May 4, 2020

Hiring leadership positions in a virtual world

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

Over the last few weeks, we (Andrew + Anouk) have both often been asked by investors and entrepreneurs for advice on hiring senior team members virtually.

Many are putting these roles on hold because they’re waiting to see what happens, or just don’t feel comfortable hiring a position this senior without having met them face 2 face. If you needed the role before Covid-19 and you still need the role now, don’t wait. These roles have the potential to be super impactful on your business (that’s why you wanted them in the first place). However, we get it, it’s daunting, so I hope this article helps :)

Hiring senior people into your business can be challenging enough. Senior hires are more likely to fail due to cultural and behavioural reasons so when major elements of personal communication are being distorted by video conferencing (“VC”) it can be even scarier to push the button on that new hire. As a quick reminder, here is how communication works, try to keep this in mind when you’re building your new assessment process:

In this article, we explain how you might get around the distortion VC is causing and get to a place where you feel comfortable to hire someone you haven’t met face to face.

First Principles

Hiring is a two-way street. Both the interviewers and the interviewees need to feel confident that this is the right role and business for them. This need is even more pronounced for senior roles as the stakes for both sides are so much greater. Whatever process you put together needs to incorporate what the candidate wants and needs to assess you and your business as well as what you need. In a virtual scenario especially, ahead of any process starting, really try to understand what’s important for them & what they need to enable them to make a decision. Be ready to tweak your usual process if you have too!

When hiring at any time, you should always try and understand the personal circumstances of a candidate. However, right now, this becomes even more important for your process. For example, if they are homeschooling this may mean that certain times in a day are really not good for interviewing. Also, someone might be very open about the fact that they struggle with back to back VC meetings, as a lot of us do. They may also live in the sticks and have dodgy internet (believe me if they set expectations that their internet is dodgy, you’ll get far less frustrated with it when it happens).

PREPARE. As you’ll see from the next section, you’ll need to really prepare what the process will look like before going out to market. There will be more to think about and more people involved. Preparation means the candidate’s experience of you will be slick and well thought through, and therefore impressive. Once you’ve worked out what your process will look like, add in the candidate’s needs. Have a chat with them about how you will both get the most out of what you need. Discuss openly that this isn’t going to be easy and build a connection about both working hard to make this right for both parties. Starting any potential relationship by being open like this can only be a good thing.

The Assessment

Every company is and should be, wonderfully unique in its approach to hiring. We have, however, tried to simplify things for you and give a few suggestions on things you might like to incorporate within your process.

During any recruitment process, you’re really only looking to assess three things:

Below we provide some suggestions on how you could assess each of them in a virtual environment.

Their Experience

For us, this comes in two parts.

The first is making sure you’re really preparing the key questions (c.5) about their experience that you need to know to make a decision. You’re then jotting down their answers verbatim, really try to write them down in their words rather than yours! This is important in limiting bias and also allows others to reflect on their answers even if they weren’t in the interview.

The second is a much greater focus on referencing. Most people aim to do a couple after they’ve offered a candidate (this is worth re-thinking for very senior roles outside of this virtual world as well). Bring referencing forward as part of the assessment rather than just a rubber stamp. Try to do at least 5 references after the second round of interviews. Get a good set of different types of people (colleagues, people that reported into them, bosses, and so on) as well, so you get a full sense of a candidate. Here are a few principles for referencing:

  1. Prepare (shocker) — Use their words from the first section to form the questions you’re going to ask during referencing.
  2. Be direct — Direct questions get direct answers!
  3. Please try not to lead the witness — Questions like, I can see they’re quite good at X, what are your thoughts… really don’t work.

Their Behaviours (culture)

This is probably what most people are scared of the most when assessing candidates over VC. This should help:

  1. High performance in one business doesn’t always equate to high performance in another business. To assess how someone is likely to perform solving your types of challenges and with your people, gather a few team members, pose a discussion topic and allow them to be part of this for an hour or so. We strongly suggest the topic be aligned to the functional area of the candidate and should be posted at the beginning of a call (rather than a topic they are prepared for). Your role is mainly to observe the candidate. You’re really concentrating on how they communicate when challenged, how they take feedback, how they ask questions & how they engage other team members, etc. Hopefully, because you’re only focusing on this rather than contributing to the discussion you’ll be able to assess behaviours more clearly. Be sure to collect feedback from the participants separately, as we all know, people bias each other in these scenarios.
  2. More 1on1 VC coffees with team members (make sure those team members have your values nailed down so when they speak to you they’re talking in reference to them). This should have two benefits, one you’ll get more data points on the candidate. The second is that the candidate will get a better sense of your culture. This may elongate the process a bit but worth it to get a better sense of them and for them to a better sense of you! Don’t forget from their perspective, they don’t get to walk into the office, see the environment, see how people work, hear the buzz — all those things that people absolutely take into consideration when going in for a face to face interview.

Their Skills

The best way of assessing someone’s skills is to ask them to prepare a presentation or a workshop that highlights the key skills you are looking for. (Note: a lot of people will try to assess experience at the same time, we’d really suggest focusing on skills, it’s hard enough assessing two things at once in a face2face meeting never mind over VC) An example of a very skills-focused task might be when you’re hiring a Head of People (hands-on role) to ask them to prepare a “giving feedback” training session and deliver it over VC to a group of early managers in your business. The delivery aspect especially will give you a really clear view of their skill in that area.

Again go back to first principles, make sure you’re giving enough time for some to prepare a task alongside their current living circumstances.

Final thoughts

During these times, candidates, especially senior ones, are significantly more likely to want to understand in detail your business from a financial and security perspective. Given the current economic climate, people are much more focused on financial safety and risk attached to businesses (this was already higher for startups, but even more so now). Bring this into the conversation as early as you can and explain the dynamics of your runway AND explain how you’ve dealt with any impact on the business due to Covid-19. Don’t forget, your leadership skills will be under the firing line from senior candidates — whether they are explicit about this or not. You’re not the only one who wants the best… they do too.

The End

So we hope this helps. Go get ‘em!

Much Love

P.S if there are other topics you’d like us to discuss & write about please let us know!

Written by Founder @ Unleashed.Company Anouk Agussol.

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