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THE BLACK HOLE

Lessons learned for hiring new staff at a startup

While every organization is different, sharing best practices can help inform process development.

By JONATHAN THON | JUN 27 2018

Academic research labs are like small to mid-size biotech companies in many respects – they have comparable budget, organizational structure and personnel makeup. But they are also very different. Nowhere is this more apparent than in hiring practices.

In academic research labs all decision-making power rests with the Principal Investigator (PI). Postdocs, graduate students, and technicians are rarely asked to provide more than high level impressions of candidates and rarely take ownership of new hires. This works in-part because most academic positions are transitory and fairly independent. The academic ‘track’ is also pretty well-prescribed, with new hires entering as technicians, graduate students, or postdocs in what effectively is an “up or out” policy, similar to most corporate consulting firms. Advancement from a postdoc means leaving the lab, and few lab members stay on for more than four years on average, often overlapping with other trainees for an average of two (or fewer) years. For the problems this causes, it solves others. New lab hires are not selected by committee but by the PI.

Ironically, this also works at the earliest stages of a new company formation, when the team is small and the company is still establishing its culture. By necessity it falls to the senior executives (often the founders) to select their first employees. These decisions are always very carefully made and usually from an exceptionally small list of candidates (sometimes two or fewer brilliant, passionate, but untested persons, who are almost always chance encounters) to establish a team and environment that is unique, and often difficult for others to visualize. But as with most things in a startup, this changes very quickly.

When the company reaches the 10-15 person mark organically (the situation is very different for similar sized or larger companies that are created all at once), the culture has begun to set in and employees want (and deserve) greater input into the process. This is no longer an exercise in creating a culture from scratch that only the founder(s) see, but a living breathing company that everyone has a stake in preserving. Unlike the university, you’re intending for your employees to stay – which they do primarily because they genuinely like working there. Happy employees want to preserve what they helped create. This is a great thing.

The challenge is that those very natural tendencies that one hopes will take root, also create deep feelings of concern and insecurity with every subsequent hire. Each new recruit introduces a risk that the culture will change, just a little bit – from an environment attractive and comfortable for existing team members – to something unknown. There is further uncertainty in how the company will continue to see existing team members, and how existing team members continue to see themselves at the company. Academic labs by comparison are typically quite stable over long periods of time, usually making one major graduate or postdoc hire every two to four years (depending on size). Everyone knows their place. A young startup company on a steep growth trajectory is more than doubling in size every year, in some cases making multiple major hires every few months for positions that have yet to exist. Every new hire affects the company’s culture, and it is inevitable that there will be tension. Recruitment at this stage requires an altogether different strategy.

Where this tension has pronounced itself most noticeably for us has been in feelings of bias in recruitment. Team members want to have a say in who their colleagues are. When the recruiters are also the managers (as if often the case during this intermediate period), and final hiring decisions rest with them, it is not surprising that the team should question whether their input matters. The fact that one’s decision is being reserved until all the information is in does not change the reality that this is not what is being perceived. It is through mistakes that we learn. Our mistakes have taught us important lessons that have shaped our processes and are worth sharing. While still far from perfect, the lessons we’ve learned have improved our recruitment process substantively.

It is natural for every new recruitment process to be met with some initial resistance by the existing team at the time of introduction. The first real indication that our culture had set, and that our process therefore needed to change, was somewhere at the 15-person mark (up from just five people earlier that year). When we were smaller, I would introduce recruits by having one on one meetings with every person on our team to discuss the new candidates, their background, fit and why I felt strongly we should try to attract them. These conversations, which would often span an hour or longer, would touch on my vision and our future growth, review concerns, and address all topics in between. This is obviously not a scalable model, but it was important to me that all of us were aligned on the larger strategy behind of our growth.

