What I Learned About Hiring Top Technical Talent

By Igor M. Sill, Managing Director of Geneva Venture Management and Geneva Venture Partners

The ability to recruit exceptionally talented and capable management leaders is possibly the purest form of exceptional entrepreneurship and the key to organizational success. The correlation between today’s most successful technology companies and their executive team is clearly the founder’s ability to hire world-class leadership and management.

Here are ten lessons I learned during 11 years consulting and recruiting for Larry Ellison, co-founder and chairman of Oracle Corporation, and several of the gifted entrepreneurs and CEOs spawned by “the house that Larry built.” The post-Oracle successes of people like Tom Siebel, founder and chairman of Siebel Systems, Marc Benioff, Salesforce.com founder and chairman, Bernard Liautaud, founder of Business Objects (SAP), and Mar ten Mickos, CEO of start-up MySQL, are a tribute to Ellison’s recognition that Oracle’s success was tied directly to the quality, intellect and ferociousness of its leadership. Up until 1992 every leadership role at Oracle required his personal hiring review and endorsement.

Lessons Learned

1. Hire intelligent, driven people. — These are the “type-A” over-achievers with an inbred “fear of failure” personality. You are clearly looking to hire people far more capable than yourself—people who are driven to prove to themselves and their peers. “A” players hire “A” players, and “B” players hire “C” players. You spot these prospects by asking deep questions about their roles, their company’s mission, and how they sought to fulfill their company’s vision. Ask “how” they accomplished their mission. Look for strategic thinkers seeking to improve their employer’s systems, processes and results. Ask what they actually accomplished while in their roles. Look for details accurately articulated, team oriented descriptions versus the “I did it by myself” conceit. Look for people striving to continually improve themselves and their personal reach a la “lessons learned. ” Look for those who give credit to their subordinates and other col leagues.

2. Hire evangelistic “believers.” — These are people who believe in your industry, your products and services. They “see” and “get” the full value proposition for customers. Of course, you need to establish that key accomplishments, appropriate education and relevant industry experience are a good fi t for the position, but a genuine, burning passion for your company’s solutions and offerings far outweigh lesser duties. Ask your candidate to describe your company and its products. You’ll get a quick sense of how well your candidate prepared for your meeting and how likely he or she will prepare for critical company/customer meetings. Well-placed passion is a key ingredient for a long-term successful hire.

3. Hire ethical, high-integrity players. — Ask situational ethics questions pertaining to such sensitive topics as personal integrity, revenue recognition, customer side letters, sexual harassment, customer promises, hiring preferences, etc. This is well worth taking some time to fully explore with every prospective new leadership hire. Not only do you sift out the marginally ethical, but you also send a clear message of your company’s ethics expectations. Seek out candidates who are employed by highly ethical and successful companies. They’ll bring that same sense of ethical behavior to your company.

4. Check references. — You learn a great deal about a company, its management style, processes, and the prospective candidate’s actual work ethic through good reference checking. A good way to verify a candidate’s credentials during the initial interview is to ask for organizational functions and responsibilities, and who held them within the candidate’s last position. Take accurate notes of names and titles mentioned. These will generally not be the same names provided as references. If the candidate deserves serious consideration, first ask for a list of references so that you have permission to check references in general; then, pursue those individuals who worked closely with your candidate to verify actual work responsibilities, work style, leadership skills, communication skills, performance, etc. If you locate a peer within the organization, ask about the company’s compensation scheme, salary, bonus, incentives, stock options, etc. This will give you a good sense of what a comparable-level professional at the same company earns versus what you may have been told during the interview. If there’s a significant discrepancy, ask your candidate “why”? Look for tell-tale signs of “embellishment.”

5. Trust your intuition. — You can discern much by looking directly into a candidate’s eyes and noting the facial expressions as he/she describes their roles, accomplishments, performance, and organizational interactions. Look for clarity, detail and confidence in responses. These body language traits generally denote genuineness and honesty. Beware of unusual nervousness, lack of direct eye contact, or worse, shifting eye contact away from yours while answering a response — a telltale sign of lying. Trust your intuition here; it will guide you well.

6. Be decisive. — Once you’ve identified your top choice, don’t procrastinate. Set a plan for completing the hiring with dates, position expectations, compensation discussion, board member preview of stock options to be offered, scheduled meetings with other key company management, and an expected start date. Once you’ve determined that you have the right candidate, make the hire a time-sensitive priority.

7. Compare the prospective candidate’s credentials against your own management team. — Take another look at your current team’s experience and pedigree. Make sure that you are augmenting your team with a superstar addition, someone they’ll respect, admire and say to themselves, “Wow, we were able to attract her/him here.”

8. Don’t assume the candidate will accept. — Spend time on presenting the position offer personally. If possible, invite the candidate and spouse for a dinner outing. Nothing demonstrates the genuineness and importance you share in the candidate’s future than spending some social time outside the of fi ce setting. Nothing emboldens and bonds a candidate more that sharing their stature within the industry in front of their spouse at such an outing. Follow up personally and get a verbal offer acceptance; then, follow-up again before the candidate’s actual start date. If the candidate is looking to resign and then come over, consider inviting him/her to a strategic company review meeting before they actually start employment as a way of getting involved and committed. Use all the resources available at your disposal to land your ideal candidate, including your CTO, CIO, CFO, board of directors, company advisors, etc.

9. Integrate and transition the new hire. — Once your candidate joins, invest time in detailing your vision, the company’s mission, expectations, how the company actually operates, the executive functions and roles, how the company communicates with its managers, resources available, etc. Check in once or twice during the orientation period to ensure that all is going smoothly.

10. Seek referrals from your best hires. — Once you’ve hired your superstar ask for recommendations of other potential employees. The newly hired executive will always point to the top 2 percent achievers within their previous employers. “A” players attract “A” players!


This is a reproduction of an article originally published in Research-Technology Management, Vol. 52, No. 3 (May-June, 2009), pp. 60-61.

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