How to Become an Expert at Hiring Rockstars

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I’ve written before about the importance of the right team for your startup. This goes beyond just your co-founders or early employees; it is something you need to continue for the life of your company. Any organization is only as good as its people, because every organization is ultimately a product of its people. That may be obvious for outward-facing departments like Sales, Customer Service, but it’s true for everyone. Every policy, every innovation, every strategy that your company relies on and executes is a product of the minds and efforts of who’s on those relevant teams. So it’s not enough to have excellent senior-level staff, if you fail to pay attention to who you’re hiring in other  roles.


One of the best compliments I’ve ever received from my esteemed mentors is that I’m one of the best people they’ve seen at hiring. At the same time, several of my top hires, my rock stars, have confided that they’d previously found their resume to be somewhat un-marketable, with other jobs being difficult to land. It’d be tempting to let my own leadership and mentorship skills take the credit, but I know there’s way more to it than that.


I’ve had such great success with hiring because my approach deviates a bit from traditional wisdom, and I’d like to share my own tried-and-true take with you, so that you too can be a hiring star, who’s hiring stars.

X > Experience

The common wisdom around hiring is that experience is king. I don’t necessarily agree with that, and have identified 4 other aspects of a candidate that I weigh more heavily than experience.


Mindset > Experience: I love seeing that an applicant has done work outside of the field they’re applying in, especially if some of those jobs have been what others might consider quirky or even menial. If someone has waitressing experience, that tells me they’re OK with the messier and gruntier side of work, instead of expecting everything to always be centered around things they’re deeply passionate about. It also tells me that they know how to handle stressful situations and interactions.


Similarly, if someone has had a quirky job that most people wouldn’t go for — say, they were a dolphin trainer for a summer — that tells me they’re not afraid to think outside the box and wholeheartedly go after their interests. It shows me they know how to take the bad with the good, whether the “rough stuff” is waking up super early to carry around large smelly bags of fish to feed the dolphins, or just the mundane paperwork that almost every job requires.


Openness and willingness to work, not thinking of themselves as “above” a certain type of labor, is important. Because every job is going to have annoyances, times when things are moving either too slowly or too fast, aspects that even the most enthusiastic employee doesn’t actually want to do deep down. Look for the person who is going to see the big picture and slog through the annoying or boring or unrewarding stuff because they understand that all of those less exciting things contribute help make the big picture happen.


Values > Experience: My top hiring filter is this: Do you align with our company goals and values? At LaunchX, we teach entrepreneurship to high school students, and every employee must believe wholly in that mission. They have to believe in the potential of high school students, the awesome power of education, and that entrepreneurship boils down to a set of skills and mindsets that can be taught. Anyone who doesn’t believe in those things isn’t going to be the best at executing our mission. They might be wicked smart, motivated, creative and hard-working, but if they don’t see what we do as important and valuable and don’t want to advance it, then we’re not right for each other.


If you’re choosing between a candidate with more solid experience who may not fully align with your values, and one who’s a bit more green but is really excited about your product, mission, and the core of what you’re trying to do, go with the green person who believes in your vision.


Now, a quick warning to focus on your company’s professional/business values and mission, not your personal ones or the personal ones of other team members. When I say “values” I don’t mean political, religious, or social values (unless, obviously, your startup is in one or more of those areas). And I also don’t mean personal preferences on things like sports or TV shows or activities. For instance, hating the Yankees shouldn’t be a prerequisite for hiring someone, nor should loving them be a disqualifier.


Growth and Learning Potential > Experience: Every employee I have works to maximize their own growth and learning. Without those two things, our company would stagnate, fall behind competitors, and cease being capable to offer our students the very best experience we can.


A commitment to growth and learning is essential to startups, because many mistakes will happen in the beginning and for a long time along the way. There will always be new information, new ways of doing something. The demands of a startup include the ability to pivot, iterate, test, and reiterate quickly. You can’t be agile if your employees refuse to learn new ways of doing things, incorporate new mindsets, branch out on their skills.


Look for employees who show a track record of working to better themselves, learn new things, tread into unfamiliar territory. People who’ve grown within every role they’ve had, and who consider growth to be an exciting challenge, not an annoying requirement. Look for people who consider it a boon, not an imposition, to attend intensives and trainings, to connect with others in your industry, to adopt and tweak new best practices.


Skills > Experience: This goes hand-in-hand with growth and learning in my book. The default tendency for those in hiring positions is to home in on people who’ve done the same job at a previous company. This approach has two flaws: It means that the person will have limited growth opportunities at your startup, and it doesn’t weave a pattern across their experience that points to more generalized skills that can be a foundation for growth.


I like to hire people based on where I can see them going over the next 3 or 5 years, which of course I can get some sense of based on what skills they’ve built and what foundations they’ve laid. If the skills they have after their most recent job are the same ones they had at their very first job, I’m not too confident that their goal is to grow.