Our 16th recruitment was no exception. As with the senior recruitments before them, the position was only loosely defined until we found a candidate that embodied it. I proactively reached out to everyone in the company regarding their candidacy and included their CV. While I was equally enthusiastic about the role for which the candidate was being recruited, the feedback this time was mixed, in great part because the candidate’s less-than-stellar interview raised some concerns with the existing team – and first impressions stick. Everyone who meets with new candidates at our company is given the opportunity to provide feedback (positive and negative), which is compiled into a single spreadsheet by our program manager and shared with the hiring manager (which for senior team leaders is still me). In all fairness, there were equally strong advocates for this candidate, and the references were very positive. But instead of creating confidence in our recruitment process, roundtable meetings where I shared this feedback mixed with my enthusiastic introduction of the candidate gave the distinct impression that our team members’ opinions wouldn’t affect the outcome. In the end, this recruit received a very attractive counteroffer from their current employer that we could not match, and we were unsuccessful in recruiting them. The negative impression the candidate staging created persisted.

For our next senior recruitment, we went to great efforts to improve our process and correct our earlier mistakes. Unlike our previous recruit (and the senior hires before them) we created a job description that we posted to our website months before the recruitment (and was shared with current team members alongside their CV in advance of their visit). We also updated and circulated our organization chart to show their fit into our structure. Since lack of communication about the candidate was cited as the major issue with our previous recruit, I tried not to repeat this error by over-communicating this new person’s role – taking multiple one-on-one meetings with our team members to discuss the position and candidate within the structure of a job description and organization chart. Ironically, this gave the false impression that the decision to hire had been made before the candidate even interviewed. As before, everyone who met with the candidate was given the opportunity to provide feedback (positive and negative). Although the feedback on this candidate was very positive and our decision was very much in-line with the popular vote, this did little to change the narrative that the opinions of the team members did not affect the hiring outcome. The responsibility for ensuring a process is perceived to be fair, even when it is fair, rests squarely with the leadership – and in this case the responsibility again was all mine.

With the next senior recruit, we tried a further iteration. We began by coordinating with our program manager and senior team members in private (before disclosing the recruit to the company) to write out a formal job description, update the organization chart to better communicate the position, and draft an objective introductory letter describing the candidate, how they were introduced to us, and circulated this alongside their CV to the larger team. I purposefully did not engage our team members in one-on-one meetings about the recruit’s candidacy and asked our middle managers to communicate the position instead. The goal this time was to disconnect the executive team from the process so that we could invite a candidate to interview, without giving the false impression that we have made this decision in advance. As before, everyone who met with the candidate was given the opportunity to provide feedback. Unlike the previous recruitment, we also invited select senior team members to meet in a roundtable debrief session to share final impressions. The outcomes were noticeably better. So far so good…

While we’ve gotten substantially more positive responses on the current iteration of our recruitment process, only time will tell if this process sticks or will need to be adapted further as the company continues to evolve. There is always room for improvement. While every organization is different, and a 20-person biotech startup is certainly not an academic lab, sharing best practices can help inform process development at any organization. In that spirit, I would love to hear your thoughts, and welcome your experiences and advice.

 

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the CEO and chief scientific officer of Platelet BioGenesis, and a faculty member in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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  1. Damien / July 3, 2018 at 17:54

    Jonathan, thank you very much for this insight into recruitment. As you may already know, this topic is near and dear to my heart and career pursuit.

    Finding and developing productive teams are incredibly important to any independent or innovative labs. I put startups and academic labs in the similar buckets for leadership challenges.

    Goals are constantly moving targets which require agile teams who are comfortable with change and uncertainties. Therefore, finding those individuals who can be characterized by attributes associated with startups; fortitude, grit, tolerance, etc., would most often require multiple perspectives from the present team. This process, while arduous, can serve a better purpose for selecting not only the right teammate but also reinforcing the right culture.

    I’m always a fan of the old saying, “moving slowly in the right direction is always better than moving fast in the wrong direction.” Here, it sounds that you’re not only focused on the technicalities of recruitment but more of an emphasis on company culture and team awareness.

    My only clarification would be that leadership isn’t a “one-man” show. Therefore, the cultural awareness and development of your senior team sound like the exact focus of where the efforts should be placed. I am encouraged by your company’s development and hope that a strong collaborative team culture will further serve as the underpinning of any management processes. In return, I hope that this post will serve as lessons on leadership development for inspiring young scientists.

    A sword is only as good as the swordsman who wields it.

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