How to Hire and Retain Startup Executives Right Now

Photo by James Schultz on Unsplash

A version of this article originally appeared in Forbes.

Finding more people who believe in that startup’s mission and vision is one of my favorite ways to support a founder. Whether I’m asked to interview a chief revenue officer or vice president of engineering, my perspective is often based in pattern recognition. What are common challenges that founders face at various stages of growth—and how might this candidate get the startup there faster?

While hiring experienced executives is always competitive, one silver lining to today’s market uncertainty is that founders now have a better chance of wooing (and winning) candidates who otherwise might have been out of reach. Given that many of the startups in our portfolio are building out their executive teams right now, I wanted to pass along a few tips for founders at fast-growth companies who are looking to hire—and retain—senior leaders from established companies.

Focus on building long-term trust 

As startup founders go up the curve, they need to become exceptional operators themselves—or assemble a team to help them. Understandably, some founders may be reluctant to relinquish control to executives who they don’t already know and trust. 

While onboarding new hires is always important, welcoming a senior leader requires extra care and attention. After all, turnover in the C-suite can slow a startup’s momentum. 

Trust goes both ways, so what are some strategies for minimizing “organ transplant rejection” after an executive joins your startup? Strategies for building trust (both before and after) an executive joins your startup include:

  • Spending time together in a casual setting: Getting to know someone on a hike or over dinner can really help ensure that both parties are prepared for a close working relationship.
  • Doing a pre-hire simulated exercise: To help ensure that both sides know what to expect before the hire is official, consider asking a candidate to simulate a call with their team, present a plan, or complete some other simulated on-the-job work.
  • Plotting a careful transition: Take the time to get pre-agreement on the first set of critical moves that a new executive will be responsible for—and carve out a period of time for acclimating to the new organization.

Have a plan to effectively lead distributed teams

Where should your senior leaders be based? Or does location not matter as much these days? 

As it becomes easier to hire everyone from the CRO down to account executives, founders will increasingly have options regarding where their team resides. This will mean shifting from hiring the best candidate regardless of location to incorporating location as part of your decision criteria. 

For example: If frequent communication will be required between a U.S.-based CRO and his or her global counterparts, an East Coast location may make more sense to better calibrate time zones. If proximity to Silicon Valley companies for possible partnership is essential, a West Coast-based CRO may be more sensible.

Other critical company-culture decisions may include having a clear position on:

  • Physical offices: What’s your policy on remote or hybrid work? Will you have a return-to-office policy?
  • Offsites: How often will your global team connect in person?

Remember: Your stance on these issues may impact your ability to recruit—and retain—talent over the long run. But no matter where your team is based, effective internal communication is mission critical and essential for an engaged workforce. Great leaders are intentional about their communication strategies, especially with distributed teams.  

Expand your talent network

Founders refer other founders, and the same goes for other key hires. Even if you aren’t actively hiring, take a closer look at your recruiting strategy, pipeline, and referral sources. 

For example, we’ve invested in more than $200 million in Israeli companies over the past 18 months, and many of the cybersecurity companies’ founding team members previously served in the Israel Defense Forces or worked together at other startups. 

If you or your recruiters aren’t hearing back from potential candidates, you may want to dedicate the next few months to expanding your network and getting that warm introduction.

Be open to feedback

Once a senior leader is onboarded, we typically see stronger retention among experienced executives who are paired with founders who are open to constructive feedback. That may include being receptive to 360-degree feedback and/or working with an executive coach. 

Beyond working with a coach, Tony Fadell—iPod inventor, iPhone co-inventor, and Nest founder—recommends that every startup CEO finds an operational mentor. This is someone who not only understands human nature but who can also “help you with those operational details and separate the wheat from the chaff,” he recently told founders and leaders at GGV portfolio companies. “You want to do everything as best as you possibly can, but you can get into analysis paralysis. Sometimes it could be a trusted board member, but a lot of times it’s a mentor who is by your side, who believes in you (and vice versa), and doesn’t have a real financial gain.”

Startups aren’t for everyone, and I fundamentally believe that no one knows everything at every phase of growth. A willingness to learn starts with receiving feedback—and acting on it. While not every executive hire will work out, we’ve also seen amazing things happen to a startup’s trajectory when a founder and senior leader team up on the same mission and are in it together for the long haul. 

GGV’s Head of Platform Jen Holmstrom contributed to this article.

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