Hiring and interviewing for a role you know little about

Startup hiring doesn’t have to be hard

Jon Michaels
Jun 18, 2019 · 3 min read

Congratulations. Your company is growing and the team is expanding. You might be part of the senior team that is hiring the first head of a key department or perhaps you are a member of the broader company and are assisting with interviewing. At some point as the member of a growing startup you’ll be needed to interview someone for a role you aren’t familiar with. Here are strategies to help you — and your company — succeed.

If possible, do the job yourself or work to get as much experience as you can doing that job yourself.

You might be in the role full-time for an extended period, or perhaps just spend a short period in the “day-to-day”. By doing this you’ll know what the role entails and what questions to ask to identify a solid candidate. If you are the hiring manager for this new hire, spending time doing the job yourself will provide the experience to judge whether a candidate can outperform you (which is the desirable outcome when hiring in a startup) in that role.

Second, enlist experts from your network to help understand the role.

Find the people you have previously worked with who have excelled in their given role and solicit their input on what to look for and technical questions to ask. If you haven’t done a job yourself there are few better people to ask than trusted advisors who are experts in a particular realm. An add-on part of this strategy is to continue to ask for advice from these advisors and experts about how to manage the new hire after they come onboard.

Another strategy is to find out the key traits required for the role and interview for those.

If the role requires someone to be naturally curious you might ask, “Tell me about something you recently learned because you wanted to, not because you had to.” That will help you determine if they are a lifelong learner and always discovering. If taking the complex and making it simple is a required trait you could ask them to explain a complex thing — something they know really well but you don’t — to you in a way that would be easy for a fifth grader to understand. You don’t need to have deep experience with the exact role to develop an understanding if a candidate has the underlying skills and capabilities.

Understand the business and economic climate in both your specific industry and the broader environment.

Read the news every day; it’s important to know what’s happening in the world. Understand current issues and ask about those in the context of the role you are hiring for. If you know that data security and privacy is a big issue in the news you can ask a CIO candidate about how they would manage that aspect of the business.

Finally, be upfront about not having deep experience in a given area.

You can try to fake your way through giving interviews and a good candidate will suss out your lack of knowledge in less than a minute. Better to start with a simple statement like, “This area is new to me and I’m going to start with some basic questions to lay a foundation for how we would work together.”

There are a few different approaches here and a combination of one — or all — will help you and your company succeed.

Jon Michaels

Written by

I thrive in unstructured, ambiguous environments. I bring passion and enthusiasm to everything I do and get excited about bringing out the best in others.

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