Should a Startup CEO Interview Every Job Candidate?

The point of inserting yourself into the interview pipeline isn't to make thumbs-up, thumbs-down decisions but to share your perspectives on people with the management team so that everybody gets better at hiring all the time.
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Dear Liz,

I read every article of yours I can find, so you're the perfect person to advise me on a leadership issue in my 23-person firm (up from three of us 18 months ago). I still interview every job-seeker whom we're considering for a job here, and I've told the managers in our company that I intend to interview every candidate for a good long time, until we reach several hundred team members or more.

I think that there's a certain kind of person we're looking for, and that it's important for me to know who's coming into the business, which I started out of my passion for the industry and a particular way of doing things. I'm getting some pushback from our managers, who feel that having to schedule me into every interview roster is slowing them down.

We do have a need for speed in hiring (and everything we do) but if my spot in the pipeline slows us down by four to seven business days, does that hurt us? I think the process delay is worth it, because hiring decisions are the most important decisions we'll make.

What's your take? I told the team I would follow your advice.



Dear Jerome,

Congratulations on the company's growth! That is outstanding. Hats off to you on two counts: for starters, you had a great idea and went after it; and secondly, you've hired sharp people to help you build the company. The debate over who should interview whom is a normal (and wonderful) side effect of growth -- a typical small-company growing pain.

Let's look at your place in the hiring decision. We can imagine a spectrum, where the two ends of the spectrum represent the two extremes for your involvement in hiring decisions. On one end of the spectrum is a point called You're Not Involved at All. In that case, your managers do the hiring (with luck, involving their team members). You'll meet the new guy (a unisex term) on his or her first day of work.

On the other end of the spectrum is a point called No One Gets Hired Without Your Okay. That's what I think you're talking about in your note -- that you have to green light every new hire in every job, before one of your managers can extend a job offer. That means your chief duty in the pipeline, from an operational standpoint, is to say "Nix" if you don't approve a particular candidate put in front of you. In that case you are the last box that gets checked, not a rubber stamp but a real Go/No Go decision-maker in the process.

If that's a faithful description of how you make new hires in your company, then I want to get you out of that business before your company gets a whole lot bigger. It's a slap in the face to the folks you brought on board to grow the organization, for you to convey the message "I trust you to do a lot of things, but hiring new employees on your own [or as a team] isn't one of them."

I suspect that the complaint "it takes too much time for you to interview these people" is at least partly a smokescreen. It's easier for your managers to tell you "you're slowing us down" than for them to ask "What does it mean to be a manager, if you don't trust us to know what sorts of people we need in our departments?" It's one thing to meet a finalist candidate in order to chat with him or her about the company, and to sell them on it. That's a wonderful thing for a CEO to do. You're going to want to get very good at selling people on your opportunity, because an employer's need to sell sharp people on its vision rises as you go after more and more switched-on and accomplished people. (Every hiring manager should know how to woo, and not just vet, job-seekers, but that's a whole 'nother Oprah, as they say.)

It is wonderful to vet candidates too, but if the CEO still needs to vet every candidate when you're up to 60 employees, then something is broken. Your managers should be capable of doing that (and you should be delighted to let them) by then.

You will meet every manager candidate for a very long time into the future, and there are probably other positions where you'll want to be in on the interview action. But over time, if you don't begin to pull yourself out of the process, you will slow down not just the hiring process but the growth and cohesion of your leadership team.

I agree that people decisions are the most important decisions you'll make, but if experienced managers can't make those calls without your approval, when will they get better at it? I can't give you a timeline for that pulling-away. Your company is still pretty small. I'd probably interview every candidate in a 23-person firm, too. Talk with your managers about the need to find a middle ground between your priority around making great hires, and their need to take the reins in their functions. I'm sure you can build a roadmap together that will ease you out of the Interviewer-in-Chief role and let your capable lieutenants pick up the slack.

By the way, it's nearly pointless for you to interview candidates unless you're also sharing substantive feedback with your managers after each conversation. "Liked him" or "Didn't like him" votes don't qualify as feedback. No one's going to learn anything from that. The point of inserting yourself into the interview pipeline isn't to make thumbs-up, thumbs-down decisions but to share your perspectives on people with the management team (and to get them to share their perspectives with you) so that everybody gets better at hiring all the time.



P.S. If you're talking about the rock stars and ninjas that my startup-CEO friends all seem to be looking for, then a four-to-seven-business-day delay is a major hindrance. These folks don't stick around. If the message conveyed to them is "The CEO wants to meet you before we hire you, but he can't do it for a week" some of them -- including in some cases the best of them -- will bail. If hiring is such a priority for you, what is keeping you from jumping right into the deal when a hot candidate is on the fishhook? That's a planning issue. If you know that your managers are hot on the trail of sought-after people, you'll coordinate closely with them so that you're never the bottleneck.

"People decisions are the most important decisions" cuts two ways. If people decisions really are critical (and I agree with you on that) they'll pop up to the top of your radar screen and your agenda.

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