Denali Tietjen
May 24, 2017 · 6 min read

Each month General Catalyst brings together leading technologists from New York’s top startups for a brainstorming session on an industry challenge or theme. Through an exchange of best practices, our goal is to move the collective tech ecosystem forward. Last month, we convened CTOs for a discussion on how to manage technical teams across multiple offices and business leads tackled the question of when to open your first international office. This month, we focus on company culture.

Chief People Officers from leading New York startups joined us for a conversation on building inclusive and creative company cultures, a particularly timely topic given the litany of op-eds and viral videos that have exposed the urgency for a systemic cultural shift within Silicon Valley. How can hiring managers contribute to an inclusive and creative company culture? How do recruiters ensure candidates emulate the cultural values of a company from mere first impressions?

To begin grappling with these questions, we hosted Chief People Officers and recruiting leads from New York’s pioneering startups including Birchbox, AppNexus, Bonobos, and Rent the Runway to exchange creative hacks that have transformed their hiring processes. Rob Dennis, current SVP of Talent at Medialink and former Head of Technology Recruiting at Bridgewater Associates (a hedge fund known for its radically transparent corporate culture) led the discussion.

Below are some of the creative hacks the group shared. While these strategies merely scratch the surface, they are a first step at building a meaningful and diverse culture.

  1. Make reference calls an active part of the hiring process

Most companies treat reference calls as an afterthought — a check box that confirms their already developed assumptions about the candidate, which is a missed opportunity. Leverage thorough reference calls to help form your opinion rather than confirm it, Rob Dennis, former head of Recruiting at Bridgewater Associates, says.

To make the most of reference calls, try this hack: The superlative test. Present the reference with three superlatives and ask them to choose the most relevant. Say, for instance, “So would you describe this person as a good engineer, a great engineer, or a superstar engineer?” Surprisingly, references often don’t choose the top superlative even if they spent the past ten minutes on autopilot recommending the candidate. That’s a red flag.

2. Experiment with interviewing without resumes

“Interviewers naturally make assumptions based on a candidate’s resume and focus the interview around them,” Lorraine Buhannic, Senior Director of Talent Acquisition at AppNexus says. “But sometimes what I think is most interesting on someone’s resume isn’t the most revealing.”

AppNexus has found that removing resumes from the interview process leads to more authentic and productive conversations. Of course, this process hinges on recruiters being very well-calibrated so the interviewer can trust that the candidate has been properly vetted, Buhannic notes.

3. Summarize your impressions at the end of an interview, and solicit a response

Try summarizing your impression of a candidate at the end of each interview and give them the opportunity to challenge it, Buhannic of AppNexus suggests. Say, for example, “I’m really impressed with your success, but I don’t see that you’ve ever really stepped out of your comfort zone and that’s really important to us.”

While some candidates may just say “Oh. Okay,” others may challenge it or bring something up they didn’t feel was relevant in earlier context. Candidates appreciate the transparency either way.

4. Ditch the traditional interview script

“The true mark of a fantastic interviewer is their ability to have any conversation and get a good read,” Dennis says. Interviewers often assume a good interview stumps a candidate or makes them feel dumb, but that’s not a productive dynamic for either party. “If you’re doing it right, there’s no reason a candidate shouldn’t leave loving the interview experience.” Good interviews are an opportunity to showcase the company’s intellectual DNA, too.

At WayUp, one interviewer famously conducts all interviews over a 1-hour game of ping pong. “The idea is that some percentage of your brain is going to be distracted by this game, so the conversation will be much more natural.”

At AppNexus, cultural interviews are designed to get to know someone beyond their qualifications and previous corporate anecdotes. “I recently spent an hour speaking with a candidate about her experience growing up as a muslim woman in America,” Buhannic says.

5. Involve someone from outside of the immediate team in the interview process

Involve someone with no affiliation to the team the candidate will be working with in the interview process, Sarah Eichas, Talent Acquisition Manager at Rent the Runway suggests. Think of this interview as a sort of “checks and balances” — it ensures there isn’t an overemphasis on a candidate’s professional qualifications at the sacrifice of culture fit. This interview is so important to Rent the Runway’s hiring process, in fact, Rent the Runway grants the non-affiliated interviewer veto-power over a candidate if they don’t think they’re a good culture fit.

6. Don’t rush the hiring process

“Hiring can go really bad if it’s rushed,” Dennis says. A well-paced hiring process allows time to reflect and compare candidates between interviews. On the interviewer side, rushing to hire often means diluting the standards. On the candidate’s side of things, they may get caught up in a rushed process. “Always give candidates an opportunity to back out,” he says.

Note: Beware of interview fatigue. “Oftentimes, the bar unintentionally gets lowered with each candidate you see,” Dennis says. Commit to what you’re looking for and don’t compromise it throughout.

7. Understand the difference between work style and culture fit

Clearly gauge the difference between work-style and culture fit within your organization, and be sure to educate your interviewers on this difference, Melissa Enbar, VP of People & Culture at Birchbox says. Interviewers often write off process-oriented candidates as “not a fit” because the nature of startups is fast-paced and unstructured. “But diversity in work-style is really important,” Enbar points out, and structure becomes increasingly important as companies scale.

To asses workstyle, try the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, which identifies people by two personality types: Perceiving (P), who are flexible and can go-with-the-flow, or Judging (J), who are more process-oriented and like to plan. “As annoying as everyone thinks Js are, we need them,” she says.

8. Develop a shared language for talking about talent

“Companies often shy away from structure because they don’t want to overcomplicate the process,” Dennis says. “But standardizing the language used to discuss talent is critical to ensuring all candidates are evaluated equally.” Whether you borrow language from personality tests like the Big 5 or Myers-Briggs or define your own internal term like ‘Googliness’, having a shared rubric and language to fall back on is important.

9. Try 2-on-1 interviews

Try conducting interviews two-on-one, Lianne Hajduch, Director of People at WayUp suggests. Not only does this ensure two perspectives are considered when evaluating candidates, it also helps screen for candidates’ bias and culture fit, Hajduch notes. Group dynamics can be really revealing: “Does the candidate only speak to one person? Are they only addressing the male interviewer?”

10. Drop the “Bachelor’s Degree in x” requirement from your job descriptions

Starving artist likely isn’t the first image to come to mind when you think “quant hedge fund,” but that’s the profile of talent prominent hedge fund D.E. Shaw recruits. When Dennis was a senior at Harvard College studying English and Creative Writing, he received a personalized invitation from the firm to interview for an analyst position. It read something like: “Hey, you’re moving to New York to pursue your dream as a writer. Why don’t you work for us to help pay the bills rather than waiting tables or bartending?” Dennis recalls. (Spoiler alert: He took the job)

While humanities majors aren’t traditional business recruits, there’s a lot of overlap: creative-types are intellectually motivated and know how to hustle. Plus, recruiting from unexpected talent pools creates intellectual diversity within the organization.

General Catalyst Amplified

News and perspectives from the General Catalyst family of investors, founders and entrepreneurs.

    Denali Tietjen

    Written by

    Associate at @GeneralCatalyst, Platform at @RoughDraftVentures

    General Catalyst Amplified

    News and perspectives from the General Catalyst family of investors, founders and entrepreneurs.

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