Making the Perfect Hire

What happened when I decided to ignore educational pedigree and big-company experience.

As a venture capitalist I meet lots of bootstrapped companies. As their core team expands, most face the same hiring dilemma. They need the in-the-trenches, get-things-done types who fit the culture and can eventually be managers, maybe even strategists. This challenge reminds me of a lesson from early in my career, fondly remembered as, “Look for Lincoln.”

At my first company, “Arthur” was our grey-haired adult supervision, an invaluable steadying force during the roller coaster of growth. One day when we were going through resumes, he told me about Lincoln, an applicant for a sales position in his long-ago first company.

Lincoln was a local community college grad short on work experience. Arthur gave him an interview because his cover letter detailed a work plan for the sales region. Lincoln had figured out customer buying cycles and pain points, and presented an original way to build the funnel. In the interview, he laid out a management plan for the sales force.

Compared to the Big Name College Alum and Serial Big Company Salespersons competing for the same position, Lincoln was off the charts on positive, no-excuses, creative energy.

Lincoln quickly became a top individual performer on inside and field sales, then a manager, and then a senior executive covering revenue, marketing, and products. Lincoln was a huge part of the successful exit for Arthur’s business years later.

Mine was a high profile startup with millions of dollars behind us, so we had over 50 qualified applicants for a single position. As Arthur and I rummaged through resumes, I tried something new: I ignored academic pedigree and work experience.

Instead I screened for people who made the effort to say something interesting about the position, our business, or our market. I looked for well-researched, original, memo-worthy notes that made me think.

Exactly four candidates made that effort: a serial mid-level job-hopper, a recently grad from a local college, an Ivy League MBA, and a mid-career changer from another industry. When they came in for interviews, I asked each of them to teach me the details of their analyses and plans. That was where “Lincoln” shined - everyone else fell apart after I pulled off the wrapping paper.

My “Lincoln” started out installing our enterprise software system. Eventually, he took over all of implementation, then support, then custom services, and even pre-sales engineering. By the time we sold the business he had almost half of my 100+ staff reporting into him.

I’ve used my “Lincoln Experience” in evaluating everyone from senior executives in public companies to CEOs of portfolio businesses to founders of startups. Here are a few guidelines I keep in mind:

1. Attitude trumps resume. Some people may have both, but if it’s one or the other, attitude is the most consistent indicator of future results.

2. Trust but verify. People can fake the right attitude... initially. Create a deliverable that shows how that attitude translates into results, and dig to see if it’s for real.

3. Make the hole fit the peg. Of course you need to start with the person fitting the job. After they prove success, find ways to make the next job fit the person, rather than vice versa.

Hiring the right person is hard in any size business, but the stakes are higher in early stage growth businesses. Drilling for attitude is the surest way to find gold.

By the way-- my first Lincoln? He was the mid-career changer from another industry.

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