Three product leaders talk about how to hire a product team

How to hire a product team

Three product leaders talk about how to hire a product team

How should I grow my product team? When should I hire a product leader? What kinds of people should I look for?

These are 3 of the questions that come up often when CEOs and Founders are looking to build out their product function. So, we spoke to three product leaders in European tech to get their take.

David McGuiness started growing his product career straight out of university and is now the Chief Product Officer (CPO) at Billwerk+ – a subscription management and payment solutions platform based in Germany.

Rhiannon White is the CPO at Clue – a science-backed cycle tracking app. Rhiannon started her career in marketing, making her way up to Director of Marketing at BBC iPlayer before taking the leap into product.

Paul Williams built his entire career in product and tech. He is the Founder of Axis – which finished up last year – and has held numerous Head of Tech and CTO positions. Now, he is the Senior VP Product for PSG Equity.

What does a product team do?

Product, as a function, is little more than a decade old.

It started out around 2010 and, in the last years, has really gained traction. Many European tech startups and scaleups are now establishing or expanding product teams as a core pillar of their business.

So, what does Product actually do?

A product team decides what a company is going to build. Usually working in very close collaboration with tech and engineering teams, who decide how the thing will be built.

Product teams are responsible for understanding customer needs, and coming up with products and features that solve their pain-points. Then, working with sales and marketing to bring those products to market.

What about product leadership?

Depending on the size and stage of the company, the product team could be led by a CPO, VP Product, or Head of Product.

In the earlier stages, the founder is usually the product leader, and it’s a position they often hold onto for a while. But, as the company grows, there comes a point when they need to pass the torch.

“There’s no hard and fast rule”, says David McGuiness, CPO at Billwerk+, “but product leadership is a very demanding role.”

“As the company scales, the CEO is going to get pulled in a million different directions. Eventually, they’ll need to give the reins to somebody else. A good founder will recognise when the right time is.

So, what about the other product leaders?

I'm looking for people who are curious and empathetic. What I really want is a customer-focused product team.

David explained it like this:

“At Head of level, you’re more execution focused. You’re hands on and won’t have a huge number of direct reports – just a small product team.”

“VPs have more input on the strategy and vision. They have a larger team where they’ll also be managing managers.”

“At CPO level, you’re not only reporting to the CEO, but also to the board and shareholders. You find that you’re not very hands-on anymore. It’s 90/10. You’re more focused on devising strategy and defining culture.”

Get more information on the different types and levels of product leaders in this article.

What to look for when hiring product people

David McGuiness: “I don’t really focus on technical skills because it’s assumed every product manager can write good user stories and has an eye for design.

“I’m looking for people who are curious and empathetic. That might sound corny, but they’re important. I want people in my team who are going to be curious about everything, challenge everything, and look for new ways to do things instead of just waiting to be told what to build.

“What I really want is a customer-focused product team.”

“Having that curiosity and empathy and being able to say, I can see why that’s a problem or actually that user experience isn’t good enough because it’s going to cause our customers pain is super important.

“Everything else I can coach. But those two traits are hard to teach. I believe you either have them or you don’t.

Paul Williams: “The best piece of advice I can give is to hire people who are better at the things you’re not so good at.”

“My very first hire with Axis was a Product Manager. There was more work to do with the engineering, so I focused on engineering and got Product Managers to take the pressure off on that side. Broadly speaking, you want to develop the team in areas where you need the expertise the most, or you’re weakest, or where you know there’s a clear gap.”

“Many founders fall into the trap that the product is their domain and don’t necessarily think about the need for a solid product operation early to help with that decision making process and build those kind of models or senses of value across the organization, but I can’t stress how – even if you own the vision – finding means to execute effectively and hold you to account is invaluable.”

Rhiannon White: “I really highly value product folks who are strong at collaboration and at working with others.”

“When I need to hire for a product role, I consider both options of hiring internally, or bringing in an external expert. It starts with listening to see what the strengths of the existing team are.”

“What’s the mix of seniors, juniors, middle level? Where do we have a gap?”

“For example, sometimes you might have a lot of strong product people who have great product experience. Then you can consider absorbing someone from inside the company, from support or sales or marketing. This person would really know the company’s product and the customer, but would likely be missing domain knowledge of product.”

“On the other side, if what the product team actually needs is more product domain expertise, it’s better to bring in someone from the outside who will then learn the company’s product and customers.”

