How we hire and keep the best talent

By marco ·  April 28, 2020

Hiring is choosing relationships. And similar to friends, spouses or jobs: those which are well-picked are bound to make you feel better for a long time to come. Those which aren’t will inevitably make you suffer. We’ll share with you what we’ve learned over the last years of choosing better relationships.

Hiring has always been important to us. I mean, probably any company would say it’s a vital function, but for Zengrowth, the reason why is because it’s closely tied in with our value proposition. As a marketing and growth agency, our people are literally our services.

So hiring people of subpar skill or emotional persistence would lead to bad services. Which simply isn’t good for business. People of great quality however would make our business soar.

(Great people also create growth loops of all sorts, but that’s another topic we’ll post on soon.)

After our first few hires, we then boldly loudly spoke out: we’re hiring the best people in tech.

And of course that was only partially true at the time.

On the one hand, a big part of that was wishful thinking and us believing in our team and our capabilities — being great at what we do. But on the other hand it was also us speaking out our aspirations of who we, as a company, want to become.

Most accurately, you could compare it to Mark Manson’s advice on life balance. (He’s the guy who wrote the book “The subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”).

Mark says, on the one hand, you have to focus on what you have and be grateful for that. But on the other hand you need to have enough ambition to aspire to become better. Too much of a focus on what you don’t have, he says, makes you unhappy. Too much of a focus on what you already have makes you become stagnant.

At Zengrowth we often apply these personal development learnings to our business. But most importantly, we incorporated these learnings to the foundation of our company.

When we were just starting Zengrowth, we were getting in touch with tons of candidates. And I must admit, it was a highly exciting time. It felt like orchestrating pure potential. The ability to create something from scratch felt similar to building a fantasy football team. (shout out to my Football Manager fans out there).

And basically in this fantasy team, you could fill the team with characters that would each create a different future reality.

Some people would be happy to play for you, other’s needed to be persuaded with money and others simply didn’t want to play for a newly created team saying “how about you prove yourself for the next few years and then we’ll talk”.

So with all this potential ahead, I asked myself:

What skills & personalities do we want in marketing? What kind of person with specific characteristics would best manage finances and what kind of person should manage our operations?

Keep in mind, all of these personalities also needed to get along and work in harmony together.

About 100+ interviews later, I can proudly say that we’ve learned a lot about hiring. And, as they say, learning hardly goes without making a few mistakes here and there.

This is our list of key rules, after several adaptations, that we now swear by.

1. Let people reject you

Ok, with that provoking headline, I hope I have your attention.

Basically, the advice is simple: Get out of your head and out of your own way when hiring.

Too many times, we’d like to contact somebody but we make up reasons in our own head why that person wouldn’t say yes.

Justifications like these may be popping up in your head:

  • “It’s not the right time to reach out”
  • “That person just joined company x, why would they join us now?”
  • “They wouldn’t say yes anyway, we’re just a startup”
  • “This person has so many opportunities, we cannot offer them the right money”

It happens and it’s ok. It’s your mind machine providing you with reasons to avoid rejection.

What helped me was realizing that I needed to get out of my own way and give life a chance to happen.

Similar as in life: you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

And, more importantly: a person can’t say yes if you’ve already decided for them it’s a no.

So, always let people reject you!

Sure, your ego might suffer a few bruises (which is actually a healthy thing, but that’s another post) – but you’ll discover that about 10% of your “not possible” candidates are actually quite happy to speak to you.

Did I mention you can apply this to every area of your life as well? Ahum Dating Ahum.

2. Always follow your gut

Everything looks great, the interview was great, the CV is great. Even their profile picture would fit well on your website.

But you have this tingling feeling in your stomach that creates doubt… Please for the Love of God, listen to it and say NO.

I’m sure you’ll go ahead and do it anyway. Because we as humans like to be stubborn and learn lessons by our own experience, but don’t say you haven’t been warned!

I risked going against my gut two times. The result? Two terrible hires.

The price we paid was infinitely higher than the very short-lived gain.

If you’re in doubt about your feelings, talk with someone about it inside or outside of your business. Just reflecting on the conversation with someone else often helps you turn uncertainty into clarity.

3. The number one indicator or prediction whether a person will be a good hire

“How fast do they write back?”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Unfortunately, I’m not. The reason is simple. It measures the oldest principles of time:

If somebody really really really wants to work with us, they write back in time.
And probably faster than that.

If somebody isn’t sure about what they want, they wait, postpone, delay or ask for “thinking time”.

What we’ve learned is that people with a large communication lag are almost always guaranteed to fail.

People with a short communication lag are almost always super excited to get started.
Furthermore, a research by Angela Lee Duckworth (Ted Talk) showed that the number one reason why people succeed at anything is because of Grit. (passion and motivation).

If somebody doesn’t show you passion and motivation at the very first interaction they have with you, what makes you think this will change over time?

Again, this advice is transferable to other areas of life. Ahum Dating Ahum.

4. How willing are candidates to receive “feedback” and be “guided”

There are some incredibly smart people in the world out there. We’ve interviewed many of them. But unless they are able and willing to work together in a team, they’ll never be a great fit even if they WOW you with all the rest of their skills.

To me this is the very colloquial definition of a business: “a bunch of people who decided to be a team and follow a shared goal, usually the financial survival of the business by selling stuff”.

