How to attract talent as a start-up grows

Aileen O’Toole
Chief People Officer
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At the start of a new venture, many founders are already well-connected to the talent they need for their fledgling business. Hiring is rarely a challenge because the opportunity is easy to sell to their immediate networks of friends, family and past colleagues. The founder can personally communicate a compelling vision and perfect fit for each person they want to hire.

As start-ups scale, founders inevitably reach a talent tipping point: role scope, team size and structure, urgency and volume conspire to make the founder hiring channel a bottle neck.

New challenges arise

Start-up founders should expect to come up against a number of hiring challengers as they grow, including:

Hiring specialists: Early joiners are often given roles that are broad in scope and outside their comfort zone. But it is not sustainable to keep hiring people into jack-of- all-trade roles with responsibilities that they have not had before. The time has arrived to hire specialised talent.

Hiring strangers: When the founder’s network is tapped out it’s less about established trust and familiarity and more about having a recruitment process with cultural norms, and clear skills and experience requirements to compare candidates against.

Hiring leaders: Finding leaders who have the right skills, share the founder’s philosophy, build the business, and sustain the culture is really challenging. And of course the day arrives when it’s no longer possible for the founder to speak to every candidate. For peace of mind, it’s tempting to look for a reputable company on a senior hire’s resume. But it can still be difficult to assess whether the person comes with the right ‘ownership’ mind-set. One mis-hire can mean the founder is put off hiring the next external leader.

Navigating the ‘tipping point’

So how do founders navigate past the tipping point? I see three steps that some early-stage companies are taking to attract top talent which others might benefit from:

Employ a recruitment expert early on: Start-ups with foresight make a specialised recruiter one of the first 20 people hired into their company. This person sets up the Talent Acquisition system inside and outside the organisation.

Leverage your investors: Your investors are well-connected and understand your business. Investor partners (like Naspers) may have a broader network to leverage, or even a dedicated talent team that is designed to support the growth of the start-ups they back.

Extend responsibility for hiring and onboarding beyond the founder and the recruiter: If you want to set the tone for talent in the business, in addition to the founder, ensure that people (such as subject matter experts) are invited to participate in the hiring process. Support them with a recruitment process that moves fast and empower them to hire people who can fit in and scale with the business. Expose new recruits to a broad group of people after they join to ensure that a consistent culture is sustained.

In the early days, it’s easy to solely focus on the “big idea” that the business is founded on. The critical role that people play in technology organisations is often overlooked. The truth is, every business needs top talent to grow, and in today’s knowledge economy, talent is sometimes the only differentiator.

An unstructured and unplanned recruitment process is okay when you are hiring people you know, but be ready for the talent tipping point to ensure you and your business are positioned to hire the right people in plenty of time.

About Aileen O’Toole

Aileen O'Toole, Chief People Officer, Naspers

Aileen O'Toole is Naspers' Chief People Officer, responsible for global Human Resources for the Naspers Group and supporting HR as a business driver across the 40-plus entertainment/tech businesses in the group's portfolio. 

Aileen joined Naspers as senior vice president and Chief People Officer, in May 2014. She has almost two decades of HR leadership experience in fast growing hi-tech and e-commerce companies. Most recently Aileen spent 10 years with eBay where she led HR for eBay Europe and Global Classifieds. She also worked with businesses in the online payments, online comparison-shopping and eTail sectors. Prior to eBay Aileen led HR for Europe at Jabil Global Services and also worked at the Telenor group. 


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