“It’s too much for someone to learn both product as a domain and the product and users at the same time. They have to learn one or the other.”

“Depending on what the mix needed at that point in time is, that’s how to do it.”

Keeping the product team lean

Following multiple rounds of layoffs in tech this year (2023), many companies are focusing on building efficient lean teams, packed with key talent, rather than hiring in huge numbers.

“Size is a real two-edged sword”, says Rhiannon. “You can really do a lot with scale, but it also takes a lot to do a lot.”

“I’ve been through the painful process of having to downsize teams a few times before. The unfortunate and very difficult truth is, we’ve always been faster afterwards.”

“It’s uncomfortable and I struggle with that, but it’s true that if you have smaller communication overheads, you can move faster. Then you get to a point where it breaks and you need to grow again.”

“I’m mostly a proponent of adding to the headcount once you’re screaming for it, not in anticipation.”

Paul says: “Developing solid product teams early can make a really big difference to your ability to determine and execute on value at a point where you don’t have much cash to burn. The team doesn’t have to be big – just effective.”

“When you don’t have much money, you need to be as confident as you possibly can. That way you’re spending that money in the place that is going deliver the most value for your organization.”

Size is a real two-edged sword. I'm mostly a proponent of adding to the headcount once you're screaming for it, not in anticipation.

How to balance experience and potential

When hiring, you have to weigh up the candidates in front of you and decide what’s the best fit for your company.

Experience means the person has been there and done that, but are they stuck in their ways? Potential means they’re eager to grow and learn, but maybe don’t have much relevant experience.

We asked Paul how he deals with this:

“At the startup stage, you have to make that assessment all the time, because generally speaking you can’t afford the top talent you’d ideally like, so you have to find ways to project how good a person will be in the future.”

“You need to assess if the person you’re thinking of hiring can pick up and build the skills you need them to have.”

Paul says the first way of doing this is making sure you have a cultural element to your process.

“For startups nowadays, having values and an understanding of cultural growth is commonplace – even at the smallest companies. You need to make sure you’re interviewing to understand whether people fit your culture and have a growth mindset.”

“The second side of it is more task oriented.”

“For product hires, I like to set a relatively simple product management task for somebody I’m interviewing. Even if they’re not coming from a pure product management background, I want to see if they have the right instincts around product.”

“I always try to guide people in the task – it shouldn’t be a trick question or anything like that – but I’m looking at know how you arrived at an idea and how you determined it was valuable. How did you break the challenge down, deliver it, and then prove that it was successful?”

“Even with less experienced candidates, this lets you see their instincts.”

“Are they data driven and value orientated? Do they understand concepts of flow and iteration?”

“If so, then you can reasonably confidently project that they’ve got the right wiring to develop into the role. You are starting from a place where they you know they’ve got the instinct for it, even if they’re lacking in experience.”

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How to hire for cultural fit

Culture is the lifeblood of an organisation. It’s a complex tapestry of values, beliefs, and behaviours that define its identity.

Building a strong and positive culture at a company is essential for fostering collaboration, innovation, and employee well-being. However, crafting a culture that aligns with your company’s vision requires intentionality and careful consideration. Equally important is being able to identify, attract, and hire candidates who will be a great cultural fit at your company.

Ultimately, you need to bring onboard people who will thrive within and add to the awesome culture you’ve built, not take away from it. And that all starts during the hiring process.

So, how do you do hire for cultural fit? Let’s dive right in…

Employee personas

Organisations often invest significant time and effort in defining job requirements, skills, and qualifications needed for a specific role. These are all essential. However, going a step further by constructing employee personas can provide invaluable insights that transcend qualifications alone.

Employee personas are fictional representations of the ideal candidates for a particular role. They take into account things like traits, preferences, and motivations.

By creating these personas, organisations gain a deeper understanding of their target candidates — enabling them to make better, more informed hiring decisions.

When it comes to hiring for cultural fit, hiring managers also need to also have a solid understanding of their organisation’s culture and its defining characteristics. That’s why, prior to starting the hiring process, it’s important to establish the key values, behaviours, and expectations that underpin the existing culture.

For example, if transparency is a really important value for your company, you’re going to want to find candidates who align with and value this, too. The interview process is an opportunity for you to differentiate between individuals who are comfortable sharing transparent information, both in times of success and adversity, and those who may not genuinely feel at ease in doing so.

