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The ABC’s of Building a Startup A-Team

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Building a strong team goes far beyond reviewing credentials. The best candidates will have expertise that complements and personalities that blend well with your culture.

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D., and Sarah Cardozo Duncan

The quality of your team is the most critical factor for achieving success with a startup company.  How you and your team work together, how crisis is handled as well as how opportunities are uncovered and acted upon are all functions of your team.  Building an ‘A-team’ is easier said than done.  The easy part is finding candidates with the skills and expertise that you need to complement the existing team.  The hard part is determining how well this person will fit into your existing team.  The key is to find the individual that has both the expertise and is aligned with your culture.  In short, the candidate with the best match with your company’s culture and personality will make the strongest addition to your team.

Why is this so important?
There is not a lot of slack in the budget and timeline for startups to grow from the ‘great idea’ stage to becoming a ‘great business’.  It can take 6 months or longer to find the right candidate for your team.  During this time you and your team will be spending effort evaluating resumes, interviewing candidates and other activities to get this need filled.  Once you have hired your new colleague, it can take another 3 – 6 months or longer before they are fully productive.  If you hire the wrong person and they leave (they resign or you let them go) you will have to start the process all over again.  This results in further costs, and delays as you and your team are tasked with finding, vetting and hiring a new person leading to further delays to achieving business milestones.

Here’s how to get it right (The First Time)

A.  Conduct a self-assessment of your company’s culture:
The best way to insure that you will be happy with your new employee and they will be happy with you is when the company culture and the personality of the candidate are a fit.  You need to have a clear understanding of what your company culture is before you start to evaluate candidates.  Your answers to the following questions will help you to determine this (There are no right or wrong answers).

  1. Is your company’s organization chart flat (few layers, everyone reports to a very small number of leaders) or vertical (lots of layers, junior members report to more senior members and they in turn report to members that are more senior to them etc.)?
  2. How are decision made?  Everything must be approved by the CEO or is authority more delegated with only the most critical decisions requiring input from the CEO.
  3. How quickly are decisions made?  Are team members empowered to make decisions that will move the company forward even when there might be some incomplete data or are there often delays to either get more information and/or get consensus from a group.
  4. What is your tolerance for risk?  Comfortable taking chances or only accept options that are well proven and/or where most of the risk has been mitigated.
  5. What is the noise level in the office?  Do people tend to get up and meet with their colleagues or do they prefer to instant-message or e-mail each other.
  6. Who has authority to approve expenditures?  Only the CEO or C-level executives or is this authority more broadly delegated (within limits) throughout the team.
  7. What is your work environment like? Is it Traditional (regular office hours i.e. 9 – 5) or progressive (as long as the work gets done on time, employees have flexibility with their working hours and can work from home some of the time).
  8. Do you view your employees as assets (company well-being depends on them and investments in each employee ultimately benefits the company) or expenses (salaries are the largest expenditure; need to minimize this as much as possible).
  9. How do you invest in your employees? Do you encourage and pay for professional conference attendance, courses and workshops, provide career development, etc.?

B.  Assess each candidate’s fit with your company culture:
Provide some structure to the way that you conduct your interviews.  Ideally the CEO should be the last person that the candidate meets (the CEO should be checking in with the other interviewers throughout the day and can then focus their questions accordingly.  Putting the CEO last allows for more time flexibility and will also avoid getting off schedule during the day).  Each person that interviews the candidate should try to figure out whether they think this person would be a good fit with the team based on the culture assessment you previously conducted.  There should be at least 4 or 5 standard questions that everybody asks.  For example:

  1. Tell me about yourself? (This is a great open-ended question to help get the ball rolling and will provide you with material for follow-up questions)
  2. Why did you choose this for your profession? (Passion for learning, for the prestige, for the money)
  3. Where do you see yourself in the short-term and long-term (do they see working for you as a step in their career path, do they want to stay at the bench or branch out into other parts of the business)
  4. What do you think we will gain by your working here?  (This is a good one to see how much they have thought about how they can contribute.  This will reveal how much they have researched your company and also how confident they are in their ability to help you)
  5. Do you have other interests? (Here is where you will find out if you have a workaholic or a more balanced person on your hands.  They don’t need to follow the same sports teams and have the same hobbies that you or your team have, this just allows you to get a fuller picture of what type of person you are meeting)

C.  Review interview notes, rank candidates and tender offer (reasonably quickly): 
Have a review meeting immediately after the last candidate interview while impressions are still fresh.  The team member (ideally the immediate manager of the candidate) should lead this meeting and also take meeting minutes (these will be crucial during the ranking and selection stage).  Get feedback from each of the interviewers on the following:

  1. Did they actually answer the questions your asked?
  2. Did the candidate seem confident?  Too confident (cocky)?
  3. What was their body language like?  Did they sit rigidly in the chair or did they slouch back?
  4. Where they dressed appropriately?
  5. Did they seem prepared and know about the company, the position and its needs?
  6. (for first interviewer) Where they on time?
  7. Did they ask good questions?
  8. Did they seem enthusiastic about joining the team?
  9. Did they ask for the job?

Next, review the answers to the 4 or 5 standard questions and look for consistency.  Ask for any further impressions, comments or concerns and ask each person if they could see them fitting in with the team or not (gut feel).  You should be evaluating at least 3 – 4 candidates or more.  A few days after the last candidate interview, the meeting leader should distribute the meeting minutes from each of the follow up meetings via e-mail and ask the team to rate their first second and third choices by e-mail (you will get better feedback this way than in a meeting).  If there is unanimous support for one candidate, make an offer.  If not, you should discuss whether the highest ranked person would be a good fit and see if you can reach agreement.  If not, you will need to interview more candidates (better to take a bit more time now for this than to face the consequences of hiring the wrong person).

Picture Credit:  © Rossco | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images