August 15, 2021

Tips for a Successful Talent Search

Some lessons learned to help your business find new employees in a tight labor market

Tips for a Successful Talent Search

Over the past 4-5 years, we've learned a lot of things—sometimes through painful experience—on how (and how not) to match companies and employees.  This post primarily covers topics from the company side; however, job candidates should also consider asking these questions.

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1. Why your company is awesome.

Good people receive unsolicited inquiries all the time. Most companies know they need an elevator pitch for investors; however, companies also need one for prospective employees. This is particularly applicable to startups and young firms.

Some elements to consider include:

  • Why should the candidate talk to you?
  • Who is running the company, and why should the candidate have faith in this team?
  • What do you plan to accomplish in the next 1, 3, and 5 years?
  • Who are your competitors, and what are your competitive advantages?

Startups and small companies should also be prepared to answer:

  • What's the founding story?
  • What is the path to liquidity?
  • Why should the candidate choose you compared to a "safer" job at one of the FAANG companies?

2. What specific skills/languages/experience do you really require? What is a "must" versus a "nice to have"?

This sounds like an easy and obvious thing, but in practice it definitely is not. Why? Because often you are not going to find the ideal candidate; it will be a trade-off. So what really matters? Do you really need 5 years of experience with a certain tool or software product, or is similar experience close enough because smart people will "figure it out?"

Are you open to more junior hires at a lower price or right now versus a more experienced person six months from now?

If you don't know exactly what you want, that is fine, we can work with that! Knowing this, we can set expectations with candidates appropriately. Frustration results when expectations do not match reality.

3. Is everyone on your team in agreement on the required skill sets?

Sometimes senior executives and founders have one idea, but the mid-level managers—who will actually do the interviewing—have a very different idea. HR managers may have yet a different idea.

There's another trap for companies, especially start-ups, that are seeking to scale rapidly: it can be very uncomfortable to interview your prospective boss or someone who is better at your job than you are. While the CEO may be enthusiastic about bringing on a new person with 25 years of experience, mid-level managers—who may already have senior titles—may be much less enthusiastic. Will they look bad compared to the new hire? Could they get forced out?

It's critical that everyone is in broad agreement before talking with us. We also like to talk to the people actually conducting the interviews so that we can better screen candidates.

If this is not handled well, a very real scenario is that A players hire non-threatening B players, and B players hire non-threatening C players. This is death for a small company.

Here is a must-read article on scaling your company called "'Give Away Your Legos' and other Commandments for Scaling Startups."

4. Culture/fit/etc.

A screening question we typically use is to ask about candidates' best and worst experiences in the workplace or other settings.

What type of person would enjoy working with your team? What skills and experiences will be complimentary? How does your team make decisions? How does your team spend Monday mornings and Friday afternoons?

What are the “absolutely nots” that may not be obvious? Equally helpful are anecdotes like “this person didn’t fit because of xyz” or “this person was great because of (thing).”

Getting the fit wrong is a very expensive, often preventable mistake.

5. Remote/hybrid/office(s)

If you are "open to remote" are you really open to remote? Is remote the next state over, or is it 12 time zones away? Is your company set up to communicate asynchronously? Do you meet in person on a regular basis? Or, do you really prefer to have someone in your office?

It's ok if the answer is "we don't know." Again, the focus is on setting expectations appropriately as well as avoiding time lost while searching for your ideal candidate on the wrong coast.

6. Feedback!

Feedback, Feedback, FEEDBACK!

The number one way to derail a search process is to not provide feedback on candidates!

"More of X."
"Less of Y."
"We didn't realize we needed this skill set, but now we do."

We cannot adjust our search if we do not know your needs and response to candidates we have identified. In some cases we will suggest "slightly out of the box" candidates whom we like and who may surprise you.