Armed with this understanding, organisations can assess candidates beyond their skills and qualifications, evaluating their potential to assimilate into the culture as well.

Human-centered hiring approach

Adopting a human-centered hiring approach is a powerful way to align with and fortify a positive company culture.

As the name suggests, this approach places people at the centre of the hiring process —  taking into account their needs, aspirations, and potential contributions. By acknowledging the importance of individual perspectives and well-being, organisations can foster an environment of psychological safety — an essential element for cultivating a culture where employees feel secure to take risks, share ideas, and engage in open dialogue.

Psychological safety nurtures trust, encourages innovation, and paves the way for meaningful collaboration, ultimately enhancing overall organisational performance.

You need to bring onboard people who will thrive within and add to the awesome culture you've built, not take away from it.

During the interview process, you can assess cultural fit by delving into candidates’ values, attitudes, and alignment with the organisation’s existing culture. To do this, ask questions that explore their experiences working in similar environments or handling challenging situations that reflect your culture’s core tenets.

You can also encourage candidates to share their personal values and how they align with those of the organisation. By delving into these aspects, you can gauge their potential to contribute positively to the culture, reinforcing its vitality.

Here are 7 example questions you can ask in an interview to help you determine if a candidate is the right cultural fit for your company:

  1. Can you describe a work environment where you have thrived in the past? What aspects of that culture brought out the best in you?
  2. How do you prefer to collaborate with others? Could you provide an example of a successful team project you were involved in?
  3. Can you share an experience when you faced a conflict or disagreement with a colleague? How did you handle it and what did you learn?
  1. What values and beliefs are important to you in a workplace?
  2. How do you ensure your own values align with those of the organisations you choose to work for?
  3. Can you give an example of a time when you had to adapt to a significant change in your work environment?
  4. How do you approach giving and receiving feedback? Share an example with us.

Cultural Fit vs. Cultural Contribution

Traditionally, the focus of hiring has been on finding candidates who fit well within the existing culture. While cultural fit is important, it should not be the sole criterion.

Instead, organizations should aim for cultural contribution, as well. Hiring individuals who bring diverse perspectives, ideas, and experiences can inject new energy into the company culture, sparking innovation and creativity.

It is this blend of different personalities and backgrounds that can lead to breakthrough thinking and a vibrant workplace.

Building a strong organisational culture demands deliberate effort and meticulous consideration. The success and effectiveness of an organisation are profoundly influenced by the individuals within it. Each person brings their unique set of skills, knowledge, attitude, and work ethic to the table, shaping the overall culture and determining the trajectory of the organisation.

Recognising this profound influence of individuals on a company’s success is not only crucial but also transformative.

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How to build a sales function that’s repeatable, predictable, and scalable

Nasri El-Sayegh is a sales leader in the tech sector and works as the VP of Sales at Anima Health. He has a wealth of experience in setting up sales teams at Seed to Series A/B stage companies and building out sales functions that are repeatable, predictable, and scalable. Our team worked with Nasri to connect him with his position at Anima Health. And we recently caught up with him about the role of AI in sales, how to build out a high-performing team, and the sales techniques that can drive results in a tough market. Read on to learn more.

Can you tell us about your career until now? How did you get into sales?

I fell into sales. I don’t think anyone goes to mum and dad and says, Hey, guess what? I’m going to be in sales. No-one does that.

Straight out of university, I attached myself to the commercial function of the company I was working for after rotating around a few different ones. And since then I started to develop a real passion for sales.

Early on, it was more that I loved talking to people and the thrill of closing deals. Then, as I progressed through my career – maybe even just six or seven years ago – I started to really get into the psychology behind it. I started to understand that sales is a science combined with a bit of art.

In terms of leadership and how I got to being a VP of Sales – I was given that opportunity during COVID when my team went through restructuring. They came to me and asked if I wanted to run our sales department going forward. I took the chance and haven’t looked back since.

How do you go about setting up a sales function in a young, growing company?

That’s something I had to learn quite quickly. As a sales leader, I’ve done that Seed to Series A/B run a couple of times now. And it’s all about going from chaos to trying to get something that is repeatable, predictable, and scalable.

Those are the three magic words that every sales or revenue leader is trying to deliver. Because you can come in one week and close seven deals. But you have no idea why. Why did we close this deal? What happened? Why did that particular person buy from us? You need to figure that out and build on it.

