exec Chair, value alignment even at that level is absolutely crucial as values drive decision making processes and so hats off to Futuregov for applying their values of transparency and fairness to look for someone comfortable with making top level decisions in the same way.

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