Don’t Hire the Resume – and Other Team-Building Tips from Cleantech Pros

Following up on yesterday’s post about sales and marketing, today I summarize key takeaways from last week’s Cleantech Open Northeast panel on “Building Your Team.”

  • Don’t “hire the resume”: Panelists uniformly discouraged early stage companies from “hiring the resume” – hiring a candidate based chiefly on her track record/industry expertise, without regard to whether the candidate will thrive in a start-up.  Recognizing that “a start-up is not a smaller version of large company,” executive recruiter Kevin Brown (Hobbes and Towne Inc.) emphasized the need the consider whether a person can transition to the informal and fast-changing environment of an early stage company.
  • Smart, smart, smart – but not an ass!@#*:  In response to a question about the qualities she valued in a team member, entrepreneur Pat Sapinsley (Watt Not and Build Efficiently) replied that the ideal team member would be “smart, smart, smart – but not an ass!@#*.”  More generally, panelists tossed about various phrases – people sense, team smarts, EQ – to underscore the importance of “fit” in a start-up environment.  As to how one best assesses a candidate’s potential “fit”, recruiter Kevin Brown recommended spending ample time with the person; Brown’s hiring process at Hobbes and Towne evidently included five long dinners with one of the firm’s co-founders.  Such conversations can illustrate how a person relates to others far more effectively than a formal interview.

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  • Consult references not supplied by the candidate: In a 2011 NYT “Corner Office” column, Bing Gordon of Kleiner Perkins allowed that – when hiring – he likes “in person meetings for chemistry and references for truth.”  Following on this thread, Pat Sapinsley further emphasized the importance of going beyond references supplied by the candidate.  She advised informing candidates upfront that part of the interview process will involve seeking input from a candidate’s previous colleagues.
  • Formula for team success?: Investor Oliver Guiness (Clearpoint Ventures) described how – in evaluating potential deals – much of his focus will be on understanding whether or not a team can work effectively together.  At a minimum, Guiness endorsed the conclusions of a study by Josh Rogers and Matthew Nordan on “what makes a great cleantech team“; after surveying 37 cleantech businesses (both successes and failures) and 122 executives within these businesses, Rogers and Nordan concluded that “winning cleantech start-up teams are complete at founding, have strong pre-existing relationships, and include the inventor of the core technology.”
  • Have the talk (the dilution talk, that is): As a fellow at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Pat Sapinsley helps scientists to bring technologies from the lab to the marketplace.  A critical step in this process is explaining to scientific founders the inevitable dilution that accompanies becoming part of a venture-backed company.  To make the conversation less personal, Sapinsley apparently directs founders to resources such as Hutchinson Law Group’s “University Spinout Founders Handbook.”  Even for companies formed outside the realm of Harvard labs, early and frank conversations about future dilution of founder’s equity are useful to remove a source of potential bitterness.  In addition to the resource above, I would also recommend this helpful note from Marty Zwilling and Matt Nordan’s “cap table template.”
  • Lose the pyschometrics: An executive recruiter in the audience questioned the panelists about the role of pyschometric evaluations (e.g. the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) in the hiring process; many large corporations (including GE and Bridgewater) favor such testing for its alleged helpfulness in predicting “fit” and reducing employee turnover.  Panelists were generally cool toward the idea of submitting candidates to psychometric tests, preferring the more informal “five dinner” method describe above.  In addition to questioning the predictive ability of such tests, panelists worried that (1) forcing a candidate to complete a battery of tests will potentially sour her view of the firm; and (2) asking only some, but not all, candidates to complete such tests may expose a firm to liability for discriminatory hiring practices.  While investor Oliver Guinness did acknowledge a role for pyschometrics in helping to clarify personality types within an existing team, this panel did not advocate that start-ups begin making Myers-Briggs a mandatory part of the hiring process.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Hire the Resume – and Other Team-Building Tips from Cleantech Pros

  1. Well done Reid! Many great pointers in here! I recently chatted with one of my members about the Meyers-Briggs Type test that she was asked about in an interview. She was grateful that she had taken the test in business school otherwise she wouldn’t have had an answer for the hiring manager. I think as hiring managers the important elements to focus on in an interview process are passion for the company’s mission , life experience and attitude. Most skills sets can be learned or enhanced on-the-job.

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