The first thing you’re trying to build is predictability. Because when you get predictability, you’re thinking, well, I know that if I reach out to 20 people with this persona, based on historical data, I can predict we’ll close three of them. Then you have a baseline that for every 20 people, I’m getting three deals. So, if I get another 40 people, I can reasonably predict that I’ll get six more deals and you go on building that predictability. That’s the first layer.

Then you’re looking at a plan to support what the team is striving for. Say the company is trying to get to the next fundraise – it’s about building a blueprint for how to get there. I look at revenue or go to market as an engine that has components to make it work. The engine drives the wheels and the wheels go forward. But first you need to know what the components are.

I’ve looked at this process through the lens of mentors, coaches, and some of the most successful startups and sass businesses in the world. I ask myself, what were their components? What did they focus on? What did their leaders do? And then I start to build my own blueprint off the back of that.

Then comes the people and the talent within the team. How are you hiring? Who you hiring? How are you onboarding your sales reps, and how do they play into your go-to-market strategy? You need to consider everything from the customers you’re targeting to the messages your sales reps use to where you approach potential clients. What’s the best mix of channels for your company? Is it outbound or inbound or partnerships? How do you get your team to deliver a process repeatedly and what tools do we need to be successful? These are all really important factors – and they’ll influence how you build a team.

Then, comes the unit economics. Is what we’re doing actually profitable or will it become profitable in a reasonable amount of time? I can’t invest millions in marketing and then return one deal. I need to work out how to make my blueprint sustainable and what combination of tactics is going to get me there.

Finally, you have to adapt the model for the particular business you’re in.

Repeatable, predictable, and scalable. Those are the three magic words that every sales or revenue leader is trying to deliver.

Some companies will be more product-led than sales-led. Others will rely more on inbound because the product they have has a strong market fit – with customers actively searching for a solution to a particular pain point. Or if you’re taking a brand new product to market and creating a category, you’ll need to focus more on outbound and command the message around your business.

At any level, you’ll need to adapt the blueprint to what works for the business you’re in, and what strategy you’re trying to deliver for.

How would you build out your ideal sales team?

I try to live by some core philosophies. The first is hiring a mix of experienced and inexperienced people.

You need salespeople who’ve been there and done that. They’ve worked in a similar environment before, handled similar deal values, and have closed deals with the same kind of customers you’re going for. Then you mix in empowering young, inexperienced people who you want to help grow and develop into what your ideal profile looks like. Combining those two layers of talent is key.

The second philosophy is to build a culturally diverse team. One mistake I probably made early on is that I tried to build a team of Nasris. But it doesn’t work like that. You can’t get everyone to be like you or work in the same way you do.

You need to foster a diverse team that will thrive and build a culture within itself to be successful. And by diverse I mean everything from, experience, like I mentioned, to gender diversity, to a mix of people from all different backgrounds, geographies, and career paths as well.

Then, the last philosophy is built around the individuals. I think about how I can invest in the people in my team and help them to be the best they possibly can be.

If you can live by those three philosophies when building out a core team, I think you’re already on the right track.

The market is pretty tough right now. Particularly for salespeople, I think. And outbound is taking a hit at many companies. Are there other techniques you’re seeing success with?

I think the power of the referral is completely underestimated.

Typically, people think about inbound as a channel – so customers that come in from a blog post, website SEO, or events, for example. Or they’ll go for outbound – which is SDRs calling prospects and saying hey, are you interested in our product?

But are we treating referral as a channel? Are we proactive about them? Are we driving it as a repeatable process? I don’t think so. It’s still an underestimated route to more leads – and one that instills a lot of trust with customers as well.

When you think about it, we do this when hiring. If someone refers a candidate to me because they worked with them and respect them, that will get my attention. Why shouldn’t it be the same with a product or service?

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Finally, let’s chat about AI. There’s a lot of buzz around it right now. What’s your opinion? How do you think it’ll impact the role of sales?

Honestly, 80% of the time I’m seeing “AI-powered” attached to a product or company – it’s a fad. A lot of businesses are maybe enabled by AI in some way or they’re trying to replicate the ChatGPT model that got a lot of buzz – but it’s not the same thing.

Do I think AI will replace salespeople? No, not anytime soon. I saw a funny billboard the other day where it was a building being built that had a sign on it that says, Hey ChatGPT, can you finish this building? Of course it can’t, right?