It's also incredibly helpful to candidates if you provide us feedback to pass on to them. Is there a skill set they lack? Do they need to practice interviewing skills? Did they not wear a tie, or wear one when they shouldn't have done so? Most candidates are very appreciative for feedback—even if they didn't get the job—and they will have a positive impression of your company.

Feedback is also critical in making the mechanics of the process flow smoothly.

In more than a few cases, we've seen either the candidate or the company claim that they were "ghosted" by the other party when this was not actually the case. Many times it's simply a matter of a mix up about who would follow up with whom in what time frame, or someone was traveling, or someone (or a family member) was sick, or a phone number changed. We will stay in touch and follow up to prevent these types of issues; however, we can't fix problems that we don't know about.

7. Interview process.

It's critical to know what the candidate should expect.

  • Who is making the decision?
  • What are the names and roles of the people the candidate will meet?
  • Are the interview in person? Phone? Video?
  • How many interviews will there be?
  • Is there a technical interview/test?
  • If so, what are the expectations?
  • Does your company do any "strange" interview techniques (false pressure, brain teasers, etc.?)
  • What is the timeline for a decision?

We've seen situations where a candidate had 10+ interviews with no end in sight. The company in that case came off as fairly unprofessional and disorganized even though they were a major, well-respected firm.

We can help candidates prepare, but only if we know what they should expect. Some people—especially technical specialists—do not have a lot of interviewing experience, and they could be technically brilliant but lack polish. That's ok, you aren't hiring them to MC your wedding, you're hiring them to write code that works.

Some technical interviews are tests to see if the candidate can do almost the exact thing they will be hired to do. This might work fine for junior engineers or if you run a major search engine company. However, more senior people with years of work experience and a "portfolio" may balk at such requirements, especially if they are administered poorly. Why should they burn their weekend crashing on a coding problem for a startup that they barely know?

8. Interviews are a two-way street

It's critical to remind your employees that the candidate is assessing the company as much as the company is assessing the candidate. Except in some cases for recent undergraduates, the balance of power for the caliber of people we recruit is even or perhaps in favor of the candidate, not the company.

Video interviews are particularly trecherous. In one case we heard that an interviewer appeared "bored and disinterested" from the beginning. Was that the case, or was the camera placed incorrectly where the interviewer was staring in a slightly different direction to see his/her screen? We don't know, and it doesn't matter, because that was the impression that the candidate had.

There may not be a fit, and that's perfectly fine. However, candidates should leave thinking that it was a good company and the people they met were professional. They may tell their friends if it was a good experience, but they will definitely tell their friends if it was a poor experience. The world is very small, and everyone loses in that scenario.

9. Salary expectations and equity.

Do you have a range? What is it based on? What do you want us to tell a candidate, knowing full well that people "anchor" to the top of the range?

Having some idea in mind helps immediately filter people who are not going to take a pay cut or are only interested in jobs above a certain level (even if their expectations are not realistic.)

If you are offering equity, what type? What's the vesting schedule? What are the tax consequences? If you are offering options, what's the time limit for exercise after someone departs the company? Will employees get liquity in future funding rounds?

Few people actually understand the complications of equity, and it's far better to have a clear discussion on this subject.

We frequently refer people to the Holloway Guide to Equity Compensation.

10. Security clearances. (U.S. only.)

Is a security clearance really necessary? If so, what level? Is it strictly required or aspirational based on future business? Do you have the paperwork, approvals, and contracts in place to actually hold a clearance?

Hiring qualified personnel with the right clearances is quite difficult at the moment, particularly outside the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area (and even inside it, especially for IT related jobs.)

11. Citizenship/Visa requirements

Are you willing to sponsor a work visa in your country (most often the United States) or do you have overseas offices? Do you know the tax, legal, and other implications of having remote workers in countries other than your own?

12. Full time/part time

"Of course we want full time." Well... that's the default isn't it? Would you rather have someone part time right now versus a full time employee six months from now? What about 75% time?

Especially during the aftermath of COVID, there are highly qualified people who want less than full time work for family, school, and other reasons.


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