Monday, October 01, 2012

If You Want To Hire Me, Maybe You Should Buy Me A Drink First

While I was recently between gigs and looking for my next role, I had the chance to sit down with an old friend who was also going through the process at the time. My friend is a fairly senior engineering leader, has been in charge of big teams shipping lots of product, and generally fits the profile for a VP of Engineering or CTO kind of role in a startup, or perhaps a high-profile leadership role in a larger company.

As we compared notes on the hiring process, it turned out that our experiences had been eerily similar in one important regard. It seems that, all too frequently, the hiring process for senior engineering leaders goes like this:
  1. A recruiter cold calls, cold emails, works their network every which way they can to get a candidate on a 15 minute call to pitch the company they're hiring for.
  2. After the call, our candidate agrees to meet with the company for an initial discussion
  3. The candidate is immediately routed through some arcane bureaucracy that throws up walls to keep them from having that discussion. Fun examples include:
    • candidates being told they have to sign an NDA in order to talk with the CEO at all
    • working with an admin who shows zero flexibility in making time on calendar for the meeting with the candidate
    • dealing with an in-house recruiter who sets the candidate up for a full-day interview as the first step in the discussion.
I wish that, when I was a single guy, I could have dated this way. I would have hounded a bunch of women to go on dates with me, and then, as soon as they agreed to a date, I'd have said, "OK, I'm available from 7:15-8:45 pm Thursday night three weeks from now, but before I can go on a date with you, please fill out this ten page application for a relationship and submit it along your most recent GRE scores and STD test results."

The dating metaphor is mostly a joke, but it does hold some merit. Entering into an employment relationship is a big commitment for everyone involved, particularly in startups, and it requires that everyone have the opportunity to get to know each other and feel very comfortable working together. More importantly, the simple fact is that selling needs to happen in two directions - just as the candidate needs to convince the company that they can do the job, the company needs to convince the candidate that the company is a good place to work.

This should be completely unremarkable common sense, but anecdotal evidence from the NY startup scene indicates otherwise. For example, I was once able to win a coveted recruit away from a much larger, more successful, startup because I told the recruit in detail what was special about him that would make him so important to our team; the other startup had told him, "We want you to come here to write code, we think you will be good at writing code." In dating terms, this is like the pickup line, "I am male and my observations indicate you to be female. This indicates we should be a compatible match. Shall we intercourse?" 

Often times I've seen companies make the opposite kind of dating mistake - jumping to a commitment way too early. On one occasion a few years ago, I met with a startup CEO for a first conversation and walked away thinking, "Hey, good meeting, definitely going to have a follow-up conversation with that company." The next day, the CEO called me with his offer. In dating terms, this is like going out for coffee on a blind first date, getting a handshake goodbye, and running out to buy an engagement ring.

Taking the dating metaphor to the offer stage, one of my favorite pieces of recruiting advice is "Extending an offer is like asking someone to marry you - you shouldn't ask until you know the answer is going to be yes." When I'm hiring, I've found this to be incredibly useful as a way to drive the end-stage recruiting conversation. Think of it this way - most people, when deciding to get married, spend a lot of time discussing their values, their dreams, their aspirations, what makes them who they are, and then, when they feel like there is a match, they start shopping for engagement rings. If you're making an offer before you've talked through ever key issue about working together, you're basically buying an engagement ring before you know if the other person feels the same way that you do about having kids. In practice, the way I make this work in recruiting conversations is to let candidates know that, once we both feel great about the fit, we can find an offer that will work, but first let's make sure everything else has been covered.

Alright, enough ranting. Let's summarize why it's useful to think of recruiting for startups like dating:
  • Both sides need to be selling throughout the entire process. Just because you don't have evidence that a candidate is qualified doesn't mean it's too early to start selling them.
  • You need to convince the candidate that there's some special reason to enter into the working relationship; hiring someone to be yet another generic cog in your machine is a no-win proposition.
  • You wouldn't ask someone to marry you if you weren't sure they were going to say yes; the same approach works very well with job offers.

Hopefully this is all obvious but, again, anecdotal evidence indicates otherwise. I'd love to hear any other examples of the dating/recruiting parallels (or even some counterpoints!).

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