11 best ways to screw up your hiring

December 30, 2009

As an expansion stage venture capital firm with strategic consulting services, our number one opportunity to help our portfolio companies is helping them build strong senior management teams and boards through recruiting support. The most important ingredients for building great companies are the right great people and teams doing the right things right, so getting hiring right is extremely important.

Over the years, we have identified lots of ways to make hiring mistakes…here are my top 11:

1. Don’t set up the company to attract the best people. If you don’t have well articulated aspirations (mission, vision, values) woven throughout your company, a high market clarity (solid understanding of your market and competitors and a strategy for winning in your target segment), and you aren’t in a position to win in your market, you have not set up the company to attract the best people. The best people understand that much of their compensation will come from growing the company into a large dominant player in your market and increase the value of their stock options. In order to win the best people, you will also want to make certain that you have set up and can describe why your open position is a great one for an “A” caliber person who wants to have impact, develop professionally, and be part of something great.

2. Don’t prioritize and focus on the positions that are organizational leverage points. There are specific positions in a company that, when filled, can have the most significant impact on company development (for example, hiring a key manager or perhaps hiring an “A” caliber internal recruiter to help with recruiting support rather than three individual salespeople will help you get both more easily). The best candidates in these positions will also build an esprit de corps on the team, will be a good role model for others, and will follow up by hiring further great people and build their units well (like pushing the first domino in a long line of dominoes). If you want to screw up hiring, don’t identify and focus on these positions.

3. Don’t define the goals or the job description for the role. Creating goals and job descriptions is hard work and you are really busy (If you just get started with the search, you might get lucky and the candidate you choose will figure this out). On the other hand, really being clear on what is expected in this position will help you better determine the ideal candidate and will help the candidate get integrated into your company more quickly.

4. Don’t define the “right” ideal characteristics for the candidate or where you might find a candidate with these characteristics. Again, thinking and talking through these characteristics with the right people is hard work and you want to get on with the search and feel like you are making progress. On the other hand, doing the work up front will save you a lot of time talking with the wrong candidates (or worse, hiring the wrong candidate).

5. Don’t do a complete search and truly find 2-3 candidates that are the best match with the current needs of the company. The best candidates will have 3 times the impact of good candidates and there will be huge returns to putting the time into doing this right. It will take longer to get the best candidate, but the wait is worth it.

6. Don’t do a proper job of truly understanding “fit” between the candidate and the position/company. Don’t properly understand the candidates in detail. More specifically, don’t ask the right questions to the interviewee (btw, here is a great source for questions) and don’t ask the right questions to a broad enough set of references and blind references. Also, don’t encourage the candidate to ask questions and when they do, be vague rather than completely transparent. On the other hand, determining the key “fit” points in advance and the questions to ask the candidates and references could help you to really nail the fit issue and encouraging the candidate to do the same will help with the fit issue from their perspective (both perspectives are important). The best search processes will have additional means, beyond interviews, to determine if the fit is right (examples include assessments and candidates to put together 90 day plans to see how they think and how their plans match to the company’s ideas).

7. Don’t learn and adjust goals, job description, and ideal characteristics based on the learning through the search and don’t use the knowledge that you gain in your search to make your business better. On the other hand, using the early interviews to help refine the goals, job description and ideal characteristics will really help you iterate to both the best candidate and to a better role description. Separately, talking to a lot of good people should generate many new ideas that could be useful to your business…(I learn at least one or two things from each interview that I do).

8. Don’t bring in experts who understand the function, stage of company development, or important goals for the company to help. Each functional area has a level of expertise and sophistication that only people that are experienced in that function will be able to decipher from candidates (great product managers can better evaluate product managers than they can evaluate inside salespeople, for example). Also, functional areas have different needs at different stages of company development and experts that understand exactly what is necessary at your current stage of development will be particularly helpful with interviewing candidates. (As an example, a newer channel sales effort requires a candidate who is skilled in channel development and channel methodology development while a more developed channel program may require an individual who is more skilled in people management, two very different skills.)

9. Don’t prepare and coordinate the interviewers. Many times, interviews are prepped with “here is the resume, can you talk to this person”. This is a pretty poor use of time as it leads to a low impact interview. A better way: Each interviewer should know exactly what is expected during the interview, be prepared with the full set of material on the role and the major criteria for the role, know the key issues at this point in the process, know exactly what they are supposed to be probing for during the interview, and write up their evaluation post the interview so that future interviews and the overall evaluation team can make the best use of the interview.

10. Post-hire, give the new manager the keys to something important and walk away assuming that the candidate is magical, fully aligned with the company’s culture, Aspirations (mission, vision, values), goals, and management systems (alternatively, walk away assuming that you don’t want to be considered a micromanager and that the person needs to be left alone to do what he/she thinks is best). On the other hand, spend time with the new hire, make sure that the hire understands the culture and aspirations, help him/her get established, and then back away at the right pace while making sure that the new hire is executing effectively with committed S.M.A.R.T. Goals. This will maximize your chances for success in the short term.

11. Don’t learn from past hiring mistakes. Everyone has flaws in their hiring and even the best managers make many mistakes as they grow their organization. The key is to do a real retrospective and understand the reasons for the mistakes after you identify that you have made a mi stake. Then, determine the possible adjustments that you can make and diligently make those adjustments in the future. You will still make mistakes, but the key is to not make the same mistake twice!

If you try to eliminate the 11 best ways to screw up your hiring list above, you will still screw up, but you will screw up less frequently and you will maximize your chance of building a successful business!

Founder & Partner

As the founder of OpenView, Scott focuses on distinctive business models and products that uniquely address a meaningful market pain point. This includes a broad interest in application and infrastructure companies, and businesses that are addressing the next generation of technology, including SaaS, cloud computing, mobile platforms, storage, networking, IT tools, and development tools.