Part 1: Hiring People Who Know More Than You

This is Part 1 of a 3 Part series. In this first post, we focus on how to hire candidates that are older than you.

A lot of people I spend my time within the work that I do, are either founders or are part of a founding team. Most of them are under 40, in fact, now that I think of it, they are mostly under 35. They hold senior roles in very exciting and future-facing businesses. They are creative, energized and eager to learn. Their passion shines through everything they do, which helps them build and manage teams of equally eager and high achieving employees. However, they have a key responsibility where they often get a bit stuck, and that’s when it comes to making senior hires.

Before you spend any more time reading this, I’ve made some assumptions about the ideal 'reader' of this post to ensure the non-ideal readers don't waste any of their time as these posts are not meant to apply to everyone.

My Key Assumptions;

  • You are part of a successful founding team who can now afford to hire some senior players.
  • Your management team has relatively little experience and you either have a board who would like to see some more ‘experienced’ talent or you know that your team will only be able to get to the next level by hiring in some experience.
  • You may have had some bad experience with Senior Hires in the past and it’s jarred you and you’ve found yourself holding back from doing it again.
  • When I say ‘senior hires’ I am referring to people that exceed you in both age and years in the job.

If you fit in this 'reader' persona I urge you to keep reading. If you don't, well...I won't stop you from reading.

I've broken this topic into 3 key phases of 'Making the Most of Senior Hires' in order to help you identify what might be getting in the way.

  • Part 1 -  Hiring Senior Talent: How to get through the lengthy career B.S. and make sure they have what you need and will add positively to your organization's culture.
  • Part 2 - Onboarding Senior Talent: How to set them up for success and check your own assumptions.
  • Part 3 - Developing Senior Talent: How to give them the opportunity and platform to learn, grow and be empowered. 

Part 1: How to hire People that are older than you.

Know what you want

Interviewing for any role should be done with consideration and care (you can check out my step by step guide here) but is imperative when hiring for senior roles. This is because senior roles in likely leadership positions will have a direct impact on your company's culture and direction. Recruiting a senior hire is not something you do casually, it should be your priority and effort and engagement level should be high.

In order for a senior hire to be successful you have to take the time to be clear and aligned (with members of the management team) on what you 1) want this person to bring to the table (think about what your team is currently lacking....the generalist answer of ‘experience’ is not good enough) and 2) their contributions to the team and business

Without this, all senior hires will end in failure.

Don’t get blinded by brands (and Board candidates)

I've seen what I call 'brand blindness' in both start-up and corporates alike. This is where hiring managers validate a candidate's profile because they have worked at 'x' big company. Depending on your industry these include names like; Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, etc. I am not discrediting people that work or have worked at these companies. I work with A-grade players from these companies. What I am saying is that there is not necessarily a correlation between where someone has worked and how well they will work in your business. Yes, it may say a lot that they made it through the intensive recruiting rigor that a lot of these brands have in place, but what you really need to focus on is what they delivered while they worked there. It is possible, and plausible, for someone to coast while working in large oil tankers. In fact, some people don't even know they were coasting until they join a more fast moving and nimble organization.

During the interview, try your best to remain objective on what brands they have racked up in their CV and hone in on their individual contributions. There is a huge difference in candidates that worked at Facebook pre-2012 and post 2016. Do you need someone to help you build your product organization (Spotify 2014/5) then you want the people that built it not that maintain and tweak it. When you are clear on what you need you ensure you are assessing on the appropriate attributes and scars.

Last point, boards making intros and references to Senior candidates is great as their network is likely much more expansive than yours. Take recommendations but make sure they go through the same rigor that all your other hires do.

Motivation Matters Most

A key difference in more experience hires is the salaries that come with it. Often founders find themselves having to pay significantly more than they pay their current team in order to attract the right hires. If you are having to go above pay grades to get the experience then you damn well want to make sure they will work out. If any of you have been through a performance exit process outside of the US then you will know how cringe-worthy expensive that is.

So quickly get over the fact that you will have to pay higher salaries (especially in the US) and start identifying what are the right motivators for your business.

  • Do you need someone motivated by money and will be driven to get more business?
  • Why are they motivated to join a smaller company? How will they handle the security from a large company to the unpredictability of a start-up? (FYI; job security anywhere is a myth but that's for a different post).
  • What are they hoping to gain from this career move?

These are all key question to ask and assess the responses with a toothpick. Make sure that the responses to motivation based questions are reinforced in other answers. Some people want a quick way out of corporate life and think a move to a smaller business will be a 'walk in the park'. Those people get a rude awakening.

Regardless of how much experience someone has or success at great companies, if someone isn’t the right ‘fit’ for your culture it will be impossible to set them up for success. The risk of ‘taking a chance’ on someone who will play a pivotal role in your company is not only expensive but can erode your credibility as a leader.

In the next post, we will explore the importance and subtle changes that you need to make when onboarding senior hires. Stay tuned.

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Gillian Davis