Just as when you evaluate potential co-founders, there are three essential questions you need to answer when considering any potential hire for your startup: Can they do the job? Will they do the job? And, will they fit the culture of the organization?
First off, how do you know if they can do the job? If you're a subject-matter expert, you can ask for samples of work and evaluate them. Give them hypothetical challenges to solve and pay as much attention to how they address the problem as the solution they come up with. Give them homework between interviews. You can even ask them to complete a project before the first interview, if you like.
But what do you do if you don't have the foggiest idea about their field? How does an engineer hire a marketer? How does a salesperson hire a technical expert? In a word, by scrounging.
One entrepreneur friend of ours mashed up engineers' resumes to create a job description and realized he didn't quite have the background to interview candidates intelligently at first. When the first candidate came in, he started by describing the web application he wanted to build and asked the candidate how he'd do it. The interviewer took furious notes.
When the second and third candidates came in, he asked the same questions, and used what he'd learned from the first interview to challenge their ideas. By the time he got to the 25th or 30th candidate, he might not have known everything about the field but he knew a lot more than when he began. By that point he knew enough to hire an excellent employee.
Next to consider is: Will they do the job? Here, you're looking for motivation.
How committed are the potential candidates? Why are they excited to work for or with you? You want to know about their work ethic, their honesty and their attitude. Ask them tough questions. Force them to express their likes and dislikes, the things they're passionate about and the things they want nothing to do with.
For example, you could describe three hypothetical projects and ask them to rank which they'd most and least like to work on, and why. If the project they say they'd least enjoy happens to be something you want this candidate to do, maybe it will lead you to decide they'd be happier elsewhere.
You'll want to check references, of course, but not just the ones the candidate provides. You can contact their old employers and colleagues, even their old teachers or professors. The federal government investigates 10 or more years into an applicant's past for even the most routine jobs. Shouldn't you do a similar check on the people you're trusting with your new venture's future? Conducting this kind of due diligence on potential employees might surprise a few candidates, but the ones you really want on your team will be impressed.
Finally, will they fit in? This is the most difficult part of the search to evaluate. It's hard to describe in a checklist because you need to see your candidate in different situations. Often, it's not until someone has truly gone through the interview process, accepted the job, come aboard and worked with you for a little while that you truly start to learn who they are. Still, you want to get as much information as you can ahead of time.
Matt Szulik, former CEO of Raligh, N.C.-based open source software company Red Hat, follows an interesting strategy to obtain this kind of information ahead of time. He's convinced that people decide early in their lives what level of success they want to achieve.
"For some people, it's academic," he explained. "They want to get a Ph.D. from Cal-Berkeley. For others, it's athletic. They want to be team captain or they want to be a pro athlete. Others, it could be they want to be the CEO of Google. And along the way, they make decisions at every step that would re-affirm the commitment to themselves and the pursuit of those goals."
During an interview, Szulik asks the person what he or she thinks "successful" means, and how that person has tried to achieve it.
"It's amazing how fast 60 minutes can get filled, as an interviewer, by keeping your mouth shut and asking people to tell you their life's journey as they've created their success model," Szulik said." I find that to be completely binary. The ones that have it can take you on a fantastic journey. The ones that don't -- who say, 'You know what, I never really thought about that,' -- cannot."
It seems so simple, but merely asking questions such as these can help job candidates help you, by making your hiring decisions much easier.
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This article is an edited excerpt from Breakthrough Entrepreneurship: The Proven Framework for Building Brilliant New Ventures (Farallon Publishing, 2012) by Jon Burgstone and Bill Murphy Jr.