A business has a goal and then you have VPs or directors who create subgoals and consequently seniors and managers who create sub-sub-goals.

People who can’t receive feedback or let themselves be guided by their managers, usually follow their own goals. No matter how smart they are.

And keep in mind: these goals are not always in your interest.

Regardless of that, having people deviate from shared or agreed goals or sub-goals creates enormous division, opportunity cost and frustration for everyone else in your team.

It’s like having 10 people dragging water out of the ocean and 1 person being busy dragging it back in.

Already in our first interview, we check how people handle feedback & being guided. We check how they respond to questions as well as to guiding information on policies.

5. If you had 10x of that person in your company, what would that mean for you?

Mathilde, CEO of Front, said this was a key advice she got when she hired her team.

We apply this question in our hiring process, because it gives us perspective:

Do we want to have 10x of this person in our team?

The reason is quite straightforward: only a slight divergence in the people you hire today, means a huge divergence in the people that will be hired 5 years from now.

Your first employees will be managers someday. And they will employ people who they evaluate and reflect against their own values.

So, do you really want 10x of that person in your company?

6. Always be able to set boundaries and hold people accountable

Nobody likes a Yes-man. In life, but also in business.

Somebody who accepts everything and says “yes” as a form to please and not hurt anyone.

In fact, if somebody would be saying “Yes” to me all the time, I would start to think: “What is this person hiding? Or, what does this person want from me?”.

Or if a person would accept everything to happen over his or her watch, I’d probably lose all respect for them.

Well, the same happens in business. Sometimes your patience and common sense are tested and it’s absolutely necessary to set and keep healthy boundaries.

In fact, I’d say it’s even one of the things that keeps great people around.

Great talents don’t stay in teams where people are allowed to slack around and aren’t disciplined. (Did you see the pun intended using the word “Slack”?) They don’t stay in places where others are not held accountable for their actions.

The truth of the matter is: boundaries keep you sane. You’re never helping anyone by upholding an unhealthy work ethic or demeanor.

What we give people instead is very timely Wake up calls.

Showing sympathy when a person should get booted teaches not only that particular person but the entire company the wrong values.

I’ve also noticed that if you as a manager show too much sympathy for a case, you’ll suffer yourself as well. You’ll start to hold grudges and carry unexpressed resentment.

The type of thing that when you don’t let it out, it starts to kill you. Quite literally.

The moral of the story is: you’re not helping anyone by not keeping healthy boundaries and holding people accountable.

You’re not doing the right thing by “being nice” when a person needs a scolding.

That counts for business, but pretty much also for your personal life. *Ahum… you already know 😉

Always hold people accountable to a high standard! That’s the biggest sign of respect you can give to any person and the most wonderful gift you can give to your team.

7. Trust people from the first day and be genuine

“People need to win my trust.”

That’s probably what kills most managers and micro-managers.

People will resist and perform badly to the degree that they are not trusted.

Be bold and give people trust from the start.

I’ve learned that people do not want to let you down if you actually trust them.

In case you have the feeling like you cannot trust somebody from the very first day, well, that’s what you call a wrong hire. Refer to points 2-5 of this post.

So much for the debate of “home-office” as well. Unless you’re actually doing something productive in the office that you cannot let people do at home, forcing people to work on-site is not a sign of trust.

8. Provide open feedback at the end of every call

Hiring great people means being a great company yourself. And what is the best way to diversify yourself from the pack? Give honest feedback.

Almost no company out there is giving people the real deal when it comes to rejection. Which causes a lot of frustration among candidates and may even cause them to give your company bad ratings on websites such as Glassdoor or Kununu.

Even if we don’t end up working with that person; we believe the least we can do is treat them with dignity and respect.

You want to enable people to speak positively about you. Even if they don’t end up working with you.

And if Karma will do it’s magic, some of those people will actually reach positions, where they are in the right place to do something back for your company. You’ll want their last memory and associated values of your company to be positive.

Don’t forget, every single person you reject has a family, friends, a spouse, children, a network, and business relations.

Business is made through positive information flowing between people.

Even if you think a person can do nothing for you, they probably can. Just wait for it.

9. Give every single person that joins your team a personal onboarding session

The quality of 20 minutes invested (even if you’re the CEO) does not compare to all the work people will contribute to your company as employees. 

A happy employee that follows company policy, culture and values creates a network effect which communicates to the rest of the world.

If a person was never onboarded, never met the CEO, never heard in person about company values, they’ll just go by what they think is best. Which may not be what you think is best.

It’s hard for me to understand how CEO’s, VPs, or directors are “too busy” to give their people a personal onboarding session. To me, it’s the easiest thing to do and the most obvious thing to prioritise. 

10. Hire for skill, merit, ethics, character, and trustworthiness

At Zengrowth, we are an extremely diversified team with 20+ nationalities from over 3 continents. Never have we looked one day, however, at creating a diversified team.

We just hired for the principles most important to us, and it turns out that the world has a pretty good distribution of talent.

Trust the world and it’s talents and you will hire back diversity by default.

Anything else would be pretty pretentious, don’t you think?

Written with love by
Marco van Bree 💙

About the author

Marco Van Bree Marco is the Founder and CEO of Zengrowth. He loves marketing, distribution and growth and has been helping SaaS companies achieve better results for the last 5 years. You can wake him up for pizza and pick his brains about anything chess related. He is also into self-development and loves sharing his learnings in business.
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