We once worked with a startup that wanted to hire a new VP of engineering. When we asked the CEO what he was looking for in a candidate, he said, “Someone who can play the drums.” (This CEO happened to be learning the drums at the time.) He was dead serious.
This may sound like a crazy, off-the-wall request, but it highlights a surprisingly common problem in recruiting. Very often startups will say they need someone with the skills and experience to help them scale their company and take it to the next level, business-wise. But when it actually comes time to interview candidates, they’re completely – and myopically – focused on cultural issues instead.
This is a big mistake, and highlights the very corporate immaturity that many startups are trying to grow out of by upgrading their management teams. This cultural focus in hiring manifests itself in various ways, ranging from interviewing only candidates of a certain age or background to favoring people with even-more specific habits or quirks (like our percussion-obsessed CEO above). Here are five common, culture-related hiring mistakes startups make frequently.
1. Focusing on chemistry over qualifications. Startups are often founded by people who know each other really well: college roommates, coworkers from a larger company who jumped ship to start something new. These small teams work together smoothly. They trust each other and have a strong history together. That kind of rapport is important, but trying to continue replicating it with new hires can mean missing out on the best candidates for the next phase of growth.
2. Letting age become a factor. Startup CEOs or directors on startup boards will often say or directors on startups’ boards say their teams need “adult supervision.” There can be an element of truth to this — as a company grows, it does need someone to establish policies and formalize procedures in order to succeed at a larger scale.
But the attitude behind this expression is unfortunate. It reveals a reluctance to take an older, more-experienced candidate seriously, when in fact, the best candidate is often someone who’s grown companies multiple times before. Countering ageism in your hiring is the best way to position your company to scale.
3. Looking for universal buy-in. Surprisingly often, startups will bog down the hiring process and turn off good candidates by making highly qualified, senior executives sit through endless interviews with everyone on the team. Literally. The candidate has to keep coming back until they’ve talked to the entire engineering team. All the people the candidate would supervise in their new role are allowed to weigh in, often because the startup wants to make sure the candidate would be a good “cultural fit.” Not only is this inappropriate, but it makes the hiring decision impossible — you’ll never find a candidate everyone will like. The senior team should be able to figure out if a candidate is qualified and will fit well enough into the culture. This is how mature companies operate.
4. Expecting senior execs to work “startup-bro” hours. There’s an expectation in much of the startup world that the whole team will work around the clock. But a lot of folks at the senior level have been there and done that — plus, they have families they may occasionally want to have dinner with. Generally, successful senior executives have learned to work more efficiently: they know what needs to be done, and they do it without pulling all-nighters. So don’t screen for candidates who will stay at the office until 10 every night
5. Letting one bad informal reference tank a good candidate. Back-channel references happen all the time. It’s natural to want to get the inside scoop on someone you’re considering hiring, but it’s important to remember that nobody gets to the senior level of their field without ruffling a few feathers. Top-level candidates have often managed teams of more than a thousand people. If you’re working at that level, you’ve definitely fired people, a fact that might taint certain references without being openly acknowledged.
Of course you should take informal references seriously, but you should also put those comments into context. Is it possible this person just didn’t like the candidate or the policies they had to implement? Don’t let one person’s bad feelings tank a qualified candidate.
It’s all too common for startups to try to hire in their own image. Whatever success they’ve achieved to this point is thanks to a small, close-knit team. But that team needs to broaden out eventually for the company to grow. NOT doing so can lead you to miss out on diverse candidates who don’t literally look like the team you already have. More broadly, an obsessive focus on culture can blind you to what your company really needs–a candidate with the necessary chops to upgrade your business and take you to the next level.