recruitment

How Networking & Collaboration can ease your Key Startup Challenges

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L-R Mary McKenna, Clare McGee, Connor Doherty, Gemma Milne

This week I’ve spent a couple of days in Northern Ireland with Clare McGee of NORIBIC, Connor Doherty of CultureTech & Gemma Milne of Ogilvy Labs (@ClareNORIBIC @Culturetechfest @GKMilne1).  We’ve hosted a couple of events in Belfast & Derry & invited all our creative & digital industry colleagues to join us in order to discuss whether there’s any appetite in NI to create an industry led independent body to represent our sector & as part of that facilitate networking & collaboration.  The hashtag in case you want to look back at the Twitter conversation is #CACHE

In this blog I’m going to outline some ideas around how networking & collaboration can help especially digital & creative industry startups get around the key challenges identified in the recent Tech Nation 2016 report (collated & produced by Tech City & NESTA).  NI respondents identified 2 key and common challenges to scaling up their startups here in Northern Ireland & those are access to finance/investment and working within a limited talent pool (in my experience of growing a tech business in Northern Ireland, tech & sales people are especially difficult to recruit when you’re in startup mode).

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Our Belfast guests at The MAC

Let’s start with networking.  I was quite pleased when I asked the room last night “who enjoys networking?” and quite a few hands went up.  Usually people pull faces & shuffle a bit when they think about entering a room full of 200 strangers & starting conversations with them.  Then again, we Northern Irish folk are famed for our friendliness.  The other common barrier is that startups think they are far too busy to network.  I know that because that’s how I used to think too when I was working 7 days a week early doors in my own startup.  But here’s the thing.  It’s nigh on impossible as a startup to persuade good people to leave their comfortable, steady, well-paid jobs & join you if they don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your company.  As for raising finance, don’t even bother trying to do this cold.  You are wasting your time.

Cache2As an aside, in the 2 weeks following the publication of this year’s Maserati 100 List in the Sunday Times newspaper last month, my inbox & LinkedIn quickly filled up with messages from entrepreneurs and startups cold pitching me.  After some consideration I’ve sent them back a version of the following note.  “If you don’t have enough of a network to get introduced to me, then I’m not going to read your cold pitch because you aren’t going to make it.  One of the key elements of startup success is an ability to nicely hustle”.  Harsh?  Maybe.  More about this later.

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Derry guests in the Playhouse

Remember that all opportunities in business are attached to a person or people – and if you aren’t on that person or team’s radar, your chances of accessing or winning that opportunity are lessened.  Even in the strictest public sector procurement exercise you have a better chance of success if you are known to the procurer.

So – having accepted that networking is a good idea – how is it best to get started?  Here’s my quick primer:

  1. Think about who you already know, especially if you are raising early stage finance. Most of that comes from friends & family (& if you really want to finish the sentence – fools!).
  2. Join some networking organisations – formal & informal. There are loads & loads of these.  Ask around to find out which will be best for you.
  3. Use LinkedIn & Twitter effectively & if you don’t know how, then learn.
  4. Maybe consider joining an accelerator – access to networks is by far the greatest benefit. There are 3 in Belfast & a brand new one within the Northern Ireland Science Park in Derry called Growing Startups.  Hundreds more in London & many specialist ones emerging across Europe & the US that more & more Irish startups are accessing.
  5. Research industry notables local to you & work out how you can have a useful interaction with them. No stalking please.  Try & see what’s in it for them as well as you – not everyone in this life is pure & good although many are.
  6. Recruit already networked people into your small team. I’d take connections over experience any day of the week.  Remember the famous Sun Microsystems quote – “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else” – let’s face it – especially true if you only have 3 people in your team!
  7. Build out your own personal brand. This will help your startup when it’s small.  You can figure out later on how to shift the spotlight away from yourself & that’s a nice problem to have.  There are loads of ways to do this.  Publishing content on your own blog or LinkedIn & accepting all public speaking opportunities are a good start.
  8. Simplest of all – do a bit of homework before you bowl up to conferences & events. Find out who else is going.  Contact people beforehand & arrange to meet for a focused chat about something mutually beneficial.  Ask one of the speakers if you can interview them for your blog.
  9. If you’re in NI or Ireland, don’t forget there’s another island next door & less than an hour on the plane that has 10x the population of the island of Ireland & it’s a lot less hassle to operate in than trying to do business in the US.

