Struggling to hire the perfect VP of X at your Startup

Entrepreneurs dream of a better product, better world, or a better business than something that existed before. In this ideological view, when the CEO sets out to recruit a new VP of Marketing, a new CTO, or a new Head of Product, they make up this image of the perfect candidate and after months of struggling to find them, they get frustrated.

There are three typical pain-points: First, they have too many candidates applying and too few that pass the basic checklist of requirements, so they don’t even get to the CEOs — CEOs might not even know this is happening because these candidates get trimmed at the recruiter’s desk. Second, the very few ones that pass all the requirements and make their way for a call with the CEO don’t seem like the perfect fit. Third, and finally, the ones that pass through all the interviews and get an offer, sometimes don’t accept the role and move on to something else.

This problem has a name: CEO

It’s not that the CEO is not a great person, not good at explaining the business, not a likable person, none of that. At the core of the issue with the CEO, is that they are in love with their startup, and they forget two things in the process:

  1. The candidates long-term goals
  2. The candidates potential vs. actual

Potential vs. Actual

I learned it the hard way when we were recruiting a VP of Marketing for EveryMove in the early days: We couldn’t find the candidate that “been-there-done-that.” I even created an amusing interactive job description that candidates could test themselves to see if they should apply or not. We got thousands of views on that page and many good applicants.

That doesn’t even compare when I coined the term “Full-Stack Marketer” as a guest post on GeekWire. All part of a plan to find the perfect marketer. That post got tens of thousands of views; it got shared hundreds of times, if not thousands, on LinkedIn and Twitter, and attracted a flood of applicants.

With this much attention and so many qualified applicants (as far as I remember we’ve got more than 300 resumes, out of which 120+ were qualified), we still struggled to find “the one.”

We were looking for someone who joined a 10-person startup (our size), was able to drive significant marketing value for a consumer company that was about to launch the product and help us grow the team to 20, 30, 50, 100. Here’s the catch: If someone has already done that, why would they want to do that again? Great people want a new challenge. The people that already did that step in their career are either seeking a different play, or they have some chink in their armor (so they weren’t that great after all).

The solution to this puzzle is to figure out the potentiality of the candidate. It’s much harder to measure someone’s skill based on hypotheticals future scenarios, but that’s what needs to be done. Will this person be able to grow into the role and evolve as the company evolves?

The naive CEO will focus exclusively on past performance, experience, and skills. The wise CEO will focus on ones ability to adapt, learn and grow. Fixed-mindset vs. growth-mindset, if you will.

I see what you want, but it’s not what I want

Some people are born with the empathy gene; some people need to learn it. There is no way that you can be a great manager and hire great people on your organization if you don’t have empathy. You can be good. You can be pretty good, but you’ll never be great.

Even CEOs who are overflowing with empathy sometimes can get caught up in their dream and spend 98% of the time talking about “the startup”, “the business”, “the product”, “the customer”, “the team.” We, we, we. Not understanding what the candidates personal goals are. What will you do for us? How would you like to grow your expertise in this company? How do you see yourself working with this other VP? These are inwards questions that might not address the candidates needs. Important, but not sufficient.

The question is not about your startup being their final destination, but every job — as much as you love it — is just a step on the ladder of life. If you don’t understand what a candidate *really* wants, you might not be using the right words or contexts, and even though you might have your values aligned with theirs, you didn’t identify what those were.

Do they want to work for you because they want to found their startup in 2–3 years? Would be OK if they told you that? If they sense you’d not be open to that conversation, they will not tell you.

Or, are they interested in this role because they see it as a stepping stone to an execute role at a Fortune 500? Or, is this a way for them to make a couple of million of dollars, buy a boat and retire in some remote region of Montana?

Either way, if you don’t understand where they want to go *after* your startup, it’s harder for you to create the right environment and arguments to convince them to join you and take your company to the next level.

Consider that some people might not be with you for the full journey and that’s OK. They will help you get from point A to point B over a couple of years, but might not interested in going from B to C. That level of clarity, both for you (the CEO) and for them (the executive) are incredibly valuable.

If you show your best candidates you want them to grow as the company grows and understand their needs outside of your organization, you are ahead of many of the other CEOs out there and one step closer to getting your team complete.

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.