One of the things that’s difficult, and can take longer, is looking at people’s skills and determining how they would translate into the tasks you need for the role you’re filling. Realize that someone who has the right skills from a variety of different roles could be a much better asset than someone who’s simply had the exact role you’re looking to fill at a different company. For example, having built a CRM in the past isn’t necessary for building one for your company, but both project management or being adept at organizing a large amount of data might be really useful. Make sure your candidate’s skills allow them to take a fresh perspective while leveraging the type of work they enjoy.

Potential Hiring Pitfalls (Watch Out!)

Something I’ve seen frequently, which I think could be causing companies to shortchange themselves, is the mentality of trying to replicate a formula applied to the wrong aspect of the hiring process. Say your company found its last great hire at a particular school or a specific company. Seeing that person thrive, grow, and contribute to your team, seeing that they have the right mindset, skills, values, and desire for growth, you might be tempted to then look for future hires at that same company or school. And while it is true that certain institutions do instill certain values and skills, it’s not a guarantee that everyone will necessarily carry those things over with them.


An acquaintance told me about a recent experience she had growing her team at a small startup. She hired a woman who’d previously worked at a high profile company with high standards. The new hire turned out to be better than the manager even expected. She was bright, enthusiastic, an excellent problem-solver, and really infused new life and energy into the whole team. The new employee was a lightning quick study and committed to growing every day.


A few months later, when it came time to expand the team and hire another person for a similar role, the manager was especially excited to receive a number of applicants from that same company. But, when she conducted preliminary interviews with the ones whose qualifications matched the needs of her team, she found that none of the things that stood out about her rockstar recent hire were apparent in the other people who’d worked at that same company.


She then looked more closely at the other roles the rockstar hire had held, the skills she’d picked up from her professional work and her hobbies, and the mindset that she embodied, and realized she was great because of who she was, not because of where she’d worked in the past.


Hiring amazing additions to your team is more about hiring amazing individuals, who may not at first glance have had the career path as you might expect, than about hiring a bunch of people who all come from one institution. Remember that there are gems and duds at every college and every company, and what might make someone a gem in one environment may not translate to them being right for yours.


The next big pitfall — which you’ve probably guessed by now — is hiring solely based on experience. Remember that one of the reasons some startups may prefer candidates who seem more green is that those candidates are less likely to be set in their ways or need to “unlearn” mindsets or approaches that aren’t useful in your organization. It can actually be a detriment to hire someone who is too comfortable within a particular kind of role. They may default to executing the large and small tasks of the job in the they way they’re used to, instead of the way your customers, industry, values, and goals need them to do it.


This doesn’t mean that you always have to start from scratch or that you should not hire people who’ve worked in similar roles in the past. But if you have reservations about their mindset or their adaptability, don’t ignore those simply because the person ticks the right experience boxes.

Start with a Stellar Job Ad

All of the above is useful in determining which applicants would be the best fit for the role. But it also helps to work toward getting the best applicants interested in your job in the first place. It’s worthwhile to spend a little time crafting an excellent, detailed job posting. Here are a few tips:


Be thorough. Every job posting should be informative enough that the person can come away feeling like they understand your company and its culture, your expectations, the tasks of the role, and how their particular skillset might result in them thriving and contributing.


Paint a picture of your company. Feel free to have candidates refer to a longer mission or core values statement on your site, but do share the basics of your “why”, and what you’re going for in the ad itself. That will let people who don’t align with your vision or brand self-select out of the application process.


Balance your description of the role between high-level responsibilities and day-to-day tasks. You don’t need to spell out every single thing someone might ever be asked to do, but you should be able to give a good idea of what “a day in the life” will be like for the person who lands the job. At the same time, and especially when hiring for a more senior or mid-level role, do define the greater scope of the position and how it fits within the organization.


Include values, mindset, and personality traits among your Desired Qualifications. Remember that you’re hiring a person, not a resume and cover letter, so don’t limit what you ask for to the on-paper stuff. List the number of years of relevant experience you feel would be needed to do well in the role, along with some of the personality traits that would make someone amazing in the role.


For instance, if you’re hiring for a customer service role, empathy, patience, and the ability to remain cool under pressure are crucial. A person may have 5 years of experience in various customer service roles, but that doesn’t guarantee they will genuinely care and give their best to your customers, or think on their toes and find novel ways to help. We’ve all received enough poor customer service to realize that many people just phone it in, read from scripts, and do the bare minimum to get customers off the phone so they can move on to the next person. And many companies are OK with that!


You want someone who is self-motivated, proactive, a fast learner, and who also knows their way around Google Drive and Salesforce? Mention ALL of those things in your job listing. And of course realize that having experience with another sales CRM or even other unrelated business software probably means that applicant is trainable in Salesforce. Balance the hard/measurable skills with the “soft” to create a well-rounded job description and alert your potential candidates to exactly what you’re looking for.

Though it may seem like a tedious to-do list item, trust me that spending an extra half hour or hour creating a clear, comprehensive, and cohesive job posting will help you attract the right candidates for your position, and save you time sifting through piles of under-qualified, bad fit applicants later. Plus, getting it all down will help you solidify exactly what your company needs.

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