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This Martin Luther King Day, I’m more frustrated than usual at the performative cycle of images of the great man and his quotes. Don’t get me wrong, no matter who tweets them, I always find the words moving. But  inspired actions are even more moving.  This day, like most, I am in motion–walking down Edgewood Avenue to my office in Sweet Auburn. It’s a shout out from the house where Dr. King was born and near where much of his shortened life was lived. Walking these streets, I think about work. Change takes work. Startups take work. Startups that make great change, take even more work. And that brings me to why I’m writing this post on hiring.

The number one way those of us in the startup world can take inspired action is to update our approach to hiring.

Here’s how startup hiring is (mostly) done now.

A founder needs a job done. She sends a message to friends (and maybe investors) about the role, and the first or second can-be-available person who responds and has the skills—or the ability to rapidly acquire the skills—is hired.  Often before there is even a job description. Repeat for the first 10-15 hires. As a result, the people managing the business under the founder who hired this way, also hire this way. It is, after all, how they joined the company. It becomes culture. As a result, the company has a founder-centric culture. The founder’s biases, inexperience, strengths and weaknesses tend to be reflected–with fidelity–in the organization. The organization is often blind to this because it’s “hard to see yourself” the way others see you. I wrote a post on this a few years ago for Inc., 5 Reasons Not To Hire For Culture Fit.

Culture fit was how I used to hire too—until a few years ago, when I realized something important. I’m a privileged and successful person. People in my network are also often successful and almost always privileged by the system, too. Working together, we could generally be successful, especially given the tailwind of white-privileging culture our families have enjoyed for generations.  I need to work harder to hire exceptionally–in other words, to hire  teams that can change the world and are not be satisfied with “just” success, There’s a ton of research on why inclusive teams outperform, and I’m not going to go into that here. I’m going to assume you realize inclusive teams are the way tomorrow’s significant companies will be built. That’s in large part due to the facts of American demographics. Our population under 40 is already white-minority. A white-centric worldview is increasingly less relevant. So, great companies founded now  will focus on how to operate in an increasingly pluralistic society– a lesson the great companies of past generations did not have to learn. 

Here’s how I am learning to hire for startup greatness.

  • Write a detailed job description. This is not just the best way to do it, it’s also so someone who is not an arm’s length away from you culturally knows exactly what you’re looking for.
  • Set and stick to a process. Most founders can do something that’s fast yet has a date-driven outcome, such as,
    • Sourcing candidates, 1 week
    • Screening candidates looking for top 10%, 1 day- 1 week
    • Deeper dives with top candidates, 3 days- 1 week
    • Offers within a month to top candidates

This is where many founders refuse to commit—this seems to take a long time. Hiring an imbalanced, out of touch culture is indeed the outcome of lots of speedy decisions, and it takes even longer to undue. That old saying, “measure twice, cut once” could just as well be applied to HR as construction.

  •  Know the profile of what’s possible. Do you believe talent is equally distributed among people of all genders and races? If so, then knowing the gender and racial profile of your hiring geography will greatly influence how you benchmark your sourcing. The U.S census for Georgia, where Valor is headquartered, shares that 60% of the adult labor force in the state is female. In general, that would tell me when I hire, I should be expecting—and finding—a slight majority of female candidates. Also, about 60% of the population is white, so that’s about what I can expect when I source fairly. 10% is immigrant–you get the picture.If I am willing to accept skew or bias in my sourcing of candidates, I’ll get skew and bias in my hires. 
  • Support where you are sourcing. For some companies, hiring a particular demographic is more challenging than for others. I submit to you–that is normal. What is exceptional is building strength and diversity into your hiring process. Here are some surprisingly easy moves we recommend to our portfolio companies (and practice ourselves) to source a complete pool of quality candidates
    • Build relationships with HBCUs near you, technical schools, or community colleges as you need, and participate in hiring fairs
    • Find the professional groups important to your organization, and support those with racial or gender lenses more. For example, if female technical hires were challenging for you, you’d want to get involved with Women Who Code—maybe even more involved than with other groups where you are already well represented.
    • Ask for referrals equitably from different genders and races—and make precisely the same ask, sharing the same job description, in the same medium (ie, don’t call some folks and send others an email).
    • Ask your candidates, all of them, the same set of questions when you screen. That’s so when you score candidates, you’re working from a data set that parses with less bias
    • Take structural bias into account when you evaluate backgrounds. You know those cartoons of a white guy in in a suit crossing a finish line on a flat course, just slightly ahead of a racing black woman on a parallel course ten times as long, with crocodiles and barbed wire? Take where someone is coming from into account when you evaluate their momentum. It should be easy if you get your screening questions right.
  • This one is so simple it shocked me. Tell your recruiter. I was once supporting a startup hiring for a CFO position, and disappointed with the slate of highly qualified, but all white male, candidates I received. When I touched base with that recruiter, I shared I was really looking for highly qualified candidates who also were representative of our hiring environment . . . and shared some of our bars (including 60% female, 40% of color). I instantly got back a re-do of that work, and it was an even stronger candidate pool! Sometimes bias is so insidious—even the recruiter was surprised. We both learned something that day. I now make sure recruiters know our commitment to diversity and inclusion is not a quote, but an action, and it will be visible in everything we do—not just our posts on Martin Luther King Day.

Speaking of, if you’ve shared time with me this far, let me share one of my favorite Martin Luther King quotes as thanks.

“If you can’t fly then run,

if you can’t run then walk,

if you can’t walk then crawl,

but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” 

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am grateful we can all keep moving forward into action on MLK Day, and every day, to build the kinds of inclusive teams that make world-changing companies possible. I hope you’ll join Valor soon at one of our events that can support you on your journey.