You all know the rules of networking but briefly:

Be brave and approach strangers – what’s the worst that can happen; be friendly and pleasant; have a 30 second elevator pitch and be ready to trot it out; related to the last point recognise the part played by serendipity & always be watchful for connection opportunities without being overly pushy, be ambitious in who you reach out to – especially online – hardly anyone ever says No (I can only think of one single person who’s refused to help me with something in the last 10 years – DM me if you want to know who it is!); remember this is a two-way street & karma plays a part – pay it forward & pay it back – no matter how little you have there’s always someone else who is worse off.

Onto collaboration.  This is nothing new.  Members of the City of London guilds have been collaborating for over a thousand years.  I found a great Bill Gates quote on this:

“Creativity is less of an individual characteristic than it is an emergent property that surfaces when people convene around a problem”.

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Me with the totally bonkers Gibson Girls of Red Earth Designs – fresh, innovative, fun!

I love that.  Our events this week attracted film makers, artists, actors, publishers and journalists, software & game creators, photographers, ceramicists, artisan food producers, musicians, digital generalists, chocolate makers, people from the fashion industry, STEMettes, all sorts of fabulous creative & digital companies & entrepreneurs.  Jim Murray of Troll games summed up creative collaboration beautifully last night in Derry as he described people with different skill sets & end games working together in a shared space, brainstorming ideas & dipping in & out of different projects in different parts of the industry.  We’d simply like to facilitate this happening for our creatives & digital people on a much bigger scale.

Competition is old hat.  It makes me think of gung ho alpha salesmen in shiny suits driving Ford Mondeos.  Ugh.

Going back to a startup’s ability to recruit for a moment, by 2020 Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce & 88% of them say they prefer to work in a collaborative environment not a competitive one – and you have to make your workplaces Millennial friendly if you’re going to attract the best of the best.

Northern Ireland is populated by thousands of micro businesses.  Collaborating with each other helps you go further & bid bigger – if that’s what you want.  So – if you like the sound of this, complete the NORIBIC survey here and have your say.

We’re launching the Northern Ireland branch of London’s Irish International Business Network at the Digital DNA conference in Belfast on 7 & 8 June.  I’m going to be driving this in Northern Ireland when I return home mid May.  But the good news is you don’t have to wait until then to join IIBN, you can join now & get your international networking kicked off pronto.

Last word – if you’re cold pitching to the people who accept cold pitches, Gemma Milne’s excellent advice is to keep your cover note to the length of two tweets max, don’t include pitch decks and business plans, maybe include a really short explainer video, don’t send generic – think about how what you have is of interest to who you’re sending it to.  Oh & whatever you do, don’t send them to me 😉

I’d love to know everyone’s thoughts around this topic so please do include them in the comments section.

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?

How to present yourself well at job interviews

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In my job I do a lot of interviewing, both for Learning Pool & for other organisations that ask me to help them out with this from time to time.  It’s taken a lot of effort to find and assemble the 50 or so perfect (ish) people that form Learning Pool’s current #teamlovely.

There are no doubt thousands of books written on this topic but having been involved in two sets of interviews this week alone, these are my top tips for interview success.  You will have loads more tips of your own & I hope you’ll share them with us in the comments section below.

·         Do take a few deep breaths before you go into your interview & try to remain calm; we know you’re nervous but you have to be able to manage your interview nerves

·         Don’t bring in a load of files & papers & copies of cvs to your interview – it’s distracting & makes you appear disorganised/forgetful/dishonest (as in you can’t remember stuff about your own career!)

·         Don’t take notes or write stuff down – again – it’s distracting

·         Instead, do really focus on what the panel are telling you or asking you; 30% of the people I interviewed this week (yep – you heard that right) asked for the question to be repeated when they were already half way through answering it.

·         Do manage your time well.  You will know in advance how long your interview is likely to be.  Don’t ramble on for ages when answering what are clearly icebreaker questions designed to make you relax a bit or you’ll have no time left to get onto the stuff you want to tell them about yourself.

·         Do really do your homework about the organisation & think about the job so that you can pre-empt the questions you might be asked – not to stalker level obviously, although if you have carried out research that’s that thorough, don’t tell the interview panel – it will scare them.

