Learning by doing: My first years as a manager in a tech start-up — Part I: Recruiting

Sophia Höfling
8 min readJul 25, 2019

Until some years ago, my stereotypical picture of a manager was that of a mid-40 old man who had done the job that the people in his team were doing for quite a while. He was an expert in the field. I assumed that management required a certain level of experience — a role you grow into throughout your career — and a certain level of expertise in the field you were managing in.

This picture radically changed some years ago when I started working for the high-tech start-up NavVis and became a manager myself. Today, I don’t consider age, experience, nor expertise as the most critical success factors of a manager. In my opinion, management is a role that can be learned and that requires first and foremost empathy, the ability to inspire action, and self-management skills.

Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

In this series of articles, I would like to share my management toolbox and my learning from becoming a manager without a lot of experience nor expertise. I was inspired to share my insights after reading Julie Zhuo’s highly recommendable book “The Making of the Manager”. Why wait until you feel you have mastered the whole thing of management to share your learning? Most likely this point will never come anyway. With management, you live and learn.

Hence, this article series is a reflection on my first 3 years in a management role. One year into my first job after graduating from university, I became a manager in a highly dynamic environment of a fast-growing B2B start-up. I built from scratch a Customer Experience Team from 0 to 28 people. It was a roller coaster with many ups and downs and probably the most educational time of my life so far. I hope my learning will help other team leader newbies to find their way around the early management jungle.

From my perspective, management practices fall into 7 different categories: recruiting, on-boarding, feedback & people development, target setting, processes & routines, culture, and self-organization. Culture and self-organization are the bases for everything else. Yet, there is nothing to manage as long as you haven’t recruited a team. Hence, I’ll dedicate this first article of the series to recruiting.

Management categories

“You can dream, design, and build the most wonderful product in the world…but it requires people to make the dream a reality.” (Walt Disney)

I am convinced that to be successful you should consider recruiting as one of your most critical responsibilities as a manager.

In that respect, I have learned 3 important lessons:

1 — Build a strong and cooperative relationship to the people/HR team

In my first months as a manager, I considered it the people team’s responsibility to drive recruiting for the whole company. I assumed that I would just have to provide some input, e.g. some bullet points for a job ad for a new position, and they would take it from there. I quickly realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Indeed, it is the people team’s responsibility to drive recruiting. Yet, ultimately, you will be accountable for your team’s success which mainly depends on the people you bring on board. In return, from my point of view, driving recruiting activities is a shared responsibility of the people team and the respective hiring manager. Setting up and executing a successful hiring strategy requires close alignment and cooperation throughout the whole process. The people team should get a really good feeling for your department in order to answer candidate questions and bring the right people into the recruiting funnel. As a manager, you should make use of their expert advice on how to execute the recruiting process seamlessly. Once I understood this, I tried to turn my colleagues from the people team into my most important partners in crime. I set-up bi-weekly lunch meetings to keep them in the loop of how I was planning to extend the team and how strategic decisions might affect the hiring projection. When we entered the interview phase for a new role, I checked in daily to get their feedback on a candidate and the overall process in which multiple interviewers were involved.

2 — Invest time to make interviews as effective as possible

No interview process is perfect. It’s impossible to effectively judge an applicant based on a few hours of interviews. However, by turning your interviews into well rounded, open, yet challenging work simulations you can make your interviews a sufficiently good proxy to judge a candidate’s skills and team fit. This is hard work. It requires time investment as well as frequent fine-tuning and adjustment. Here are the 4 practices that worked well for my team:

