Main illustration: Sindoora Satyavada
There’s a key turning point for your hiring strategy in a rapidly scaling team or organization. The inflection point is when you go from only being comfortable hiring star candidates who pose very little risk to taking chances on candidates who don’t tick all the boxes but who have promise and potential. Making that transition smoothly is crucial for your longer-term growth.
The earliest hires are critical to a team’s future identity, as this is the time when the culture takes shape. One risky, mediocre or downright bad hire can disrupt the culture at this formative stage. It’s imperative that early hires are able to hit the ground running and are excited by a chaotic startup environment.
People who enjoy or require structure and process make great hires for a larger organization, but they’re usually not the best people to take on board from the start. There are also candidates who check a lot of the boxes — they’re excited about the company, hungry for growth and eager for a challenge, but they don’t have a proven track record of rolling with the punches and thriving in ambiguous environments. They would need a lot of coaching, mentoring and time; something your tiny early stage team doesn’t have in abundance.
Hiring strategy for early stage startups
Those early hires not only need to thrive under pressure, they need to love it. They need to have both the ability to work as part of a scrappy team, but also be independent in figuring things out for themselves.
My own experience is instructive — I joined Intercom as the 6th Customer Support teammate in the Dublin office when we were about 20 as a global team. We’ve since scaled to more than 35 in Dublin the past 2 years — and 110 globally in the first half of 2018. We will continue to grow at lightning speed over the next few years.
We didn’t have the bandwidth to coach anyone who couldn’t hit the ground running
When the team was tiny and in true start-up mode, we only took on people who we believed right away would be able to succeed with very little support. We didn’t have the bandwidth to coach anyone who couldn’t hit the ground running and we turned down some good applicants who definitely had potential as it wouldn’t have been fair to them to throw them in at the deep end without the support they would have needed. We simply didn’t have the systems in place to set them up for success.
At a certain scale, the bandwidth for coaching and mentoring increases to the point where it is possible to hire people who display good potential but need that extra bit of assistance. However, learning how to identify when a small team is mature enough to take this big step is critical. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the timing right on this first time around.
Scaling up your hiring strategy
Just after I joined the team, we started to scale very quickly. We promoted a lot of tenured teammates at once as they were ready for their next challenge, but in doing so we left ourselves with a frontline team full of brand new people.
We have a backbone of senior teammates who mentor and coach
A lesson learned from this was to stagger promotion dates until you have a larger pool of tenured folk. Ambitious people who join early-stage startups are chomping at the bit for progression and work their asses off to get it, but some tough management decisions need to be made on timelines until those on the frontline are onboarded, settled and ready to coach the new round of new hires.
As we’ve scaled, we’ve expanded in size and into more specialized roles. We now have an enablement team that has created really solid onboarding. We have a backbone of senior teammates who mentor and coach. We’ve rolled out an official 3-month mentoring program for new hires and we’ve built out an amazing onboarding plan; all things we didn’t have time or resources for initially.
We’re in a position now where we can hire people who have potential and match our values, but who need a nurturing environment. We’ve had lengthy discussions as a hiring team if this means lowering our bar, or diluting our culture. In many cases, this can lead to teams waiting too long to make a crucial hire, something Front CEO Mathilde Collin found building her own team. However, there’s a significant difference between lowering your bar and giving those with potential a chance.
Determining your changing criteria
Before you take this leap, you need to establish a list of “must haves” for people who join your team, versus qualities that are “nice to have” but coachable.
Invariably there will be differences from team to team in terms of the qualities that are essential and those that are ultimately coachable. On our Customer Support team, those criteria look like this:
- Customer focus (prioritize customers above other tasks)
- Empathy and ability to listen/de-escalate a situation
- Patience and ability to clearly explain complex issues to someone who doesn’t understand
- Ability to make clear decisions around prioritization, and at the very least recognize when they prioritized poorly and how to do better next time
- Genuinely enjoys being part of a team
- Puts the team’s wellbeing above their own personal gain
- Recognizes when quality of work could be better
- Recognizes when they were in the wrong/could have done better
- Appreciates fair, constructive feedback
- Recognizes when processes could be better and has ideas on what could change.
- Expresses a desire to have more ownership.
- Loves learning new things and strives to upskill.
- Genuinely wants to work in a challenging environment.
- Pushes themselves to learn and get better.
- Expresses a desire to have an impact in their role.
Nice to haves:
- Comfortable giving constructive feedback to peers
- Comfortable giving constructive feedback to leadership
- Examples of making changes to bigger processes in work/school.
- Clear career progression in previous roles.
- Had a big impact on their last company.
- Has a clear view of their career path.
- Even though ambitious, clearly understands that mastery of a role takes time.
When hiring for potential becomes a must
Hiring for potential is not about lowering the bar – it’s about widening the criteria in certain attributes and values where the team can offer coaching and support. Giving potential a chance is smart when your team is mature enough to handle it.
It is an absolute necessity if you want your team to continue growing
It’s also about planning for the long term rather than the near term. Hiring a bunch of superstars all at once means they’ll get bored quickly and outgrow their positions faster than you can find promotion opportunities. Of course, it’s great to have some of these people on the team, but you also need to hire people who are starting out in their careers and will form the backbone of your team as they grow with you.
The key thing to appreciate about this evolution is that it isn’t merely an added bonus of having a larger, more mature team with more bandwidth for coaching and mentoring. Instead, it is an absolute necessity if you want your team to continue growing and retaining talent. Learning how to identify the right moment and manage that transition will be one of the keys to your long-term, sustainable growth.