So, I don’t think AI is going to take away people’s jobs anytime soon. But will it support salespeople in being more productive? I absolutely think so.

It does depends on the tool, though. If it’s something like a conversational intelligence tool – like Gong or Jimmy or Wingman – that can look at the last 10 deals you closed and tell you the common feature you talked about compared to when you’ve not spoken about that feature, I think it’s brilliant.

Or a tool that says, hey you spoke about XYZ on your phone call just now so I’ve drafted an email for you that covers that. Brilliant. That’s saving me time and money. That’s making my team more productive. When you look at it from that perspective, AI does have a space in sales to make us more productive for sure.

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How to create a recruitment scorecard that actually works

 A recruitment scorecard is a useful tool that recruiters, hiring managers, and employers use to find the right people for a job. In this article, we’ll explain how to create scorecards and use them effectively, and share practical examples you can adapt for your next open role. 

Hiring the right person for a role at your company can be hard. Even with great candidates in front of you, making the final call is often tough. 

You need to be confident that your new teammate has the skills and experience to be successful in the role. On top of that, they should have the right mindset and motivation to connect with the company’s culture as well. 

If you have a hiring team with multiple people on it, everyone will have an opinion. When you add biases, multi-stage interviews, and almost unlimited possibilities for desired candidate qualities into the mix, it’s easy to see how the process can become complex. 

This is where recruitment scorecards come into play. A scorecard will help you run a structured hiring process, assess candidates fairly and consistently, and ultimately find the right person for your team. 

What is a recruitment scorecard?

A recruitment scorecard is a resource employers and hiring teams use to help them find the right person for the job. It’s a concise checklist of the essential experience and competencies a candidate needs in order to be successful in the role they’re going for. 

A scorecard should be specific and tailored to both the company and the open position. This is important, because a scorecard will form the basis of your structured interview process.  

The attributes you choose to focus on with your scorecard are what the hiring team will evaluate and should be fully integrated in the hiring process. Each step of the hiring process is designed to delve deeper into 1-2 items on the scorecard. This optimises value for the candidate and employer, by ensuring each interview stage is complementary rather than repetitive. 

In focusing on the right things, and having everyone on the same page, you’re putting yourself in the best position to identify the right person to hire. 

Here are some of the things you could include on a recruitment scorecard: 

  • Hard skills 
  • Soft skills 
  • Level and depth of work experience
  • Cultural fit 

To maximize value, there needs to be an objective and standardized way of assessing the items on the scorecard. For example, a 4-point Likert scale should work fine and open space for the interviewer to reflect on the interview and highlight strengths or areas of concern. This practice allows them to make a more objective recommendation to hire or not to hire. This can be easily integrated and tailored in most Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS).  

When should I create my recruitment scorecard?

As early as possible. A recruitment scorecard should capture what it means for a candidate to be a good fit for the role. So, you want to have this outlined early on. 

The ideal time is after having an intake call – when you are discussing calibration profiles – because this facilitates alignment between recruitment and the hiring manager. For the hiring team, a scorecard ensures a well-balanced and objective hiring process. For talent partners, a scorecard directs the search and helps to target the ideal candidate profile.

Overall, a well-thought-out scorecard will reduce time wasting and prevent your recruitment pipeline filling up with unsuitable candidates.

At The Big Search, we create a recruitment scorecard at the start of each new search. This helps us to ensure alignment and brings the most value for our clients in the shortest amount of time.  

What are the benefits?

As well as getting everyone on your hiring team on the same page, recruitment scorecards have a bunch of other benefits. Here are our top four: 

Avoiding bias

We all have unconscious biases. The good news is, we can implement simple tools and behaviours to reduce them. When it comes to hiring, scorecards are a great method for ensuring a fairer candidate assessment and consistency in measuring performance as they move through the process. 

Hiring managers focus on what’s important

Limit your scorecards to 3-5 key criteria. By being laser-focused, you’ll make sure you’re assessing the attributes that are essential to the role across all the candidates you speak to. Since everyone on the hiring team will use the same scorecards, you can have confidence in the consistency of your process as well. 

The right people assess the right elements of a candidate

By knowing what you want to focus on, you can assign the right people to conduct different interviews. By matching assessments with experts in these fields, you’ll have better and more in-depth discussions with candidates. 