·         Do be friendly & chatty but don’t be too over familiar or go too overboard in your enthusiasm for the organisation

·         Do pre-prepare enough questions so that if some of them get covered off in the course of the interview you still have one or two left

·         Don’t ask about money in the first interview stage unless either the panel brings it up or you’re there for a sales job

·         Do think carefully about why you want the job & why you want to join that organisation as they will probably ask you – saying it’s because it’s close to the train station isn’t a good response.

I’ll leave you today with some of the weirdest interview behaviours we’ve witnessed lately:

·         The guy that drank about 3 pints of water

·         The girl that told us she would do ANYTHING to get the job – Paul’s face was a picture on that occasion

·         The guy that turned up dressed head to toe in white, including a hat

·         The girl that couldn’t stop crying – that was difficult to cope with

·         The girl that didn’t appear to have read the job description at all – despite having submitted a detailed application form

·         The guy who was so argumentative that we had to stop the interview & start over again

Looking forward to your stories, as always.

Something you should never, ever do…

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One of my all time pet hates is writing on the backs (or insides) of hands.  No matter how desperate you are to write something down or remember something – never, ever, ever write it on your hand.  It looks truly terrible & it portrays you as a disorganised individual with no awareness of or concern about your personal appearance.

Nearly as bad as the young man I interviewed for a sales job recently – on leaving our building he stood on top of the mail in our hallway instead of picking it up & handing it to me – he didn’t get the job & he’s probably still wondering why!  This incident still makes our team laugh.

Little things really do matter.

 

 

Dr Dennis Kimbro & his views on recruitment

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Talent management in local government (or the apparent lack of it and the complete disinterest there seems to be in it) is something I spend a lot of time thinking about & a bit of time talking about so I was very pleased to be able to see Dr Dennis Kimbro speak at the PPMA conference in London last week on the topic of Building Effective Leaders for the Future.  Dr Kimbro is a lecturer in human potential & entrepreneurship at Clark Atlanta university and he writes books about notable achievers – talent recruitment, development & management is something he knows a thing or two about.

So here’s a brief summary of the main points I’ve taken away from his presentation.

In his research & interviews with 150+ notable African Americans, these are the 4 things that consistently make some people far more successful than most of us:

1.       They dream big

2.       They never listen to advice from friends & critics telling them the reasons why their idea will fail; they go with their own inner belief every time

3.       They dedicate themselves to lifelong learning (see slide on the photo above re what happens to you if you don’t!)

4.       They simply refuse to accept failure.

Food for thought indeed – I hope many of you see some of the above in yourselves. 

He had advice for the rest of us mere mortals as well – mainly around how to recruit good people into our teams – and these are the things you should consider when appraising your interviewees and in this order of priority:

1.       Do they have the right level of talent for the role? (education, intelligence, experience)

2.       How well will they fit with your existing team?

3.       Do they demonstrate the level of commitment to your team’s common purpose that you need?

And when you get them into the room – these are the 3 questions above all others that you should ask:

1.       Why do you want to work in this organisation?

2.       Tell me about yourself – what motivates you? – what are your talents, specialisms and areas of excellence?

3.       If we don’t offer you this job and you go somewhere else, what are we going to miss?

If your candidate can’t articulate their answers to the above, then you have a problem and should probably carry on looking. 

Dr Kimbro is a master of the business soundbite and here are a few of his priceless quotes:

·         Work is not a job, it’s an opportunity

·         The opposite of success is conformity

·         We need to want to make a difference, with others that want to make a difference, doing something that matters (I like this one a lot! – applies to every startup I’ve ever worked in)

·         Complacency is the first step to mediocrity

·         Stop complaining & focusing on the mundane

·         Monday should be a great day because you can’t wait to get to work! 

Dennis talked for an hour & I thought he was inspirational and wonderful.  I chatted to him afterwards & he was charming.  However, in a room with over 200 local government HR specialists I seemed to be very much in the minority.  Here’s some of what I heard later in the day from the HR professionals that are responsible for creating future managers and leaders for our councils:

·         He should have tailored his talk to the UK public sector

·         He was too passionate

·         None of that applies to us, it’s for the private sector

·         I’d heard it all before 

C’mon guys – if you want local government to be a vibrant place for people, especially young people joining the job market, to want to come & work, things really have to change & fast.  Dave Briggs     and I while away the hours we spend on roadtrips playing a game called “If I were a local authority chief exec I would…” and it’s always, always about people – no matter how many times we revisit it.