Notion.vc analyzed how unicorn leadership teams compare to other companies. They found that Unicorns hire game changers earlier. It took us 4 years to figure out how to consciously and repeatedly hire game changers. I wrote this post to help you get there in a few days.
Note: This post is focused on hiring executives but most practices apply to any hiring process.
We hired people who weren’t fit for the job
At Avrios we hired leaders and employees who weren’t fit for the job. On one of the worst days of my career, I had to let 12 people go because of that. Strong stomach aches plagued me for several weeks in a row before and after that day. I can only imagine the stress and anxiety I caused for those 12 people. Deep inside I knew it was not their fault. It was our fault as a company and thus my fault as a leader. I swore to myself that this would never happen to me again. Maddy Cross, Magnus Lambsdorff, Wouter Hendriks and Beatriz Dominguez helped us fix our hiring process.
Then, we learned how to hire game changers
Since then, we have gone on to recruit amazing people and build a strong culture. We have recruited key people behind success stories like Trustpilot, Fleetmatics (2.5BN exit) and Hybris (1.5BN exit). Those people have built amazing teams around them and are having a big and positive impact on Avrios.
Here’s how we hire game changers
We start at the top
We make sure the board represents the level of ambition and culture of our business. If it doesn’t, then we try to adjust the board. The board and I review the business plan and identify gaps in our management team every 6 months. I prepare those meetings taking my team’s culture, skills and experience into consideration.
We develop a razor sharp profile, especially if we fill a job for the first time
Once we have identified gaps in the management team, we develop a job specification. We answer the following questions as input:
- What are the objectives and key results we want this person to achieve in the next 6, 12 and 18 months?
- How do we want the person to behave?
- Which new skills or characteristics do we want this person to bring to the company?
- What are skills and behaviors we do not want to see in this person?
- What are we willing and able to pay for this job? (Our investors usually have pay package data available. We also ask recruiters for further data points as well as a review of this specification.)
- We finally look at job specs from other companies to check for completeness
Profiles for known roles are easy to develop (Example: Full Stack Engineer №5). We have never managed to get a job specification right when we filled a job for the first time. For example, when we hired our first VP of Marketing, we created a draft job specification. We then interviewed 10 candidates before we completed it. Talking to those candidates helped us understand nuances of the job. For example, we understood some differences between brand building and demand generation.
Which type of executive do we need?
Interviewing hundreds of technology executives across Europe has given us interesting insights. We found that executives tend to fall into one of the following buckets.
Chaos pilots bring a company or a function from 0–60%. They strive in chaos, don’t like processes and structures and want to get things done. They tend to be resourceful and entrepreneurial. They have worked in an early stage startup and are very tactical in their approach.
These candidates worked in a sizeable, high growth business for 2 consecutive years. They know what delivers growth. The business likely had millions in revenue and grew at >50->100% YoY. They understand moving targets and evolving structures. Growth managers are able to put the right level of structure in place to align everybody. Yet, they don’t overburden their teams with static processes.
Optimizers have spent at least 2 consecutive years in a company that was growing <50% YoY. They had time to refine structures and to put in place efficient processes. They strive on talent retention and are good at building longterm plans they hit.
There are many people with many big names on their CVs. They have never stayed in any place for >2 years. In interviews they have all the right answers for most questions but one:
Can you explain to me, what your specific contribution was to the company’s success?
Their first answer can still be convincing but they fail after we ask 3x why.
We assume that Restructurers are a class of executives unknown to us. They come into businesses to manage restructuring projects for 2–3 years and then move on.
When we have a profile, we design a structured evaluation process
When we have a complete profile, we decide which criteria are non negotiable. We then design a process to test for those criteria. In summary, we try to answer the following questions:
- Can the candidate do the job? (Skills & Experience)
- Will the candidate do the job? (Motivation)
- Do we want the candidate to do the job? (Behavior, Values)
We use 4 evaluation methodologies to test candidates:
- We use behavioral interviews to identify past behavior
Past behavior predicts future behavior. Unfortunately people often don’t change as they would like. So if we expect someone to change their behavior at Avrios, then we are taking a risk and we need to be conscious of that. Very few people quote past experiences when they answer questions. So we often have to dig 2–3 times until we get a real example of past behavior. Candidates often share opinions or they give hypothetical answers instead.
- We use technical tests to check skills
These tests vary role by role. I like to use 100 day plans for executives. They allow me to test for analytical skills, presentation skills and communication skills. When designing technical tests we try to mirror the real job. After all, we are looking for a person who does a job well. So why would we use anything but real world examples to test the candidate?
- We clear doubts and confirm facts using reference calls
We use reference calls to fact check CVs and interview answers. We also ask open questions to look for patterns across calls. We use questions like: When you think of this person, what comes to mind first? What do you remember most about the candidate?
- We check personality and character in a 1to1 setting, such as a dinner or a lunch
It is important to remember whether we are evaluating or selling. We need to sell the very best people on the opportunity, because they have options. All stakeholders, such as the board and other executives take part in this. Of course, selling can involve questions to qualify the candidate. Yet, I have found it emotionally challenging to sell and test at the same time. So we try to sell the candidate on the opportunity before we enter evaluation mode.
A typical recruiting process for a key executive
- Initial call to get a high level overview of their CV and pitch the opportunity
- Optional: Second screening call to mutually clarify questions
- Bringing the candidate onsite for a morning presentation of a 100 day plan. 3–4 separate behavioral interviews in the afternoon. Key executives run those interviews and try to get some personal time with the candidate as well. I brief each executive on what to check.
- We pass the candidate to 2 board members for clarifying interviews. They also get a briefing.
- Optional: We organize more behavioral interviews or technical tests to build full confidence.
- Negotiating a package
- At least 3 reference calls.
Finally, we fill the pipeline
The clear profile helps us define search criteria to map the talent market. We always try to identify the top 3–5 candidates in Europe. Over the years we have learned to be very ambitious with this list. We no longer exclude anyone from the list, no matter how unreachable they may seem at first. We then use our collective network to get access to those candidates.
Additionally we engage a specialized recruiter to help map the market. We select the recruiters based on 3 criteria:
- How do they behave in their sales process towards us? Is this the way we want them to sell our business? Are they structured, professional, on time, etc.?
- Are they specialized in recruiting exactly what we look for? (Example: Have they placed at least 3 CTOs in a venture backed company in DACH. Does at least 1 of the CTOs meet our criteria?)
We bring at least 3 candidates to the last stage of the process to ensure optionality.
Kindly let me know if you have any feedback on this blog post or if you have any questions. I plan to continue improving this post and to continue sharing our experience in other blog posts.