How to Hire the Best Candidates for Your Startup (Not Just Those Who Fit the Job)

Hiring the right team is the number one concern of CEOs, according to the 2019 Conference Board Annual Survey. An article in the Harvard Business Review discusses how businesses have never done as much hiring as they do today. “They’ve never spent as much money doing it,” Peter Cappelli writes, “And they’ve never done a worse job of it.”

Who you hire could have a lot to do with who does the hiring. Business founders tend to hire very different candidates than HR managers who work at companies they don’t own.

The majority of people who take new jobs aren’t actually looking for a new job. They don’t see a job posting and apply for it. Instead, they are proactively recruited and subsequently convinced to leave their current position for the new one elsewhere.

If finding top talent is a priority, why is it that the best candidates don’t always get hired?


The Hiring Fallacy

“The best person for the job gets hired” is a fallacy that I held for many years. Until I learned the truth. As a young lawyer I interviewed at many firms before finding one that fit. On several occasions I was told I was overqualified or wasn’t a good fit. I didn’t find out the truth until many years later from an HR manager at a firm.

When company owners hire, they hire the best: the best fit, the best candidate, the most valuable. Perhaps because, as owners, the success of their employees puts money in their pocket. But law firms, like many large organizations, employ proxies for hiring. They have HR managers and, as I learned later, HR managers don’t hire the best, they hire the person less likely to get them fired.

An HR manager wants good people, and good metrics. Low turnover, being often seen as most important, means finding those that fit but aren’t too overambitious (they are more likely to leave). So, a big firm wants new hires that will stay the course and not bolt for greener pastures after being trained and gaining experience. As a result, they’re likely to pass on some of the creative candidates. The ones with high problem-solving skills and lots of initiative. This leaves an open opportunity for founders/entrepreneurs looking to recruit good talent.

For that reason, founders should look closely at those who report having difficulty getting hired at big Fortune 500 companies.


Hiring the Best

Unlike HR Managers, entrepreneurs should always hire the best, even if that means shorter tenure overall. At a startup, all employees wear multiple hats. This is often because the firm is under-resourced and everyone has to pitch in. Entrepreneurs need employees that can rise to the chaos and not help the firm strive, but help the firm thrive.

What should entrepreneurs look for when hiring for their startup?


1. Passion is one. Individuals working for a startup will have to work long hours, be comfortable in a more unstructured environment, adopt many different roles and take initiative. Being passionate about what you do, and the team you work with, makes work feel like play.


2.  Collaboration is another. A startup’s team is often small and team members must work together to leverage each other’s strengths. Finding the best solutions to the challenges that will undoubtedly arise will take collaboration, diverse thinking, some disagreement, respect and the ability to put one’s ego aside. The ultimate goal is to reach the next level together – that’s the reason everyone is there.


3.  Analytical skills is a third. Startups benefit from team members who can analyze a situation and creatively problem-solve. In particular, startups need individuals who can think on-the-go and who know both the technical as well as the strategic aspects of the business very well.


4.  Lastly, intrapreneurship skills are a definite asset. Intrapreneurial attitudes within a startup encourage employees to act like entrepreneurs. These individuals are self-motivated and action oriented. They take initiative to move the company towards the KPI’s that were set as a team. They have the company’s development at heart coupled with an entrepreneurial mindset that allows them to work towards the common goal.


Jack Welch, the famous Chair of General Electric, and one of the most respected business minds of the last century, pontificated that all leaders should rank their team members as either “sixes” or “nines.” To Welsh, a nine (out of 10) was a proactive, self-directed superstar, and a six was an underperforming asset that needed to be culled. He suggested firing all the sixes and reassigned their salaries, responsibilities and resources. Hiring sixes will only bring down the company culture, and results as well. Wait to find the nines, the benefit will outweigh the delay.

As a founder, if you’re looking for the best candidates, throw out the traditional HR models. Ask your existing team members who they know that would fit the company’s culture and goals best, and go after  those people. Recruit from a pool that includes individuals who are looking as well as those who are not. And add the criteria above to your list of requirements.

It’s one of the hardest tasks you’ll be faced with, but assembling the right team is also the most rewarding in the long run.

Good luck.

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