  1. Create an atmosphere of psychological safety.
    A lot has been said about how psychological safety is a major driver of team performance (see for example the outstanding talk by Julia Whitney on this topic). I am convinced that the same holds true for interviews. Interviews should not be considered a means to test an interviewee but a platform for them to show off what they can bring to the table. To help them thrive and present the best version of themselves, turn the interview into a conversation on eye-level. I openly told an interviewee right at the beginning of the interview that this was not a moment to test them but a conversation where both sides should be able to figure out if working together could be successful and fun. I welcomed them to pose questions during the interview. We kicked off the interview with something everyone feels comfortable with: talking about themselves.
  2. Lead a demanding conversation.
    Creating an atmosphere of psychological safety should not contradict with raising challenging questions during the interview. As much as the interviewee hopefully challenges you with interesting questions about the company, team, and role they are applying for, you should invite them to discuss demanding topics too. Case studies are an effective way to understand someone’s problem-solving approach and perspectives. For us, it worked out well to run an interviewee through a recent problem we tackled with the team and ask for their ideas on how to solve it. Abstract case studies might help you to understand an interviewee’s skillset. Yet, they won’t tell the interviewee a lot about your team and their future job. Consider case studies that are both insightful for you and the candidate.
  3. Screen a candidate’s past work results.
    Portfolios are a common means for designers to show off their past work. Developers use their GIT repository to demonstrate their coding skills. Based on my experience, also for all other professions, it is very worthwhile to ask candidates to prepare a showcase of their work and present it during the interview day. Ideally, they provide concrete work results. A product manager can give a tour through the product he/she was responsible for, a project manager may show a project overview. Looking at concrete examples makes it easier for both sides to dive deeper into expert discussions.
  4. Include your entire team in the recruiting process.
    In many companies, it is common practice that the hiring manager and potentially higher-level managers run the interview process. We made an extremely good experience with extending this round by including peers and subordinates in the recruiting and decision making (hire or no hire) process. Involving the team in interviews bears several advantages:
    - It is a sign of trust. Your team will feel involved and empowered which has positive effects on the overall team atmosphere.
    - Getting involved early on prepares team members who potentially become managers themselves later on. My boss asked me to join him for an interview only three weeks after I had joined the company. If I hadn’t been involved in recruiting activities that early on I would have found my first months as a hiring manager extremely overwhelming.
    - Last but not least, being able to talk to future peers is a great offering to your applicants. They get to understand the perspective of the team. If a peer enthuses about the great company culture it’s much more credible than if you as the team leader do so.

3 — Be strategic & consider the big picture.

In a fast-growing start-up, one gets easily caught up in the rat race of daily tasks. It’s tempting to just go with the flow and hire as the operative business requires. You think role by role rather than having an overall hiring strategy. While this is certainly the most efficient approach for the first 3–5 hires, once you have passed a certain threshold it pays off to be more strategic about your hiring plan. I recommend considering the following three aspects:

  1. Hire generalists before experts.
    Start hiring generalists while the overall company strategy and your team’s objectives are still subject to frequent pivots. When the team is still small, everyone does a little bit of everything. Roles might completely change from one month to the other. Generalists like those dynamics, experts don’t. Start hiring experts once you feel confident that a certain role is set.
  2. Mind the numbers.
    Once you’ve got enough traffic on your hiring pipeline, make sure to make use of the data. Which is the best converting hiring channel (LinkedIn, specific job portals, interns, personal network, etc.)? How many applicants need to enter the funnel to make a hire? How long is the hiring cycle for specific roles? Here, again it is important to closely cooperate with the people team who is usually tracking these numbers.
  3. Hire for diversity.
    While gender and cultural diversity are what many start-ups take pride in, diversity in age/work experience is often underestimated. In our case, we started hiring people with more experience way too late. Once we did and build up a team with an age range of 25 years, we quickly recognized its positive effects. The less experienced start-up dinosaurs can learn about industry best practices from the more experienced new joiners. The experienced new joiners can get inspired by their colleagues’ agility and out-of-the-box ideas. But don’t underestimate the fear of change that might arise in your team when transitioning to a multi-age team. To make this a smooth transformation for the current team make sure you clearly communicate the value of diversity: Lead with a growth mindset by pointing at the great learning opportunities for your dinosaurs. Stress that chances to take responsibility for someone with less experience remain equally high.

In summary, recruiting in a fast-growing, dynamic start-up environment is a complex and time-consuming activity. It requires fruitful cooperation with the people team, a thought-through interview process, and a strategic mindset. I hope my learnings will help you as a rookie manager to avoid some pitfalls and quickly tune up your recruiting success.

Read on! My following article covers everything I learned about on-boarding new team members.

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Sophia Höfling

Entrepreneur & product leader writing about product & leadership. Building clean tech @ReiCat. Formerly CPO & co-founder @Saiga, HoP @Babbel & HoCX @NavVis.