Avoid repetitive interview process

Have you ever been in an interview process with five or six stages, but every interview seems to cover the same stuff? Scorecards can help to avoid this. Repetitive processes are a waste of time for you and give candidates a poor experience as well. By aligning with your team on what’s important and assigning the right people to interview candidates on different parts of your scorecard, you can avoid a repetitive hiring process. 

Best practices

When you are creating a recruitment scorecard, remember to tailor it to your organisation and the role you’re hiring for. Here are five more tips for getting the best out of scorecards: 

  1. Keep them brief. 3-5 essential attributes is best. The more you add, the less focus you’ll have. You’ll also find it difficult to source candidates with 20+ “essential” skills. Even if you did, you’d need a serious number of interviews to assess them all properly. 
  1. Be clear. Everyone on your hiring team needs to understand exactly what you’re looking for to deliver candidates that fit the bill. Don’t be vague or leave points open to interpretation. 
  1. Be flexible. Don’t be afraid to update your scorecard if you learn new information about the role you’re hiring for. A scorecard doesn’t have to be set in stone. Update it if it would benefit your hiring process. 

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Lessons in rejection: what cultural fit is and is not

“We regret to inform you that we have decided not to progress any further with your application. You have many of the skills that we are looking for, but felt that the cultural fit was not quite there.”

These are the most disappointing words to hear at the end of a recruitment process. Even more so if you feel like you got on really well with the hiring managers and nailed the interviews.

‘Cultural fit’ is powerful. It’s extremely important for hiring managers to get right if they want to ensure new employees have the right motivations and attitude for the company. But cultural fit is also hugely subjective.

Using it as a reason to reject a candidate is near indisputable. It leaves little room for debate — if any at all.

Most times, candidates will have taken a lot of time to prepare and interview, only to be rejected without constructive feedback or advice for future interviews. It’s happened to all of us, right?

Despite this being seen, almost universally, as bad practice, it happens more often than you would expect.

What is cultural fit?

Before we go any further, let’s take a quick look at what cultural fit actually is.

Conventionally, a candidate’s cultural fit describes how they fit in with specific teams they’re expected to work with, and how well they match the overall company culture. This may include, for example, shared beliefs, values, and behaviours.

Beyond this definition though, cultural fit has taken on a new life of its own. It has grown to encompass almost anything that is not directly related to skills. It has become somewhat ambiguous — almost devoid of meaning.

We’ve written this article to explore what cultural fit should and should not refer to, especially when rejecting a candidate, and leverage this to create a better recruitment experience.

Dissecting cultural fit

When a business uses ‘cultural fit’ as a rejection reason, they are typically rejecting the candidate for one of a six overarching themes. For example, if a candidate has ‘low energy’ or is ‘too aggressive,’ they may have poor personal chemistry with the hiring team.

Breaking this down, most rejection reasons tend to fall into one of the following themes:

  • Personal chemistry
  • Leadership style
  • Difference in values
  • Experience in different environments
  • First impressions
  • Interviewer’s biases

Digging deeper, the first three are clearly related to cultural fit. But the latter three are more skills- and behaviour-focused.

Poor chemistry between a candidate and their future manager is a very good reason to reject someone on ‘cultural fit’. Similarly, it would also make sense to reject a candidate if their values or leadership style differ too much from the business’s preferred style — such as being ‘too aggressive’ or ‘too top-down’.

In contrast, it is less of a ‘cultural fit’ issue if a candidate gets rejected based on the environment where they have previously worked.

On the one hand, candidates who worked in companies in similar lifecycle stages to the one they’re interviewing for will likely have more overlap. But this is not necessarily a ‘cultural fit’. Rather, it relates to the skills and experiences they have picked up.

Understanding what constitutes ‘cultural fit’ helps to better identify what skills and behaviours really qualify a candidate for a job.

On the other hand, having no prior experience at your company’s lifecycle stage is not determinate of a candidate’s success or failure. People are remarkably flexible to adapt to different environments and company cultures. This is very visible at Recruitment Process Outsourcing providers and embedded consulting firms, whose employees often ‘go native’ and change their behaviour to match their client’s company culture.

First impressions

Lastly, the fifth and sixth themes — first impressions and interviewer’s biases — are far removed from ‘culture fit’. Though first impressions are important, they are not indicative of a candidate fitting in well with the culture.

