They start the job interview off with a smile. They talk warmly about their former employer. They have good references from reputable people in the industry.
Sounds like the perfect hire, right? There’s just one problem: They haven’t done this particular job before — or in some cases, they have done it for such a short time they lack the experience the job demands.
Startups can face this kind of situation a lot. It can be difficult to attract the kind of candidates you want for a number of reasons.
Depending on the vacancies you have to fill, there might be high demand for certain skill sets. Salary expectations for those with the necessary abilities could be out of step with what your budget allows. And there will always be people a little nervous about joining a startup versus a larger, more established company.
That’s okay, though, because in many respects making sure you hire someone who fits with your culture is even more important than whether they have a lot of previous experience.
You can train people to improve their ability to do most jobs. It’s much harder, if not impossible, to mold the personality traits an employee will bring with them when they show up for work.
If a candidate comes across as unfairly critical, too self-oriented or has a tendency to exaggerate or lie, the rest of their qualifications really don’t matter as much. You’ll spend more time dealing with the issues that stem from those personality traits than you would training a novice who has a better attitude.
This is why some startups go beyond the traditional routes to source candidates for a job. Instead they might look to form partnerships with schools whose upcoming graduates will be looking for their first position. They might lean more on their peer network for referrals. Speciality recruiting firms might be another option.
Of course, it’s not easy to assess someone’s personality in a job interview, regardless of how you find them. These are some conversation starters that could help, whether you’re hiring someone in sales, hiring your first marketing professional, hiring a customer service agent or any other role:
When you’re interviewing a candidate, ask them who their mentors are. If they’ve been in the job market for a while, they might have been part of a formal mentorship program with a previous employer. If not, they might still have an informal relationship with someone in their field from whom they’ve gleaned valuable insight and advice.
People who are open to being mentored tend to recognize they don't have all the answers, and they’re willing to be guided and coached to better themselves. They learn to ask their mentors smart questions and to actively listen to the answers. This is exactly how you’ll want them to behave if they join your startup.
It can also be interesting to come at this the other way — have they been a mentor to someone else? Even if it was just during their time in school with their classmates, it says a lot about a candidate that they want to support others.
Most job interviews require candidates to provide some details about previous challenges they faced and how they overcame them. You’ll want to do the same, but look for examples where they were dealing with a challenge in a group dynamic.
If the candidate was a member of a team and there was disagreement over how to solve a problem, how did the team achieve consensus on what to do? How did the candidate contribute to that outcome? You’ll get a better sense of how they might approach similar situations in a role at your startup.
This also speaks to their ability to collaborate. Ask about the tools they have typically used to check in with their manager or team members, to share ideas or to manage information that informs a key decision.
It’s good to understand these preferences early on, especially given that more firms are working remotely where such tools are more important than ever.
Few of us have all the natural abilities we need to take on complex professional challenges. Instead, it’s more of a process of trial and error, where we continue to make an effort and study best practices in order to gain competence.
No matter who you’re interviewing or what role they’re applying for, chances are they have been a newbie at some kind of skill or task at some point. Ask about the learning curves they’re confronted in the past, even if it’s not directly related to the job you’re discussing.
How often did they have to go back to the drawing board? Where did they look for assistance? How did they chart their progress? How did they make that journey a little easier for any of their other coworkers or teammates?
Having them retrace these steps will allow you to imagine how they’ll approach developing the skills you need in your startup, and what kind of resources or support you’ll need to provide. You’ll also begin to see how quickly they get energized, rather than frustrated, by a challenge.
You don’t have to think of these areas as a personality test. Instead, they’re simply ways of drawing out anecdotes that tell a richer story about how candidates act once they’ve been given an offer and are ready to begin a new job.
Don’t wait until the job interview, though. Consider how these kinds of questions could inform the way you develop a job description, the places you’ll post or share the job opening, and even how you’ll ask a candidate to prepare before they come in for an interview.
A great personality won’t necessarily make someone perfect for a job, but it can give them the mindset that will make developing their abilities faster and a better experience overall — for them, and for you.