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How To Recruit The Right Leaders For Each Stage Of Your Startup

If you only recruit for the long term, you’ll be short on the people who can actually take you there.

How To Recruit The Right Leaders For Each Stage Of Your Startup
[Photo: Flickr user United Soybean Board]

It’s no cakewalk recruiting leaders for your startup, especially when its needs keep changing. A Series A company has different problems to solve than a Series B or Series C company, which in turn have different problems to solve than those of Series D and beyond.

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Of course, funding rounds don’t always match up with the evolutionary stages of a growing company and its products, but they can help you map out a strong recruitment plan.

Childhood

Think of Series A as the childhood years. You need someone with a certain hunger–hungry to solve problems, hungry to build, and in some cases hungry to recruit and manage other people. You might want to look for a “step-up” candidate who hasn’t served at the level you’re recruiting for, but shows great promise.

This person might be coming from a director-level role. Maybe she’s worked for a great VP and has had strong experience that isn’t belied by her title. Leaders for Series A companies don’t necessarily need extensive executive experience. They just need to be exceptional, enthusiastic problem solvers.

As you recruit, consider the problems you have to solve right now. Many CEOs (not altogether unwisely) think ahead and look for the right person to help them confront challenges two or three years in the future. But if you focus too much on long-term potential, you may find yourself short on the people you need right now in order to take you there.

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Those who’ve already been at later-stage and established companies might not be the right fit for your startup in its early days. Sometimes they’re too risk-averse or prone to delegating rather than getting their hands dirty. The challenges early-stage companies face don’t always resonate with these folks. It doesn’t mean they’re always unqualified, just that it can be tough for them to scale down their experience for your needs.

Adolescence

Series B and Series C are the teenage years–there’s a lot of growth and change happening all at once. This is the period when companies need to implement processes at scale. A team might be going from The Lord of the Flies to something much more structured, and you need leaders who can put some formal systems in place without blocking creativity and innovation.

A leader for this stage needs to be able to hire thoughtfully, recruiting candidates who can evolve and stay nimble as the company scales up. Typically, this type of leader will need to apply their skills in a broader way than those at early-stage startups.

You want someone who’s curious and wants to learn and experiment. This person will be overseeing product launches, so she needs to understand what the tradeoffs will be, how to make them, and how to articulate not just why they were made, but what the effects will be.

Adulthood

By the time your company heads into Series D and beyond, it’s a grownup. You need leaders who’ve had more executive experience. A VP of engineering, for example, needs to understand how engineering integrates seamlessly with business, which is critical at later stages. At this point, the engineering lead has an impact on sales and marketing, and on the bottom line. You need leaders who understand how everything ties together, as well as how to communicate alongside other executives.

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Look for leaders with proven track records of being proactive. You need more of a commander-in-chief than a lieutenant. At the beginning you’re fighting a series of battles, but now you’re organizing a war theater, and you need a leader who can orchestrate that.

When it doubt, put it bluntly: Don’t hesitate to ask candidates what stage they’re most effective in. Most people pursuing leadership positions are sufficiently self-aware to know where they excel, not to mention what they want. And after all, effective recruiting–for startups as for all companies–is really about matching wants with needs.

Sam Wholley is a partner in the Retained Search practice at Riviera Partners, working with public and venture-backed portfolio companies to build top-tier executive and management teams.