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Great vision without great people is irrelevant.

Jim Collins

At my most recent company, we built a fantastic team. This led to a powerful high-performance culture that attracted even more talented people to want to join us. As a result, we became one of the most desirable places to work in our industry segment. It wasn’t uncommon for people we turned down for jobs to refer their friends to us and act as vocal fans of ours in the talent market. We routinely had our own employees turn down higher-paying job offers from other employers despite the high stress and long hours that came along with our jobs.

Attracting the best talent you can is critical to maximizing the success of a startup. Over the years, I’ve learned a few techniques that I believe can help any founder attract, hire and retain top talent. 

Smart, Hungry, and Humble

Author Patrick Lencioni popularized these three traits as being indispensable for building successful teams, and I have found that to almost always be the case. Talented people want to be part of high-functioning teams, and you need these attributes to be present to build such a team. 

You can read more about Lencioni’s ideas in his book The Ideal Team Player. However, I have a slightly different view of these three traits than Lencioni. His focus is on building teams that work and collaborate effectively together. I was looking for people who could do that well and who also were very high-performing individual contributors. So I’ve adapted his definitions slightly.

  • Smart:  Top talent in skills focus areas + emotionally intelligent enough to get along with others
  • Hungry:  Pursues ambitious goals with an intrinsic motivation to succeed
  • Humble:  Willingness to make personal sacrifices for team success

Design a Compelling Sales Process 

When we think about sales, we rarely think about hiring employees. Sales is for customer acquisition, not employee recruitment. But that’s wrong! The talent market is highly competitive and getting more so every day. To get the best people, you have to design an intentional and thoughtful hiring journey for your candidates that constantly builds and reinforces their desire to be on your team. 

At Spur, my team and I designed a very thoughtful process that constantly sold candidates on joining our team. This included compelling job descriptions that exuded our culture and interview days that incorporated lunch outings with prospective co-workers who were not on the interview panel. We thought through every step of creating a unique and highly personalized approach that gave candidates a feel for the culture. We went so far as to pick out the specific hotel rooms for out-of-state candidates considering relocation to ensure they had the best views of our downtown and included welcome baskets full of assorted local products. We knew we had to sell moving to the city as much as we did our company. The point is that we thought about every aspect of the candidate’s experience and tried to tailor that experience to their decision criteria. 

Tours of Duty

I first encountered the idea of “tours of duty” in Reid Hoffman’s book, The Alliance. I found the concept of a new type of employee-employer compact to be fascinating. Hoffman held that we must move away from lifelong employment commitments to a framework that is more reminiscent of military tours of duty.

He argued that both employee and employer benefit from a mutual understanding based on a defined, limited engagement with clear objectives and outcomes for both sides. We implemented this with great success as it made conversations over results and expectations (on both sides) much easier and more natural. You can get a summary of the concepts on HBR’s blog or pick up a copy of The Alliance.

Implement Scorecards

Popularized by Geoff Smart’s book WHO: The A Method for Hiring, scorecards are a much more effective tool than a simple job description. Scorecards define the specific outcomes and competencies you expect from your team. When implemented fully in an organization, the scorecards should tangibly align each role in the company to the overall strategy. 

Implementing a scorecard process also helps ensure that you take the time to define position expectations thoroughly before hiring. If you can’t complete a scorecard with precise and realistic outcomes, then you might not be ready to make that hire just yet. That is an essential discipline for fast-growth startups where hiring can often get out of control due to ample resources and constantly evolving priorities. 

Take Interviews Seriously

I am constantly surprised at how loose interviewing processes are at many startups. Considering the critical role of talent in a business’s ability to execute its strategy, you would assume most startups would invest a lot of time selecting candidates. But this is often not the case. It is easy to feel that you’re just too busy to invest too much time into interviews. We also tend, as humans, to overestimate our ability to size up people. 

I recommend creating a robust interview process that includes: defined interview panels, pre-interview planning meetings, multi-stage interviews, formal interview scoring with debriefing sessions, and excellent reference check procedures. You should feel that you really invested a lot of time with a candidate before extending an offer. 

Try to Scare Them Away

Early in my career, I used to worry that the best candidates would never want to work for me. Probably a little imposter syndrome at work. So I would sugarcoat things or try to avoid topics I felt might not reflect as well on us. But, over time, I became more confident as a hiring manager and realized the importance of being transparent with candidates. Better someone is scared away before joining my organization than learn six months into their job that this isn’t the right place for them. 

I’ve now included a final step in my interview process that I refer to as the “Try to Scare Them Away” meeting. After all the other interviews are complete and everyone on our side is dying to extend an offer, I hold a final one-on-one meeting with the candidate. I always start the same way: 

“You’ve done an amazing job, and we’re all excited about what you could bring to our team. However, it is also my responsibility to ensure this is the right fit for you. So in this meeting, I’m not going to be assessing your fit for us, but rather I want to tell you about all the things that can make working here a challenge. I want you to have the information you need to make the best decision for you and your family, and I want to make sure you feel comfortable walking away from us with no hard feelings…”

I would then proceed to tell them about the high-performance expectations, the cultural quirks, the stress, the long hours, etc. I always worked in a line like “honestly, the people who don’t have XYZ usually don’t like it here and don’t last more than six months…” If, after all of that, they were still excited to join the team (which the right people will be), then I could sign their offer letter with confidence.

Say ‘No Thanks’ With Compassion

Most companies don’t send any correspondence to rejected candidates. After all, why spend more time on people you don’t want to hire? But, this is a missed opportunity. If you’re going to become a highly sought-after employer, how you handle candidates who don’t make it past your selection process is just as important as how you handle those that do. 

Interviewing for jobs can be difficult. Discovering that you didn’t get a job that you really wanted is a gut punch. However, if you take the time to make that let down a little softer, a little more personal, and a lot more compassionate, it can pay big dividends. For example, I would tell my HR team that I wanted any candidate we didn’t hire to tell their friends how amazing our company was and refer people to us. So we implemented processes such as these:

  • Personalized letters to applicants with recommendations on other jobs at our company they might be a better fit for or ideas on how to improve their resumes
  • Personal phone calls to interviewees who didn’t advance explaining why and offering recommendations 
  • 30-day follow-ups with candidates to check on them and see how their job search is going and offering even to make introductions to other employers where appropriate
  • Thank you cards to interviewees signed by all interview panel members with well wishes on their career search 

By implementing these 7 techniques, companies can consistently attract and hire top talent. The best part is that over time these processes can lead to a steady inbound flow of A-Players anxious to join your team.

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