The People Conundrum

The one exec you don’t have, but really need

I interviewed a C-level candidate this morning for one of our portfolio companies. He shared with me two “off the record” thoughts I hear often from candidates (more than 50% of the time):

  1. “I haven’t been blown away by their recruiting process. It’s disorganized, was tough to get meetings scheduled, and the company execs I interviewed with had not read any background material on me. Not even LinkedIn.”
  2. “Why don’t they have a head of people / talent? Seems like a company at this stage should, assuming they value people?”

I typically meet with 3–5 candidates for portfolio companies a week, so this is not a random small sample size. It’s a systemic issue.

Here’s my short advice for entrepreneurs: hire a superstar in this role as early as you can. If you really believe people are going to differentiate your ability to win, then why wouldn’t you invest in an expert in this area early — just as you are in Engineering, Sales, Marketing, etc.?

In addition to helping you build a great company, a superstar in this role can also help you on a personal level make the difficult climb from Founder to CEO. She or he can help you think through organizational strategy, planning, culture, training and more while also ensuring your company makes a strong brand impression with candidates during the interview process. Do you really want hundreds of top tech execs walking around saying how bad your recruiting processes are? Word of mouth spreads fast, and candidates don’t walk away saying “Oh, I get it, they must be really, really busy.” To the contrary, they walk away thinking “That’s not a very well run company” (or worse) — and they often tell their friends.

It’s Too Early

The most common responses I hear from founders on this topic are a) “it’s too early,” b) “we can’t afford that role” and/or c) “I can’t find anyone great.”

On a) — I respectfully disagree. Even if you are a Series A company, it’s an investment worth making as you start to build your team (20 employees is not too early).

On b) — no question, it’s hard to allocate your scarce dollars to this role, but if you believe people are important to your success, you’ll find budget dollars. It’s a strong signal to candidates either way.

On c) — fair point. It’s often not too difficult to find people who are great at recruiting but don’t understand things like org design, culture, etc., or vice versa — but rare to find execs who do it all well. “We need to find a Laszlo Bock” — and there is only one I know of. But there are other, up-and-coming “Laszlo’s” looking to help build the next Google.

There’s only one, and he’s not available. But you can find your own!

What Should I Do?

So what do you do, if you are a founder reading this and saying “I agree?”

  1. Make it a priority. Just like other exec roles, you won’t start meeting great people who could fill this role for you until you make it a real priority. Put a box on your exec team org chart (BTW — draw one if you don’t have one) and a timeline to hire an exec in this role.
  2. Make the role report to you. That’s a strong signal to candidates that you’re serious and want someone to help you build a strong organization and culture.
  3. Work with your investors to help identify candidates, and/or consider hiring a search firm. Our Head of Talent, Jen Holmstrom, is building a network of superstars in the People arena, and some of the best are already working in GGV portfolio companies with founders who have made this role a top priority. There’s a good chance the head of talent at your VC firm has a network in this area as well — hit her/him up for ideas and candidates.

I know this can be a hard topic and sometimes controversial. But — if you want to be “where the puck is going,” the puck is going towards companies that have strong People execs and teams. It makes a difference, and will make a difference in your company.

You can’t honestly say “People are are our most important asset” and not have a talented exec reporting to you in charge of the People function.

I look forward to hearing your comments.