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What Makes a Good Hire for Startups?

When you’re ready to hire your first non-founder employees, the stakes are high: your early employees will play a critical role in getting your startup to its next phase of growth and will help define the culture you hope to create. In this guest post, Bob Cerone, CEO of CognosHR, takes a look at what makes a good hire for startups. 


Guest Author: Bob Cerone, CEO, CognosHR

Most founders know what “hard” skills they’re looking for, be it engineering, sales, or customer service. The bigger challenge is understanding and identifying the character traits and personality types that will work best for your startup. You may find a candidate who looks great on paper but won’t be the right fit for a startup environment. When you’re busy doing a hundred other things, hiring the right people takes strategic planning and discipline.

My colleague Erin Sullivan, a senior human resources consultant at CognosHR, offers some further insight: “The most successful individuals at our startup clients have well-rounded experience, are self-motivated, are eager to learn, and can self-manage,” she says. “They don’t just follow the status quo but bring new ideas and are not afraid to fail. I’ve also found that they’re very passionate about the company’s mission.”

So what should you be looking for when interviewing candidates? There’s no magic formula that will guarantees a perfect hire, but if you look for the following characteristics during the interview process, you’ll end up with some great employees.

7 Employee Traits that Correlate with Success in Startups

A few things to keep in mind: first, these traits are closely related and often overlap in how they present in the real world. Second, this is by no means a definitive list. Finally, many of these traits can be developed if the candidate demonstrates awareness and a willingness to put in the work.

  • Communication: The best startup employees are not only able to communicate clearly in many formats (email, phone, Slack, in person, etc.), they also have a pro-communication attitude. For example, they understand the importance of alerting the relevant people when something’s not working. They recognize client complaints are actually valuable feedback they can use to improve your product. They understand how positive recognition can boost their coworkers’ morale. Every interaction you have with a candidate is a form of communication (résumé, emails, in-person conversations). Be sure to pay attention to the effectiveness of their communication style throughout the process. You may also want to ask about a time that communication played a key role in driving team success and a time when it failed.
  • Enthusiasm: At a startup, there will be good days and there will be bad days. Often, there will be failures. There will be setbacks, iterating, and creating things from scratch. If you hire people who are enthusiastic about solving problems, you’ll be able to spend your time collectively working to improve your product or service, rather than writing a new job description to replace the burned-out employee who just quit. Enthusiasm doesn’t always mean a bubbly personality or emails laced with exclamation points; as you screen candidates, look for people who do things because they care about them, not just because they get paid to. Ask about their hobbies or outside-of-work projects. Those who have a passion for something beyond the office often bring that enthusiasm to their work.
  • Curiosity: Startup employees often have to learn new skills quickly. Naturally curious people enjoy doing this and do it without being told. They also tend to explore their world widely (through reading, travel, listening to the news, trying new things, etc.), which often leads to discoveries that they bring to their work. "The ideal candidate to work in a startup environment will bring a diverse perspective and a problem-solving mindset driven by curiosity,” agrees Jenny Franek, talent operations manager at our client Snapsheet. “The best candidates are adaptable and eager to take on any challenge that presents itself.” To get a sense of a candidate’s relationship with curiosity, ask about a time they had to learn something new and how they tackled it. Pay attention to their tone and attitude as much as the specifics of the story.

  • Proactiveness: You probably don’t want your first employee to be someone who waits for a to-do list every day. The most successful employees are able to recognize what needs to be done and take the initiative to figure out how to do it. To screen for this trait, ask your candidates about a frustration or challenge in their current position and how they’ve tried to solve it.

  • Humility: Big egos get in the way of learning, collaboration, and teamwork, all of which are crucial to the success of startups. A humble person is more willing accept that there are things they don’t know and is eager to incorporate new information into their daily lives. As Amanda Frawley, senior talent acquisition specialist at our client BenchPrep, puts it, “I think what makes a good hire in a startup environment is someone who is adaptable and can roll quickly with changes. Someone who is humble, not caught up in title or status, and willing to roll their sleeves up and get a job done.” To gauge their level of humility, ask candidates about a past success and failure. Also ask about their willingness do non-core job activities, like helping other teams meet a deadline or cleaning up after an event. Pay attention to how they respond and how they assign credit and blame.

  • Willingness to take risks: Startups, by nature, work to do something new on a broad scale. Startup employees must be able to forge new paths to establish processes, build workflows, and find efficiencies on a smaller scale as well. People who aren’t comfortable with the unknown – who would prefer to do things as they’ve always been done – won’t thrive in a startup. Successful startup employees tend to be comfortable taking risks and, crucially, prepared to assess the results, learn from them, and adjust course if necessary. To screen for this trait, ask about a time the candidate failed and how they handled it. Pay attention to both the story and the candidate’s body language. What you’re looking for is someone who demonstrates the ability to identify and apply lessons from the risks they take.

  • Time management: This is important on both a micro and macro level. Life in startups often involves hundreds of small distractions as well as ambitious long-term goals. Candidates who are good at managing time will have strategies for both staying focused in the face of interruptions and planning to reach long-term goals. Ask about both.

Every Business Is a Human Business

While you certainly can’t grow a startup without employees who have essential core job skills, you’ll struggle to reach your true potential if your team lacks the emotional intelligence and characteristics required to work together.

After all, no matter what kind of work your employees do, they will be interacting with other people to get it done. Candidates who excel at interpersonal relationships – that is, those who demonstrate these seven characteristics – will be able to thrive in their official role while making positive contributions to your company culture.

The opinions expressed here by 1871 guest writers are their own, not those of 1871. To learn more about CognosHR, follow this link. 

Topics: Insights

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