The same applies to implicit biases. Within this theme, you may find a lot of subjective preferences, such as wanting people from specific regions, people with stronger language skills, or a preference for one gender over another to meet diversity quotas.

Every candidate will be influenced by societal norms and values, but this does not mean there is no overlap with a company’s values or that the candidate cannot adapt. Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map details how cultures across the world differ across multiple spectrums yet can also interact in a globalising world.

Though it is very reasonable to keep a candidate’s cultural starting position in mind, ultimately it does not indicate whether they can (or cannot) adapt to your company’s culture.

Learning from rejecting

Understanding cultural fit is important to recruiters and companies, to help them make better hires. That’s because realising what does and does not constitute ‘cultural fit’ helps to identify what skills and behaviours really qualify a candidate for a job.

It also shapes the view on what a candidate may need to be coached on in order to become an asset to the company’s culture.

Understanding cultural fit also benefits the employer’s brand when rejecting candidates. When provided with strong and substantiated feedback, a candidate will feel more acknowledged and learn something tangible for an interview elsewhere. This reduces the chance of the candidate potentially feeling that a company was only interested in filling a vacancy, rather than them.

Here are our two main take-aways for companies trying to cut through the ambiguity of ‘cultural fit’:

  • Hiring managers should be more conscious of the reasons why a candidate does not fit the company’s culture. In turn, a better understanding of why some candidates do and do not fit your culture is also likely to support you in finding the ideal candidate.
  • Recruiters should be comfortable pushing back when feedback about ‘cultural fit’ is unsubstantiated. Informing a candidate that they are rejected is difficult, but doing so with good, helpful and constructive feedback turn it into an invaluable experience.

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Talent Acquisition: Definition, Strategies, and Best Practices

People make or break companies. They are one of the greatest assets of any organisation.

Having the right people on your team in the right roles is crucial for growth, innovation, and building a positive company culture.

The challenges lie in defining the roles you need for your business to achieve its purpose, and then finding and attracting the right talent for those positions.

Every organisation is different. You will have different people needs depending on the stage your company is at and where you want to get to. This is where talent acquisition plays a vital role.

What is talent acquisition?

Talent acquisition is the strategic process of finding the right people to join your team. It’s about analysing your long-term talent needs, and identifying, attracting, and retaining people who make your company better and help achieve your goals.

The right hire will have the skills and experience to do well in their role. In addition, they’ll be motivated by your mission, have a mindset that matches your brand, and be a strong cultural fit in your team. Talent acquisition is the process that helps you find these people.

As a function, talent acquisition can sit within the HR team, be its own team within an organisation, or come from external services. With talent acquisition, you are hiring with a long-term focus, rather than just plugging vacancies. Having a strong strategy to guide this process is important for:

  • Scoping and prioritising your hiring needs
  • Ensuring hiring aligns with your business strategy
  • Driving sustainable and scalable growth
  • Employer brand and onboarding – to set new hires up for success
  • Enriching people development and L&D practices
  • Improving employee retention
  • Compensation benchmarking
  • Improving diversity and inclusion

Is it the same as recruitment?

Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, so it’s easy to confuse the two. Traditionally, however, they are not the same. Recruitment is the practice of filling vacancies. Talent acquisition, meanwhile, is recruitment’s newer cousin that anchors that practice in strategy.

Picture it like this: if recruitment were a plaster, then talent acquisition would be the whole first-aid kit.

Recruitment is largely reactive and focuses on short-term headcount needs. It’s about getting bums on seats.

Talent acquisition on the other hand, is proactive. It’s a long-term strategy that factors in a company’s mission, vision, and goals and acknowledges that people are key to achieving those.

Recruiting is, of course, one part of it. However, it goes far beyond that. Talent acquisition is an ongoing process that assesses a company’s current and future talent needs and focuses on identifying, sourcing, and onboarding high-quality people for specific, well-thought-out roles within an organisation.

Is talent acquisition the same as HR?

Human resources is the department of a company that upholds the interests and needs of the people who work there. This involves supporting existing employees in areas such as training, compensation, employee satisfaction and wellbeing, and company culture.

Talent acquisition focuses strategically on sourcing and hiring new talent. They take a long-term approach to finding the right people to meet the goals of an organisation, and are specialised in finding and attracting good candidates for specific roles.

Talent acquisition can operate as an independent function or sit within a wider department of an organisation. That means that talent acquisition could sit within an HR department, alongside other functions, but it is not the same as HR.

