Is Your Startup a Chicken Bus?

As first posted here on Huffington Post.

Business leaders often quote Jim Collins’ “bus” metaphor when it comes to building great companies:

"Leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with ‘where’ but with ‘who.’ They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats."

However, most leaders of rapid-growth companies use what I call the “chicken bus” approach to building their companies. A chicken bus is a common form of public transportation in developing countries where people, their livestock (hence the name) and other random items are packed into barely-serviceable, antiquated coaches. Repairs are improvised, at best - often implemented while he vehicle is still in motion. Little thought is put into who (or what) is packed onto the bus and rarely is anyone refused entry. Passenger safety is not a priority. Sound familiar?

The chicken bus approach gets the job done. It gets you where you need to go, fast. It’s lean. But eventually problems arise. At best, the bus becomes so overloaded and unwieldy that it loses its key advantages - speed and flexibility. At worst, a chicken bus will blow out a tire or lose the ability to steer or stop. The results are typically disastrous. Bus meets cliff. Cliff wins.

When it comes to hiring and recruiting, the risks of this approach are just as serious. Like an actual chicken bus, you can get away with cutting corners or “winging it” initially. However, past a point, an improvised, rushed or non-existent talent strategy can have similarly disastrous results. Costly hiring errors and recruiters’ fees add up. Your best people spend more time screening and interviewing candidates (badly) than doing their primary jobs. Performance suffers and growth slows or stops. How do you get out of this cycle or avoid it altogether? Here are five telltale signs that you’re building a chicken bus company and what can you do about it.

1. You don’t have a talent acquisition strategy.

You have a customer acquisition strategy (also known as a sales strategy), right? Hell, it’s working, which is why your business is growing. You know who your target customer is, what problem your product solves and have a suite of communication, engagement, conversion and onboarding programs already underway. You probably track data at every step of this process using sophisticated analytics and CRM platforms. So why don’t you have the same for your talent acquisition efforts?

If your hiring goals are as aggressive as your sales goals, it’s time to build a talent acquisition strategy just as you would a customer acquisition strategy. Understand who your target “customer” is and what makes them unique and identifiable. Next, figure out what your company’s “value proposition” is for that customer. And that value proposition had better stand out. Attracting great people is a competitive exercise. Then design a set of “marketing” programs that engage your target candidate, from initial outreach through to evaluation and conversion. It’s not that hard, but it requires attention, investment and discipline.

2. You “post and pray.”

This is where the full extent of your recruiting “strategy” involves posting job descriptions and hoping people find them and apply. In other words, people who are not looking for a job actively (usually the sort you want) don’t know that you’re hiring. And your job descriptions probably suck: focusing more on a narrow skills profile than a behavioral one, and failing to sell the benefits of working for your company. As a result, you probably receive a lot of applicants, but few that are remotely qualified.

To fix this, you must first understand that recruiting is not a passive activity. It requires that you go out and find great people. Great people usually have options, including the job they already have. If you’ve built a sound talent acquisition strategy, you will know what your target candidate looks like, where he or she lives and how to get their attention. Second, write job descriptions that focus on what the candidate will need to accomplish to be successful in the role, rather than some arbitrary number of years of experience doing one or another specific function. And don’t forget to sell why working for you is so great. What do you stand for? Why do your customers love your products? How do you invest in the growth of your people? All of that needs to be in there.

3. Hiring managers are overworked and exhausted.

As a high-growth company, your best individual performers likely have become your de facto hiring managers. And since they have other responsibilities, screening resumes and interviewing candidates typically only gets their remnant energy and attention. Couple this with the fact that effective interviewing is difficult under the best of circumstances, and your best people turn out to be pretty crappy recruiters.

There are at least two ways to address this issue. First, to get due attention from your best people, you need to make interviewing and recruiting part of their core duties. If that means adding it to their compensation structure or otherwise aligning their incentives toward recruiting, then do it. Either way, if you have aggressive growth goals, your people need to give priority treatment to recruiting. Second, good interviewing is a learned skill. And doing it badly is painful for all involved. Invest in real, behavioral interview training for all of your hiring managers. This should include not just how to ask questions, but how to structure the entire interview process so that it’s consistent, accurate and scalable. In the end, your best people will still spend time recruiting and interviewing. But they will be better at it, and therefore, less frustrated.

4. You have an HR person in charge of recruiting.

This is the most common error I see at companies of all sizes and stages. In fact, I think this is the number one reason why most companies suck at recruiting. The duties of modern HR boil down to one primary objective: keep the boss out of jail. Look at 80% of what the typical HR person does and it will inevitably tie back to reducing the risk of the company being sued by its current or former employees. And that’s fine. That is a necessary and valuable administrative function of any business. However, good recruiting requires strategy, speed, selling and some risk-taking - a mindset that is diametrically opposed to the typical HR approach to anything. Think about it this way, would you put an accountant in charge of developing your marketing strategy? Probably not. So why do you put your talent acquisition strategy in the hands of HR?

There is only one solution to this problem and that is to create a separate function for talent acquisition. Preferably, the position reports to the CEO or president. If recruiting falls within the HR function of your business, you’re doing it wrong. Period.

5. You are spending too much on outside recruiters.

Recruiters can provide a very valuable service to expedite the hiring process. They source and screen candidates in ways your team doesn’t have time or skills to do. However, like any third-party consultant, they will only be as effective executing a strategy as you are in articulating a strategy. Plus using outside recruiters is expensive. So if you don’t have a strategy, the results you’re getting back from recruiters are probably not great.

So everything starts with a sound strategy. Then interview and partner selectively with recruiters who understand and buy into your strategy. They will be your proxy in the talent market place, so they’d better be aligned in lock-step with you.

If any of these qualities describe your company, your recruiting process likely feels rushed and burdensome and the results generally suck. You often feel like you’re settling for the best applicant, not the best person for the job. Or positions sit unfilled for months, adding pressure to an overextended group of existing staff. If continued growth is part of your plan, you need to invest in a talent acquisition strategy with the same priority treatment you give your customer acquisition strategy. Otherwise, good luck finding that seat belt under that goat.