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How to conduct a meaningful job interview – advice for startup founders

One of the biggest challenges for many startup founders is recruitment. Most founders are first time managers, so you probably don’t have much prior experience you can rely on. And unless you just closed a major vc round, you probably can’t afford the best headhunters (and you really should not hire the mediocre ones). So you’ll have to figure this out yourself.

To make matters worse, the cost of a bad hiring decision is much higher for startups than it is for more established businesses. First, the team is all you have in a startup and all it takes is one unreliable, uncooperative or incompetent team member to kill your team’s productivity and engagement. Second, you will probably lose around six months of what would otherwise be productive time on onboarding, managing, and replacing the person. And six months is a really long time for a startup (it’s like dog years vs human years if you compare startups to established businesses). And third, there’s a high risk that you will settle for a mediocre candidate, which can completely ruin your business (more about that in the next blog post).

So how can you as a startup founder figure out which candidate would be best for your team? There’s a few things we can recommend.

1. Don’t trust your intuition alone

The first thing you need to know is that people are biased, especially in the hiring situation. And no, you are not special in that regard. If you rely on your intuition alone, you will subconsciously make the decision about a candidate based on the first 20 seconds, and you will spend the remaining 59 minutes of the job interview asking questions that would reaffirm your initial impression. So if you like the candidate (because he/she looks similar to you, has a firm handshake, has a nice haircut, or whatever other bogus reason), you will ask questions that you know he/she can answer. If not, you will be much more critical. So do you really want to make your most important management decisions based on a 20-second impression?

2. Have a structured process

The best way to get over your biases is to establish a structured process. The process does not have to be perfect and you don’t have to do it as well as Google does, but you need to have some structure to make an informed decision. Discuss with the team (again, don’t rely on your opinion alone) what characteristics the candidate should have and make a list of 5-10 critical aspects. Put that into a checklist and evaluate all candidates based on the same criteria. Even if your checklist is really simple, it will almost certainly give better results that relying on your intuition.

3. Ask behavioral interview questions

Invest some time into learning about how to conduct a good job interview and what kind of interview questions provide meaningful information about the candidate. The traditional “where do you see yourself in 5 years” and “what are your 3 biggest strengths/weaknesses” only show whether the candidate took time to google “interview questions” before meeting you. At best they will tell you nothing about the candidates’ skills, attitudes, or performance. At worst, you will try to look for meaning in otherwise meaningless answers and usually draw the wrong conclusions. Instead, ask for real-life examples where a candidate has demonstrated a trait you need – e.g “What was the last really difficult goal you set for yourself?”, “When was the last time you received criticism that you thought was not justified? How did you react?” or “When was the last time you started a project / proposed a new way of doing things that was not your direct responsibility?”.

4. Involve your team to the decision

The second best way to get over your bias is to involve your team to the selection process. And don’t just let them voice their opinion, but give them equal voting rights. If you can’t reach a consensus, there’s probably good reason for it – after all, your team has to live with the candidate as well. Let your team meet at least the shortlisted candidates, but don’t let it ruin your process – brief your team on what you have learned about conducting interviews, stick to the questions you prepared in advance, and collect your team’s opinion in a structured way. That way you can be sure that everyone’s opinion is taken into account and that you are evaluating candidates on things that really matter.

5. Don’t try to be clever

Hiring is a science, so it makes sense to learn from the best practice of successful companies and decades of scientific research before trying to improve the process. If you think you have come up with a clever interview question that reveals everything about a candidate, you are probably seriously mistaken. Companies like Google have long ago discovered that brain teasers like “How many gas stations are there on Manhattan?” and “How many golf balls would fit into a Boeing 747?” reveal absolutely nothing about the candidate’s’ ability to do the job and questions like “If you had a theme song, what would it be?” only serve to amuse the interviewer.

So there’s no magic, trick questions or other sorcery involved – just take some time to learn what recruitment science and more established companies have known for decades and follow their advice. Agree on a process with your team, figure out your interview questions in advance and evaluate candidates in a structured way based on the same criteria and your chances of making the best decision rise dramatically.

How to build a winning startup team?

