The biggest setback for a startup is getting a key hire wrong. And, in a startup, a lot of roles are ‘key’ for the simple reason that there are no fall-back mechanisms or back-ups. In large firms, the cost of a wrong hire could be 2-3 years of salary, but in a startup, it could very well decide whether the startup gets to the next stage of growth seamlessly or falters irretrievably.
Some founders and execs get this and make sure that there is a very strong process for at least a CXO hire. There are stories of how a founder spotted a terrific individual at a conference and wooed this person through multiple meetings, stretching sometimes over six months, before taking a call to hire this individual.
In this article, I would talk about conducting insightful interviews.
The ability to interview and select the best person for a role is the most important skill for a function head. If you can’t hire well and build a strong team, impatient stakeholders and recipients of service would want you out in no time. Startups cannot afford to forgive under-performing managers, and those that do forgive too often, and very quickly, end up under-performing themselves.
If you are a senior manager, there are two types of roles for which you would need to interview candidates – for roles in a domain that you understand deeply and for roles in domains that you do not necessarily understand deeply. You need to be effective in both situations. To be able to interview and evaluate candidates in multiple domains, you need to have a decent knowledge of every domain (marketing, operations, HR, analytics, product, etc.) and insights on what differentiates an outstanding candidate in these functions from mediocre individuals.
What were two of the most complex/difficult problems you have solved where your personal contribution was very significant?
…and follow it up with…
Can you tell us some examples where you proactively addressed a situation or problem to the delight of a key stakeholder of yours, even though it wasn’t explicitly expected of you?
…and follow it up with…
Can you describe a process that was completely broke that you personally fixed?
If there is a process break down, what would you do?
What are the problems that you delegate to your direct reports, and what are the ones that you personally deal with?
…and follow up each of these with some more probing questions…
The thought process is particularly important. In addition, look for intellectual integrity - can the candidate easily say, “This is an interesting perspective. I had never thought about this”, or “I didn’t know this”.
1. A problem for the role of the Head of Analytics that simultaneously evaluates thought process, intellectual integrity, and intellectual capacity:
The accuracy of a test to detect a disease is 99 per cent – which means that 1 in a 100 times, even if one did not suffer from the disease, the test would say that the individual suffered from the disease. If a person suffered from the disease, the test would show with 100 per cent accuracy that the person suffered from the disease. Now you go through the test and the test says you suffer from the disease. The question is, “Do you need to be worried and what is the probability that you suffer from the disease?”
The obvious answer that comes to mind is, “You need to be worried. And, you have a very high probability – in fact 99 per cent - that you suffer from the disease”. But the fact is that this question cannot be answered unless some additional information is furnished (this additional information is the prevalence of this disease in the population – for example 1 in 10,000 people in the population suffers from this disease). Now, it is interesting to see how the candidate responds. Especially, if he does not figure out what that additional information is. He could then state the obvious answer (99 per cent), or if he thinks there is a catch, try and ensnare you in some specious arguments wrapped in jargon. It would be interesting to see how he responds to the follow up question, “Is there some additional information you may need?”
If the candidate gets the right answer (with the additional information) it would be, “if the test says I suffer from the disease, the probability that I really suffer from the disease is actually very low (0.01)”.
2. A question for the role of the Head of Marketing that simultaneously evaluates thought process, intellectual integrity, and intellectual capacity:
What are the drivers of customer satisfaction in your business? How do you measure customer satisfaction and what are your views on NPS?
Interviewing and recruiting is one of the most important things one does as a manager, and much more so in a startup. One can get much better at it if one pays attention to some of these basic principles and prepares.