Hire the trajectory, not the status

One of the most common and cringe-worthy boardroom phrases is “… I think we need to hire a world class C[x]O or VP of [X].” I am still waiting for the day when the CEO replies “thank you for flagging the world class piece, I would have hired a mediocre candidate!”

Joking aside, the less catchy but correct way of phrasing say a CMO / VP of Marketing debate is probably more something like this “I think we need a marketing leader that has experience at companies at our stage and can help us achieve marketing driven growth for the next 2-3 years.” 2 -3 years, because you will be turning your team over time.

In a recent board meeting we then broke down what we thought our marketing channels would be, budgets, how it should sync with sales, etc and pretty quickly realised it would be much smarter to hire a VP of product marketing and a VP of lead gen instead of a single person. And we just didn’t actually have a role for a CMO right now; maybe in a year or two. That was a great outcome but it took us a while to get there.

You need to push your board to a detailed and sophisticated discussion around roles – and not knee-jerk into title-hirings. Another classic is hiring a big-wig Chief Sales Officer without the proper product and underlying sales structures in place; which always ends in tears. It is then of course easier to blame the CSO vs being brutally honest about the product and your organisation.

The other learning I wanted to share when hiring VP & C level folks in to early stage startups is to really focus on a candidate’s career trajectory vs their status (i.e. current job). It is very easy to focus on a catchy big-name company a candidate was at before; or the fact that they held exactly that position before, etc. The problem with that is you can run in to all kinds of adverse selection problems especially at an early stage startup. Is that top-notch CMO coming from much-bigger-company X on a huge package really going to switch over to your Series A company on a much lower package, less supporting infrastructure, etc because they are “so passionate about your mission”? Maybe yes; probably not. Has someone been stalling at the VP level with a few short stints but all at good companies? Maybe a sign they are on the wrong trajectory.

So at early stages you might just get a bigger bang for the buck by focusing on folks that have shown rapid and consistent career growth, but may still need to growth a little in to a new role with more responsibilities. Say a marketing team leader that has run a meaningful budget and managed a team – and being VP of marketing would be the logical next step on her career path.

I’ve learned to look more for those.

  • http://preply.com/ Kirill Bigai

    Great article! I faced the same problem in Preply. Hiring a top notch CMO is super tough for Seed/Series A stage startups. There are not a lot of reasons for them to switch from successful companies. So we decided to focus on those candidates:
    1. Who are currently head of department (e.g. Head of SEO or Head of Performance marketing) in international marketplace (scaling experience);
    2. Who are data driven and has great analytical skills;
    3. Who has experience in working with at least two marketing channels (e.g. SEM and Email marketing).

    And I have one question. Obviously, there are a lot of different positions. What is a practical difference between CMO and VP of Marketing? How do they usually divide responsibilities? Thanks for your thoughts.