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Startup CEO: Make It Hard For Me to Recruit Your People

gg5196931As a recruiter, I am in a unique position to tell startup leaders why their people are leaving. I see startups from two vantage points: There are the ones I recruit for, and all the others that are fair game for me to recruit from. I learn a lot about both types of companies. A person I am trying to recruit is a wealth of information about his or her employer – which has sometimes convinced me to switch gears to go after the company as a client rather than as a recruiting source.

You may wonder why I’m writing this post to help startup leaders make my job more difficult. It’s because I love startups and want them to succeed. I’ve been recruiting for two decades for a wide variety of situations and recruiting for startups is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I love it with a passion. I don’t want your people to be poachable. But this won’t stop me from trying.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, but what prompted me to finally write it is a post by Mark Suster on leadership. I can diagnose the problem, but I won’t necessarily know the cure. Mark’s post is part of the cure. If leaders take Mark’s advice, they will make it very difficult for me to lure their team members away from them.

For the record, I want to say that there are fewer people that I have more empathy for than a startup founder. I am even guilty of a bit of hero worship and have made business decisions that are more in their best interests than mine. I recognize the inordinate pressure faced on a daily basis and, as a result, the type of resilient, self-reliant people they need on their teams; people who don’t need to be coddled, who can roll with the punches. But people are people, even people who love working at startups. They need reassurance, to feel valued, to know that what they are doing matters. This might even be part of the makeup of the type of people attracted to startups; they want to do something that really matters. They also need to know that you as a Founder/CEO keep your promises and that you tell the truth.

You need to make the decision of whether you can afford to spend the time, effort and/or money to replace anyone on your team. Weigh that against what it would cost you to do a check-in with them – or any other effort that it would take to remind them that they are an important member of the team and of value to you.

Here are some of the reasons prospective candidates either call me or will take my call – other than my sales and marketing ability and how great my client companies are:

  • There has been a significant change at the company or affecting the company and no one has talked to them about it. The CEO has not checked in to see how they are feeling about the change or whether it causes them any concern. This could be a significant hire, a significant fire (or someone leaving the company period), a change in product direction, a missed company goal, something that came out in the press, an action taken by a competitor, etc.
  • They were hired with a certain career expectation and something has happened to threaten this. For instance, someone is hired as “Director of X” with the possibility of becoming VP and then a C-level person is hired with a similar skill set, making a VP role less likely. Or another role is created that takes on some of the responsibilities that would represent a promotion for the person and someone else is hired for that role.
  • Someone is initially hired as a direct report to the CEO, and then a new layer is created and the person has a new boss.
  • The vision and/or mission they signed up for is not the vision/mission lived out on a daily basis. In fact, anything that is stated but doesn’t match up to real life can be disheartening. Anything.
  • The job was described differently than what they have experienced, and this has not been acknowledged. This is a wound that is hard to heal.
  • Similarly, they were promised something at hire that has not come to pass and this has not been revisited with them.
  • The culture was misrepresented. Huge. Startups are 90% culture. (Arbitrary and maybe exaggerated percentage, but you get the picture.)
  • The company is in trouble in any way and this was not communicated before the job was accepted.
  • The CEO denies the team of something that he/she does not deny her/himself. Or conversely, the CEO expects things of the team not expected of him/herself. (Yes, the CEO’s job is different and a lot harder but there is this perception that “we are all in this together.” And everyone expects that when the company succeeds, you are going to experience the biggest win so your self-sacrifice is a given.)
  • The Founder/CEO does not recognize her/his weaknesses as a leader and does not compensate for this in any way (such as hiring someone to make up the difference) or is not perceived as trying to improve.
  • The team member was hired at a lower salary with the promise that this would be rectified – and it hasn’t. And hasn’t even been discussed.
  • Anything that happens that affects the company’s viability or sustainability – such as product ship dates being missed, anticipated funding not received, necessary hires being prolonged. You may not be able to give reassurance that everything will be okay, but discussing this with your team will possibly buy you some loyalty, and some time. In those situations where the CEO is openly communicating, I am more likely to hear from people that they are not ready to talk yet because they want to give the situation a chance — but that I should check in later (which I do).
  • If anything is happening at the current company that was the reason the person left the last company.

This is not an exhaustive list, although reading it may have been exhausting. There are some things that you cannot control. What you can control is your communication. Poor communication from a leader is perhaps the biggest contributor to helping me succeed in recruiting away their people. Unfairness and dishonesty are high up on the list as well.

Some reasons were omitted from this list because it’s just whining. I don’t want to poach your whiners for my client companies. Those you can keep.

I honestly hope you will make my job harder.  And remember to read Mark Suster’s post.


P.S. If you are losing people and want an honest and educated opinion about the problem, reach out to me. I’m here to help.

Donna White

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