Team is everything “– you’ll hear that from investors, startup founders, advisors, and everyone else involved with the startup scene. But when you dig deeper and ask what are the criteria they look for in teams, you’ll probably hear something emotional like “Look for the spark in their eyes” or “Look for hustlers” or “Great teams only have A-players”. If team really is everything, then why do we still rely on emotion and guesswork when building teams?

At Teamscope we know from our own experience that intuition alone is not enough. When we first build our team by simply bringing together people with the required skills, we failed miserably, and we learned from it. After analyzing over a hundred startup teams and going through hundreds of academic papers on group dynamics, we composed a list of 10 tips for building winning startup teams.

Hire based on values, not skills

The first fundamental difference between a team and just a group of people is purpose – teams need to have a common goal they all want to achieve. But how can you agree on a common goal if you value different things in life? Take the time to understand what really motivates your team and only hire people whose core values match with your team members. Forcing someone to act against their intrinsic values will result in conflict that you cannot solve, so make sure to get this one right.

Establish a strong core

Studies have found that teams where at least a couple of people have strong connections to each other are much more stable and cohesive. It’s enough if only two people have some history together – that will form the core of your team and help establish trust in the crucial early stages of team development.

Get someone more experienced on board

Optimism and some arrogance are valuable traits for a startup founder, but be honest about your limitations – if you lack management experience it’s crucial that you get someone on board who has managed people and built something before. Technical problems are easy and can be solved by googling, but people problems can’t, so make sure you have someone to talk to.

Diversity in most aspects is great

Startups are about looking at things in new ways, so you want to have as many different perspectives as possible. If you are all the same age, went to the same school and hang out with the same people then your view of things is probably quite limited. Diversity in age, gender, ethnicity, experience, and education is priceless if you can build an open and collaborative culture.

Diversity in some aspects is not so great

If diversity in demographics and experience is great, then diversity in some personality characteristics can be quite harmful. First, watch out for people who are much more conservative and traditional than the rest of the team. Startups are about breaking norms and doing things in a new way, so excessive conformity and obedience will only slow you down and cause unwanted tension. Second, be careful when hiring someone much more individualistic and competitive than others – at best, this may drive your team forward, but most likely will simply ruin collaboration and undermine trust in your team.

One bad apple can ruin the barrel

A large organization can normally handle underperforming and difficult employees, but in startups, the effect of every team member is disproportionately high. Even one unreliable team member will throw your whole project off track and one overly critical and negative person will ruin the mood of everyone else. There is a small chance that your difficult coworker is the next Steve Jobs, but most likely they are just an a-hole, and I believe it’s not worth the effort.

Establish norms early on

It does not matter how good you are at selecting team members, you will inevitably have conflicts. Take time to understand the communication and collaboration preferences of your team and establish rules for avoiding and resolving conflicts early on. For example – if some of your team members tend to be overly challenging, establish a rule that you speak in turns and do not interrupt each other when making important decisions.

Focus on building trust

An important characteristic of a great team is that team members can criticize each other’s work openly. If team members feel they can trust each other and the team leader, they should have no problems with giving or accepting honest feedback. If this does not happen, you are doing it wrong (criticizing the person, not the task) or you have failed to build a secure environment for the team.

Respect the personal preferences of your team

The way we like to work and interact with others is largely determined by our personality, and personality cannot be changed. This, of course, does not mean we should categorize people and set artificial boundaries – for example, introverts can easily be the life of the party and shine on stage, but they normally just don’t want to. Some people need more space and quiet, others need social interaction to be energized. Some are intrinsically driven and organized, others need some external pressure to get things done. Respect that and build an environment where everyone can achieve their best.

Fill in the missing piece

Your role as team leader is to make sure that everyone else can be their best, and that often means you need to get out of your comfort zone. Figure out what are the things that your team is not great at, and become great at it yourself. If the team needs support with planning and organizing, figure out how to do that. If they are not great at networking, helps build the connections they need. Lead by example, even if that makes you uncomfortable.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about teams, but also a lot we do know, and even simple things can have a major impact on your team performance. Take time to learn about team dynamics, because team really is everything.