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Hiring for a start-up

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Helping out: As an entrepreneur, be prepared for the unexpected. As the writer found out... when he was interviewed by the parent of a prospective employee!
Helping out: As an entrepreneur, be prepared for the unexpected. As the writer found out... when he was interviewed by the parent of a prospective employee!

K. Srikrishna

Her father is in the lobby, waiting to meet you,” I was told. I wasn’t sure I had heard right, so when I stepped out into the little passage that served as the “lobby” of our start-up, there was indeed a gentleman, probably in his late fifties, waiting there. Granted it’s not every new employee’s father who travels 2,000 km to meet her prospective employers, but as a start-up you should expect the unexpected. More importantly, be prepared to do the unexpected to find, hire and retain the right people.

Every person I have spoken with, particularly in the last six months, has spoken about how difficult it is to find the right people and when they find them, to then be able to attract, afford and subsequently retain them. So what is an entrepreneur to do?

I have been at both ends of the spectrum, namely despairing how we were ever going to hire enough good people and despairing yet again for having far too many of the wrong people on board. And the funny thing is we fall into such situations despite having dug ourselves out of similar holes before.

When in doubt, of course, I turn to the experts, and the best experts are those who have tried multiple things and have both failed and succeeded at them. You will find that the experts tell you the opposite things. “Hire slowly and carefully,” says one. “Hire carefully and rapidly,” says another, and then you read about TCS or Infosys hiring 10,000 people in a quarter and you wonder if you are in the right business!

Since the matter of people is so critical to a start-up, I believe it’s worth spending some time thinking and talking about it. Here’s what I have learnt about hiring from having built, motivated and worked with great and, at times, less-than-ideal teams.

Clarity: Why are we hiring?

Despite all our complaints about hiring, it is surprising how often we lack clarity even on why we are hiring and on the attributes we want in the prospective hire. If you compound this with the lack of clarity among prospective hires about what they are looking for, we have all the ingredients for a hiring disaster. So when a supervisor walks up to you and says he needs another painter in the powder coating section or your engineering manager says she needs experienced Java programmers, you might want to repeatedly ask ‘why’.

I am not recommending you thwart their legitimate requirements for more people, but that you strive for clarity. Is this to manage a peak load or crunch? Is it because the current powder coating artist needs help or so that he can move on to bigger tasks? Can this be accomplished through job rotation or by hiring a contractor? Is there work for a full-time person? What would he or she be doing six months or a year from now? If answering such questions takes you more than 15 minutes, it is safe to say you don’t have clarity and should not hire.

Unlike buying a book or a house, knowing what you don’t like is not sufficient to make a good hire. So clarity on the attributes and the skills you are looking for is important. Also, having clarity on how you will know when you encounter what you want is important. Which brings us to the process or the method you employ to discern if a given candidate has the attributes you seek.

Process: How will we hire someone?

Recall how often your manager or a colleague has popped into your office, grabbed you from whatever you were doing, handed you the resume of a candidate and a few minutes later coaxed you into interviewing the said candidate. All of us have encountered (or instigated) such a scenario. This is NOT a good way to hire the best people.

Following a well-defined hiring process that is tweaked periodically will go a long way in helping you find the right person. There is no one magic interviewing process. These can be as varied as the people conducting them. But, there are a few basics that, when covered, are likely to increase the chances of success. First, preparation — you can never be too well prepared.

Let’s begin with screening of the resume. I usually mark the candidate’s resume (or have my recruiter do it) for the basics — educational background, years of experience, any unexplained gaps in either, number of jobs held, the time spent at each job, specific skills highlighted and backed up by past jobs. Depending on the level of expertise you seek, even for in-town candidates, a phone screening is a good idea. You can draw some basic conclusions about the candidate’s ability to communicate, his motivations, even have him explain parts of his resume that may be unclear or ambiguous. Though a phone screening will not tell you if you want to hire a candidate, it will save you a lot of time and effort unearthing areas of discomfort or obvious dissonance between the resume and the reality of your conversation. Between a resume and phone screening, you should have a clear sense of who you want to interview and, often, what you want to address in a face-to-face interview.

The next step is the face-to-face interview. You should have more than one, ideally, three or more people, talk to each candidate. The interviewers should include not merely the reporting manager or HR, but several future peers of the candidate. Each interviewer should have been prepped as to what it is they will be interviewing the candidate for. This could be capabilities such as dealing with ambiguity, working well in teams, negotiation skills, specific technical skills or domain competence. The interviewers should be empowered to recommend rejecting a candidate, so that if the first or second interviewer determines the candidate to be inappropriate, then the hiring manager can stop the interview process right there. Even if you love the individual, ensuring follow through is critical.

The follow through involves two key parts — reference checks and expectation setting.

Reference checks: Don’t hire anyone, even if they walk on water, without talking to at least a couple of references, preferably from their immediate past.

Expectation setting: Once the reference checks work out, take the time to discuss and agree to explicit expectations of what would constitute success from both the candidate’s and the company’s view. Doing this prior to someone starting on a new job can help avoid disenchantment and subsequent failure, even when the candidate is competent.

Always On: Perennially recruiting and occasionally hiring

One of the most common truisms I hear about hiring is to hire only when you really need someone. This advice, though well meaning, invariably leaves you in a situation analogous to searching for a fire extinguisher after the first tendrils of smoke have been spotted. That is not a good place to be in. It is far better to recognise and admit that you are always, yes always, recruiting. Of course, just because you are in the market for a new car or house, doesn’t mean you buy the first one or even a nice one till it’s clear on the why, what and how. Similarly, the fact that you are always recruiting does not translate into always hiring. What does this “always recruiting” really mean? It simply means:

Knowing what skills your start-up already has and the new ones you could use, which comes back to clarity.

Treating every individual you encounter as a potential hire, be they customers, partners, the lady in the next seat on your flight or the guy who delivers your mail.

Recognising and ensuring that your company and your needs are being projected continuously. I am not advocating you become a bore whom people avoid at social or business gatherings! As one of my mentors advised me, if you are looking to find a job or a spouse, you had better let everyone you know know that you are looking. The same advice applies here. Perennially recruiting doesn’t do away with the need for following a process or making the occasional hiring mistake, but it makes it a whole lot easier to find the right candidates in a lot less time with a whole lot less heartache. It also keeps you on your best behaviour most of the time!

Seven years on, after that first meeting with the father in the faux lobby, his daughter continues to work with us through multiple locations, upheavals and an acquisition. I am sure glad I answered his questions correctly! As the boy scouts say, “Be Prepared!”

(The writer was founder and CEO of Impulsesoft Pvt Ltd, which grew from a boot-strapped organisation of two people to a global leader in Bluetooth wireless stereo music prior to being acquired by SiRF Technology Inc in 2006. He blogs at http://designofbusiness.blogspot.com.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 11, 2008)
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