In Search of Silver Linings: Opportunity in Chaos

By: Tim Gordon, Managing Partner, Aequitas Partners

“Work wherever you feel safe and comfortable.” That’s what I said to our team over a month ago, and I haven’t seen any of them in person since. We didn’t mandate anything because this was before New York City effectively shut down, but everyone understandably opted to head for more square footage and stocked kitchens in the suburbs. Overnight, the world changed. It felt…sad. There was a solid week of culture shock and change management as we adapted to being a distributed company, but as we adjusted, I encouraged everyone to change their perspective. There is opportunity in here somewhere – let’s find it. What’s the silver lining?

I believe strongly that there also remains tremendous opportunity for companies in our space. Organizations have raised capital over the last 6-9 months, and there is an unprecedented amount of talent available, motivated, and looking to make an impact. Well-capitalized companies might be revising their hiring plans and sales forecasts, but they still need to grow. What if this environment isn’t temporary? What if much of the country remains remote through the end of the year, or longer? It’s unclear when sales leaders will be hopping on planes to go see prospects or existing customers. If more business is being conducted remotely, is there an advantage to building an interview and hiring process that can achieve success virtually, knowing that those hires might be conducting most of their work that way anyhow?

Just this week, someone on our team spoke to a VC who had just done two things that excite me and give me hope. First, they led and closed a Series B round for which the entire deal cycle was virtual. They never met in person. Second, they are running a search for a CFO of a portfolio company, and doing it remote, end-to-end. They will hire someone they’ve never met into a C-suite position. Most wouldn’t have fathomed either of these things in the middle of Q1, but I think this is where opportunity lies. That being said, in order for this to work, two things need to be executed on with relentless precision – your interview process and your onboarding process.

On a good day, a lot of companies struggle with constructing and adhering to a well-defined interview process. And one of the staples of that process has always been the “in-person interview,” where a person is brought in to meet the team, or taken to lunch or dinner where you can be in a more casual setting. Most will tell you that the in-person interview is integral to determine cultural fit. But it’s much more than that – it’s a way for you to determine what that person’s presence does to your already-existing gut instinct on whether they should be hired or not. So in a world where in-person interviews no longer exist, how do you fill the “Intuition Gap” that results?

This new world is a reality check on that, so it’s critical that a new process be thoughtful, creative and acknowledging of the difficulty and vulnerability of our various situations.

  1. Communicate your process clearly to candidates. It’s imperative that someone entering an interview process right now, with all of the unknowns, gets a sense of confidence that a hiring company has their act together. Lay out the steps on the front end.
  2. Get creative on your video interviews and calls. Sure every interview can easily be turned into a Zoom call, but so can social interactions. If you’re hiring senior execs, get the candidate and their spouse together with you and yours for a virtual happy hour, and make it last longer than 60 minutes. Have a virtual dinner meeting, or a “working virtual lunch.” Try to replicate the time you’d spend in person.
  3. Turn off your computer notifications during the interview. Frankly a good reminder for any interaction, but particularly interviews. If you’re distracted with emails, text messages and Slacks , you’re missing valuable opportunity to pick up on non-verbal cues that will help you close that Intuition Gap.
  4. Over-rotate on references and backchannels to fill in the gaps created by a lack of in-person face time. These are always important, but need to be done in greater quantity and depth if they’re going to successfully close your Intuition Gap.
  5. It’s also a strong argument for a collaborative “deliverable.” Not free work, but something that allows you and a candidate to really unpack the way you’d work together, and seek strong alignment before a hire is made. It’s a good opportunity to involve more team members in an efficient way, and will likely be required, as candidates try to get comfortable with the prospect of joining a team they’ve never sat in a room with.

Figuring out the hiring process is only half the battle. Where things get really interesting is onboarding. Onboarding remote hires – when it’s not your traditional method – is difficult. We just lived through this, bringing our most senior hire to date on board on March 16th – the same day our office effectively closed because of COVID-19. We benefited in a few ways: first, Polina is a total pro, and has worked all over the world remotely, second, we all had spent time together planning for her onboarding before she started, and third, she and I have a nearly decade-old relationship. Bit of an unfair advantage.

That said, similar to the hiring process, many of the same principles apply to onboarding:

  1. Fully schedule out the entire week. It’s a bit odd working from home when you don’t know what your work actually is. On that first day at 9am, what happens? Maybe it starts off with a virtual team breakfast, or with someone doing a demo on how your Slack account and CRM work. Did you even set up those logins in the first place?
  2. Create some internal accountability. Write out clear weekly goals for progress, and they should be tracked somewhere centrally with a great deal of transparency. Have proactive check-ins with the individual that are more than “how are you doing today?” There are few new hires that will tell you exactly where they are having trouble, so make sure your check-ins are tactical and include training.
  3. Recreate osmotic learning. Because you’re not in an office together, there is no way for your new hire to learn passively by overhearing conversations. So have the person shadow and listen in on as many calls as possible in the first few weeks. Proactively explain why you responded to an email in the way you did.
  4. Make things extremely high touch, but with a purpose. Leverage Slack to communicate throughout the day, and make yourself and your team available to folks that are trying to learn your ways and culture. Do as much of it as possible over video, trying not to leave a new hire with long periods of solo work without interaction.

Organize virtual team happy hours much the same you would if you were back in the office and taking the new guy out at the end of his first week. And please cut the newb in on the jokes / watercooler Slack channels so they can experience and subsequently add to the culture of your team.
With the wave of layoffs happening, many employers who are still hiring have fallen into a false sense of confidence that it’s a “buyer’s market.” Meaning that they’re going to have a plethora of candidates to choose from, and they can also take their time. That is a big misconception. The onus is much more on you to meet the candidate (and hopefully your new team member) halfway. Let me be clear – an unfocused hiring and subsequently uncoordinated onboarding process are the first and second impressions of how things work in your company. And a stellar candidate – which let’s be honest, you’re not out there trying to hire mediocrity – will take immediate notice and appropriately socially distance themselves from you.

Ultimately, there’s three choices. You can build a process that gets you right up to finalists, and then wait out the travel ban to see when you can get them on site. You can build an even better process, that allows you to get conviction and make a hire in a virtual format that’s uncomfortable, but might not be changing any time soon. Or, you can do nothing. It’s clear that many organizations and their investors are seeing a great deal of opportunity in adapting to the situation on the ground. The silver lining, if you’re searching for it, is that a process forged under duress stands to perform exceedingly well during happier days.