Getting Your Ducks in a Row: The Importance of Planning Before Hiring

“I’m not even sure where to start.”

I heard that from a CEO recently. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last. I get it and I empathize. Hiring right is hard.

My response? Let’s come up with a plan. You wouldn’t just start building a house before you laid the foundation. If you started with your dream master bathroom, you’d probably have a mess on your hands. No, you’d talk to your husband or wife, think about your kids, discuss what you all needed in a home, and then work with an architect and then a builder and so on and so forth. Hiring is no different, and just as complex because these components are people. Additional time up front defining culture, roles & responsibilities and your process will lead to better outcomes.

For example, let’s say you’re a CEO looking to hire a Vice President of Marketing. You could draft a job spec, ping your network and your Board members to ask for a recommendation, or possibly approach a recruiter with a list of specs. You’d also probably post it to your company site and push it out to social media. This action-oriented approach isn’t wrong, but what will dictate your success is what you do before you do any of that. The ideal first step is to pause, and answer the types of questions that facilitate a sharper, more explicit hiring process. Is your VP of Marketing a senior hire overseeing strategy and business development, or do you need someone more tactical and execution-oriented? Is your #1 priority growing the business or growing the brand? Are you in need of a cleaner website, logo, color scheme, a streamlined deck for customers/investors, a 1-pager, etc., or is the current goal to elevate your brand through content marketing, trade shows/industry events, stronger SEO/SEM results, and HubSpot integration? Formulating a strategic, structured approach to hiring will deepen your confidence in individual hiring decisions, which in-turn makes the overall process cleaner, faster, and more efficient across the board. To be clear, requirements can and do change, but having guideposts and a process in place will make it easier to hit those pivots in stride.

We think that Atul Gawande was onto something with his Checklist Manifesto, so here’s ours. If you want to download a copy because, ya know, you want to use it immediately, click here.

  • 1. When do you need this person? Work backwards from when someone must be in the seat. If you’ve been tracking data on time-to-fill internally, then you’ll be able to do this precisely. If not, that’s ok. Assume 6-12 weeks, depending on the role and time of year, from search beginning to start date. You can always ask someone to start after they take a nice vacation if you need to fill a week or two.
  • 2. What’s your culture? You could make the case that this is the first question you need to answer. It’s impossible to hire for culture if you can’t explain it internally, so hash this out as a group, and identify the types of people – regardless of role – that will fit well into it.
  • 3. Who will the new hire report to (near term and long term, if it’s subject to change)? It’s important for a prospective candidate to understand whom they’re working for and where they fit in your org chart. It also should influence who else needs to be involved in the interview process (#10).
  • 4. What’s the budget for role? Create a base case, mid case, and reach scenario. Try to leave some rope for yourself in case you stumble across your unicorn. Include base, bonus, and equity in your calculations. Try to get some market data to make sure your budget makes you competitive with market comp rates.
  • 5. Will the search be handled internally or externally? If external, will it be contingency or retained? If you’re starting internally, you may want to put a clock on how long you work on it before you enlist outside help. For more on how to leverage those options, check out: A Holistic Approach to Hiring: How Internal, Retained and Contingency Recruiting All Play a Role in an Effective Hiring Strategy.
  • 6. What are your top-5 ‘must haves’ in a candidate? What are your top-2 ‘nice to haves?’ Take some time with this one. Lay out a long list of traits, skills and competencies, then whittle it down. Understand that while no candidate is perfect, some are certainly more perfect than others. Once you start interviewing, it will be beneficial to know where you’re willing to make tradeoffs.
  • 7. Is this person managing others? If so, how many now, & how many 12 months from now? Will this person be part of the executive leadership team? Everyone is looking for ‘leadership skills’ when hiring, but the more clearly you define the specifics of the role, the more you can narrow your leadership focus. Is this a small team or a large division? Do you need someone who just manages or is a player/coach? Knowing whom your manager will be responsible for leading helps determine the type of executive you’re looking for.
  • 8. In 12 months, retrospectively, what does success look like in this role? Quantify it. The more clearly and succinctly you answer this question now, the more straightforward you can be with both recruitment personnel and candidates during the hiring process. You’ll have the added benefit of having already created a performance scorecard before the person even starts.
  • 9. What domain expertise is required? An obvious one, but still should not be overlooked.
  • 10. What’s the interview process? How many rounds? Who is interviewing? Will Board members be involved? If so, when? How will the interviews be conducted? Having 5 different team members conduct the same interview leaves candidates exhausted from answering the same questions 5 times, and leaves your team with an incomplete picture. Who’s focusing on core competencies? Intangibles? Behavioral? Culture? Domain Expertise? Now you’re able to develop a holistic portrait of your candidates, which leads to more informed decision-making.

Once your checklist is complete, summarize your findings in a brief email internally which has 3-5 hard hitting bullets that succinctly define your search parameters. This will make it easy for you and your team to share with their respective networks and yield better fits. Help people help you. Draft a position description that clearly defines roles and responsibilities. Ideally, create a scorecard that you can use internally for each candidate so it’s easier to compare side-by-side. The idea is to get everyone on the same page right from the start, so when it comes time to assess your candidate pool, you’re all speaking the same language. That type of planning encourages diversity of thought while still maintaining consistency in evaluation.

When it comes to hiring best practices such as the aforementioned checklist, it’s easy for Founders & CEOs to feel overwhelmed, and sometimes not even sure where to start. Hiring is an area of management that is often overlooked… until it’s actually time to hire. The truth is, CEOs should feel comfortable reaching out to firms like ours to ask for advice. I personally enjoy doing informal advisory calls with CEOs on a regular basis with no strings attached. In fact, I frequently host ‘Expert Hangouts’ with one of our partners, where I answer questions from 10 or so CEOs on a moderated panel via Google Hangouts. Topics range from talent differentiation to delineating roles within an organization, and even defining the differences between a VP of Sales and a VP of Business Development. Honestly, this isn’t work to me – it’s fun to help, and a bit of goodwill on the balance sheet never hurt anyone. On top of that, I’m afforded the opportunity to absorb the concerns and challenges facing leaders trying to build companies and change industries, and I usually end up learning things too – so it’s a win-win.

If you’re a hiring leader who can relate to some of these feelings, I encourage you to reach out to us, or others like us, for advice. I think you’ll find that most folks will be more than happy to take some time to share their wisdom. And for those who prefer to go it alone, our hiring checklist is posted on our website.

What do you think of the checklist? Any points that caught your attention? Anything we missed? Feel free to email me and let me know… We love feedback!

By: Tim Gordon, Founder & Managing Partner