Hiring executives is a nightmare, and it’s not getting easier. The market for talent at all levels is wildly competitive, even in a downturn. Strong C-level and VP-level talent is particularly hard to find, and even harder to close.
In his decade growing skills assessment software startup HackerRank, Vivek Ravisankar, the company’s co-founder and CEO, has become well acquainted with what he calls the “six months of hell”: sourcing, interviewing and struggling to close an executive hire, all while covering for the role himself.
Even if you’ve ponied up $120,000 for executive recruiters, owning more of the search internally may help the process, said Ravisankar.
“The pool of highly capable execs to take a startup from one inflection point or another is scarce,” Ravisankar said. “It’s still white-hot.”
Recruiting execs won’t get easy anytime soon, and Ravisankar said he still steels himself to avoid falling into the “desperation trap” that comes with a long search. But over the last three years, he’s found some tactics that he says have helped him improve his hit rate when it comes to hiring the right people.
“I take a truly heavy control of the search.”
Ravisankar’s sourcing process takes inspiration from Vinod Khosla’s “gene pool engineering” recruiting advice: Identify the specific risks that your company faces and determine the skills needed to face those risks. Then find the companies that have dealt with those risks — think of these as “must-have” abilities — and research the contributions of key players within those companies.
Ravisankar uses this framework to do extensive candidate research on his own. While searching for a chief marketing officer earlier this year — he ultimately hired former Wordpress.com CMO Monica Ohara in July — Ravisankar looked for strong marketing talent from companies with a product-led growth motion. Then he made a second list of candidates who were “good on paper,” but lacked one or more must-have skills.
“There are some really, really good CMOs who don’t have a PLG motion,” Ravisankar said. “It’s very easy to give ‘good’ and ‘bad’ profiles. It’s very hard to give two lists of profiles and say, ‘This is better than the other, and this is why.’”
Creating a rubric that differentiates must-haves from nice-to-haves is key for hiring in a tight market. Agreeing on these in advance will also pay dividends through the debriefing process after interviews, Ravisankar said.
Ravisankar likes to do this candidate sourcing himself, using it to proactively show recruiters what he’s hiring for.
“It enables people to really understand what you’re looking for, assuming the recruiting partner is smart enough to do this,” Ravisankar said. “You can also get a sense of the intellect or raw intelligence of the recruiter, if they’re able to push back or they’re able to add meaningfully to the conversation.”
Why use recruiters?
Ravisankar uses recruiters, though he said he still cringes at the six-figure bill.
The highly specialized recruiters who focus on a particular discipline, like marketing or finance, tend to hear back from more candidates than Ravisankar does himself, he said.
“Based on their previous relationships or past relationships, they’re able to tap their network to get intros to other candidates,” Ravisankar said. “Which is hard for me to do independently.”
Ravisankar said he’s still not sure that capability is worth $100,000, “but that’s the going market, so I don’t have an option, I guess.”
Ravisankar uses search firms mainly as a tool for sourcing. “I think it’s really my job to coordinate the greatest candidate experience possible.”
Be the candidate’s personal concierge
Ravisankar has found success giving candidates “VIP service.” For one thing, he has his own executive assistant schedule the candidate’s interviews, typically a job that outside recruiters take on.
He also introduces the candidate to other interviewers, personally prepares the candidate for each interview stage — “who they are meeting, if they’re meeting a CRO, what’s his or her personality, what do they look for” — and checks in with how the candidate is doing throughout the process.
“All I’m doing is sending an email and having my EA set it up, but every little thing adds up,” Ravisankar said. “All these little things will certainly play in the minds when the candidate is faced with a choice of ‘Should I pick A or B?’ at the end.”
Give the candidate real problems — and a real upside
Rather than having a candidate work on hypothetical problems, Ravisankar asks candidates to weigh in on real situations he’s dealing with at HackerRank.
“It makes it feel like you’re actually working together,” Ravisankar said. “I’m less interested if they come up with the correct solution or not, but more around thought process.”
This real-world philosophy extends to the way Ravisankar crafts his job offers — which, he noted, he does in person, regardless of where the candidate lives.
A standard offer to a prospective startup exec usually shows the math of how much a candidate’s equity would be worth depending on different levels of company growth.
But Ravisankar said he goes one step further, specifying the candidate’s performance outcomes that he believes would lead to those 3X, 6X and 10X upsides.
“Everybody can do the math,” Ravisankar said. “What is really hard is to tell them what it takes for us to get there.”
It may be symbolic, but explicitly tying the candidate’s future achievements to the company’s valuation — and to the candidate’s own equity — communicates the importance of a candidate’s unique skills to the company's future, and sparks a conversation with the candidate about strategy and goals.
“Just the numbers game alone is not enough,” Ravisankar said. “It has to be substituted with clearly defining what it takes.”