Is talent acquisition an internal or external function?

That depends. The size of a company, the stage of growth it’s at, and the make-up of the team all play a role.

Some companies choose to have internal talent teams, others decide to outsource, and yet others take a hybrid approach. It really depends on your needs and resources.

If you don’t have an internal talent acquisition team, or you have a team that lacks capacity or tech hiring expertise, those are great reasons for considering bringing in external experts (like us!).

What is the process?

The process of talent acquisition will vary depending on your company and the industry you’re in. However, after identifying a hiring need, a strong talent acquisition process can generally be broken down into these 8 steps:

1. Role kick-off

This is where it all starts. You will want to align with your hiring manager to make sure everyone understands the purpose of the hire and the value they would bring to the organisation. Consider where the new hire will sit in the team, the expectations of the role, and any key traits that would make someone a good cultural fit.

Also, remember to discuss practical aspects like hiring process, budget for the role, and next steps. Everyone involved in the hiring process should leave the meeting knowing what to expect.

2. Calibration profiles to align

Put together a list of 5-7 candidate profiles that the hiring manager can consider for the role and ask for feedback.

Include a few different archetypes – profiles that are somewhat different to each other in terms of seniority, career journey, and background. This is critical to encourage honest and transparent feedback. It will help you understand what you need to focus on and what to avoid moving forward.

3. Define a clear scorecard for the role

Use the feedback from step 2 to define a clear scorecard for the role and get buy-in from the hiring manager.

If you’re not familiar with it, a scorecard is a list of 3-5 criteria that encompass what it means for someone to be successful in the role you’re hiring for. It is the foundation of candidate assessment across the hiring process and ensures alignment.

Always refer to the scorecard when giving or receiving feedback and be quick to revise it if the role or expectations are evolving. Quite often, especially working with early-stage start-ups and scale-ups, the scorecard will be reiterated a few times.

Do not assume that hiring teams are always 100% set on what they are looking for. They also learn and align on what success looks like as they get more exposure to talent and the market.

4. Set a clear search and candidate engagement strategy

At this point, you are hopefully feeling comfortable with the ideal candidate profile. Now, you need to decide where to find relevant talent and how to engage with them. Be organized here and prioritize. Think of a dart board and the most ideal candidate is in the centre. As you move further away from the centre, you’re also moving away from your ideal candidate. Decide where your cut-off is.

Next up, engagement. When you write a message and a subject line, think about your target audience. What are their patterns of behaviour and engagement on the market? What about reminders and their frequency? There is a fine balance between spamming candidates and being seen.

5. Interviewing and assessing

Whatever your interview style (ideally structured or semi-structured), consistency is key to ensure a fair interview process. Tailor the interview process around the scorecard so you focus your conversation on what matters. This method also allows for a more objective assessment and ultimately helps reduce unconscious bias.

If you have several rounds of interviews in your process, be mindful of the bigger picture. Take a moment to zoom out and look at the entire hiring process. Ideally, every step will be meaningful and adds value rather than being repetitive. No candidate wants to have the same conversation over and over again. And neither does your team! Having repetitive interviews throughout a process is damaging for candidate experience and employer brand.

This is where you can use your scorecard to help you. Ideally each hiring step and assessment zooms in on a few scorecard criteria. Not trying to cover everything at every stage will help you have more in-depth conversations and avoid meaningless repetition!

6. Ongoing candidate and client management

Talent acquisition managers are in a unique spot – bringing together qualified candidates with employers who are looking to hire. Speaking from experience, we can do some cool things and change people’s lives for the better.

Aim to build genuine and honest relationships with your candidates, clients and hiring managers, and keep them in the loop. Afterall, candidates can become clients and the other way around. Show them the same respect you want others to show you.

7. Support offers and hires

Talent acquisition specialists are the main constant in the recruitment cycle of one individual. Candidates meet other people along the way, but this is usually the person they stay closest to. The rapport that develops during this time, puts talent agents in a good position to consult and support with offer creation – regardless of who is extending it. The aim is for both sides to be comfortable with the offer and excited for the opportunity.

8. Onboarding

Although talent agents don’t usually own the onboarding process, there needs to be tight collaboration between them and people teams (or the founders/leadership team where people teams are absent). This allows for a smooth welcome and onboarding that will set new hires up for long-term success.

Make higher quality hires.

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