Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to work closely with three extraordinarily gifted CEOs: Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, and Apple’s Steve Jobs. Though they were all very different in their respective approaches and leadership styles, they all shared several characteristics. Most prominently, they shared similar ideas about recruiting and hiring.
There is an absolute, direct correlation between the success of today’s most thriving Silicon Valley startups and their competitive spirits, drives, and cultures. Integral to each company’s continued success is the founder’s or CEO’s ability to hire world-class team players.
The best company leaders understand that, no matter how great a person has been at another company, they may not necessarily be the right candidate for yours. At the end of the day, you need to hire the candidate who is perfect for your company’s specific situation.
This is a philosophy that Ellison, Benioff, and Jobs all shared, to some degree. In line with that philosophy, here are 12 lessons I learned about hiring while working with all three of them — but especially Ellison:
1. Set Clear Position Requirements
The founder/CEO needs to understand clearly who a particular role requires, why that kind of person is required, and when the hire must be made.
For example, it can be tempting to hire a big-name chief revenue officer (CRO) or senior vice president of sales — but that might not be what your company needs. Especially during its early stages, a startup may really need a qualified, execution-capable rainmaker instead. If the company does hire a big-name CRO, that person is likely to fail after 12-18 months — and after hiring a worldwide sales organization of 25+ sales professionals. Hiring a person whose set of skills is a complete mismatch for the company’s needs takes a painful toll on organizational capital.
2. Understand Why Mistakes Are Made
You need to understand the realities and requirements of the particular position to ensure you hire a candidate whose skills and knowledge truly align with the role. You can only understand the realities of the position if you fully understand the needs of your prospects, customers, and business before you even start recruiting. A good question to ask yourself is: “What stage of growth is the company at, and is my market strategy accurate?”
Once you’re comfortable with your answer to that question, you should set attainable performance targets so that you can measure organizational and team performance relative to the position. Then, look for candidates who have a belief system similar to yours. Take a look at Salesforce’s “Ohana” culture for inspiration.
To illustrate this concept further, let’s look at sales again. If you assume that all historical sales growth numbers and all industry experiences are equal, then you may think it would be a good idea to hire someone with a history of driving 200 percent growth within a vastly different sales environment than your own. However, what you really need to do is hire someone with a history of sales success within an environment that is similar to your own.
There is a huge difference between hiring someone from a Google or PayPal — where they stepped into a large sales team and administered it with diplomatic organizational finesse — and hiring someone who scaled up an existing sales organization at a company like Lyft or Palantir. Furthermore, there is a difference between both these kinds of candidates and the kind of person who is capable of generating initial sales and customer traction from zero.
3. Seek Intelligent, Driven People
You need to hire people who are far more capable than yourself, people who are driven to prove themselves. These are the type-A overachievers with a “fear of failure” personality.
You can spot these prospects by asking deep questions about their previous roles, their former employers’ missions, and how they strove to fulfill their employers’ visions. Focus on how they accomplished their results. Look for strategic thinkers who aim to improve their employers’ systems, processes, and results. Look for team-oriented descriptions of previous achievements, versus “I did it by myself” stories. Ask about how they hired and developed their teams. Look for people who utilize innovative resources while continuously striving to improve themselves and their teams.
Always hire talented people who are bright, passionate, hungry, and ambitious. That’s the genius of Steve Jobs’s hiring philosophy: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
4. Hire Evangelizing Believers
These are people who believe in your mission, your industry, your products, and your services. They see and get the full value proposition of your company.
Of course, you need to establish a person’s key accomplishments, education, and industry experience are a good fit for the position, but a genuine passion for your company’s offerings far outweighs the less relevant details of a candidate’s history.
Ask candidates to describe your company and products to you. Their answers will give you a sense of how well they prepared for the interview and how well they will prepare for critical company and customer meetings.
As Marc Benioff said, “The secret to successful hiring is this: Look for the people who want to change the world.” These hires can have an outsized impact on your organization. They can direct and manage an operating plan while bringing along a network of experienced and execution-capable team players from their previous company.
5. Ethics and Integrity Matter
Ask candidates situational behavioral questions pertaining to such sensitive topics as personal integrity, revenue recognition, sexual harassment, customer promises, hiring preferences, and so on. Not only do these questions help filter out the marginally ethical, but they also send a clear message about your company’s ethical expectations.
Seek candidates who are employed by highly ethical and successful companies. They will bring that same sense of ethical behavior to your company. Quality in, quality out.
6. Always Check References
You learn so much about a company, its management style, its processes, and the prospective candidate’s actual work via good reference checks.
A good way to verify a candidate’s credentials is to ask them during an interview about who held certain organizational functions and responsibilities in their last position. Take accurate notes of the names and titles the candidate mentions. These will generally not be the same names the candidate provides as references.
If the candidate deserves serious consideration, first ask for a list of references. Then, pursue those individuals the candidate mentioned during the interview. If you can find them, ask them about the candidate’s responsibilities, work style, leadership skills, communication skills, and performance.
If you can locate a peer within the organization, ask about the company’s compensation scheme, including salary, bonuses, incentives, stock options, etc. This will give you a good sense of what a comparable-level professional at the same company earns. If there is a discrepancy between what this peer says and what the candidate told you, ask the candidate to explain why. Look for telltale signs of exaggeration and embellishment.
7. Trust Your Intuition
You can discern so much about a candidate simply by looking directly into their eyes as they answer your questions during an interview. Pay attention to other body language as well. Act on your intuitions.
8. Be Decisive
Once you have identified your top choice, don’t procrastinate. Set a plan for completing the hire within a clear timeline. Set dates for everything from salary discussions to meetings with key team members. Landing a top candidate is a time-sensitive matter.
9. Compare the Candidate’s Credentials Against Those of Your Own Management Team
Take a look at your current team’s pedigree. How does it match up with your prospective new hire? Make sure you are augmenting your team with a superstar addition. Your new hire should be someone your existing leaders and managers respect and admire. You want your people to say to themselves, “We were able to attract them? Wow!” It’s a great morale booster.
10. Don’t Assume the Candidate Will Accept Your Offer
Present the offer personally. If possible, invite the candidate out for dinner. Nothing demonstrates your genuine interest in the candidate like some social time outside the office setting. Get a verbal offer acceptance, and then follow up again for an official acceptance before the candidate’s actual start date.
If the candidate is resigning from a position before joining your team, consider inviting them over for a strategic company meeting before they actually start as a way of getting them more involved and committed. Use all the resources available at your disposal — including your executives, advisors, and board members — to land your ideal candidate.
11. Help the New Hire Transition
Once your candidate joins, invest a lot of time up front in detailing your company’s vision, mission, expectations, operations, executive functions, resources, communication processes, and so on. Check in regularly during the orientation period to build trust and ensure all is going smoothly.
Overcommunicate your expectations, the organization’s troubles, and the tools available so new hires know what to expect and how to address issues within the organization. Always manage via complete transparency. You’ll never regret saying, “Let me be honest: This is a tough job. We’re a small, dedicated team with few available resources working long hours. Are you up for the challenge?” If you don’t have that conversation, it will eventually come back to haunt you.
12. Seek Referrals From Your Best Hires
Once you have hired a superstar, ask for their recommendations of other potential employees. These superstars are most likely to refer other superstars, which makes referrals a highly effective vetting process. No one wants to recommend someone who will make them look bad. A players attract other A players!
Igor Sill consults at Geneva Venture Partners, a Silicon Valley recruitment, investment, and M&A venture advisory firm.