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When hiring talent, founders often focus on a candidate’s skillset, experience, and overall ability to do a specific job. But finding the right talent takes a lot more than that. In fact, according to Allison Kopf, founder and CEO of Artemis, and Brett Brohl, Managing Director of Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator, another factor plays a major role in the success or failure of a new hire. 

“In hiring, it’s important to know whether a candidate is qualified to do the job,” Allison said. “Obviously, you need to be able to walk away and trust this person to do the job without micromanaging them. But, at the same time, you also need to be asking if this person would do well in your team environment.” You don’t want your employees to just survive your company culture, you want them to thrive in it. 

“One of the quickest ways to kill a company is to start adding hires that don’t fit culturally,” Brett added. “You can’t just put butts in seats to fill a need. If they don’t align with your core values, they’re going to fail.”

Hiring people who’ll happily embrace your core values and fit well into your company culture demands a lot of forethought and careful work. More specifically, it requires you to define a clear set of core values with your team, and then meticulously evaluate candidates against those core values. 

Step 1: Define Core Values as a Team

The first and most important thing founders can do is create a set of core values. These can include things like “embracing creativity”, “responding with humility”, “acting with integrity”—or be something else entirely. 

The idea is to decide how you want your employees to work, interact with one another, and communicate with customers, and boil that down to a few core concepts. Done correctly, each of your values will also have a “why:” an underlying set of reasons that explain its worth and act as a call to action for the company. 

“Core values are more than just a set of high level ideas,” Allison said. “They’re highly nuanced. For example, one of our core values is: ‘default to curiosity.’ But it’s about a lot more than just defaulting to curiosity. That value is based on ideas like: ‘all questions are good questions’ and ‘curiosity is the key to empathy with each other and our customers’. It also encompasses concepts like: ‘ideas, tools and workflows can always improve’; and ‘the process is not as important as the destination.’”

Creating such a deeply nuanced set of core values takes more than one person or a small subset of people, though. It requires everyone to be involved in the process to one degree or another.   

“Our core values didn’t come from the top-down. They came from the company as a whole,” Allison said. “I felt it was most important to give people a voice in the company, because I wanted them to feel like they could make decisions, voice opinions, and have a directional say in where we were moving as a company. So while our mission has been set by me, the way we’re getting there is partly steered by the team itself.” 

How do you get from those many voices to a clear set of values? “For us, the path we took to create our core values was very straightforward,” Allison said. “It involved discussing the objective, brainstorming ideas, and narrowing down our options as a group. One of our designers actually led the process, so our core values came directly from the team, rather than being chosen by me or our CTO.” 

And this process has worked in an onward and upward way for Artemis. “Initially, we created a set of nine core values,” Allison said, “but we reevaluate them on an annual or biannual basis to make sure they still reflect what we’re trying to do. And we’re still doing this as a team, rather than from the top-down.”

Step 2: Setting Expectations During the Interview Process

While it’s vital to have a set of core values in place before you start hiring, it’s equally important to make sure candidates understand your value expectations from the get-go. Not only can it save you a lot of time in the interview process by enabling you to weed out candidates that don’t fit, but it can also spare you the sunk costs—financial and otherwise—of a bad hire.  

“One mistake founders often make is not setting expectations early,” Brett said. “They’ll evaluate skill sets during the interview process, but they won’t set expectations around their work culture and core values until after they’ve hired someone. That needs to happen a lot sooner. Your candidates should know exactly what they’re walking into during those interviews.” 

This can be difficult for founders to do, especially when they go through a period of rapid hiring. However, neglecting to discuss core values and culture fit can ultimately be devastating to your company. 

“When you need to hire fast, because you just raised a round of capital and you need to execute the plan you rolled out, it’s easy to ignore company culture or sacrifice value fit,” Brett said. “But that never ends well. Either you end up firing that person quickly, or they just become a drain on the entire organization.” 

Luckily, there are lots of ways founders can be transparent about their expectations. It may be as simple as discussing your core values in the first few minutes of an interview or asking candidates to read about your core values on your website. 

For Artemis, the simplest way to set expectations is emailing candidates the information prior to their first interview. “The first step in our hiring process is to send candidates our core value deck,” Allison said. “This gives them time to read over our core values and spend some time thinking about them, so that everyone is on the same page when they come in to interview.”

Step 3: Evaluate Culture & Core Value Fit

With expectations in place, the next step for founders is to take some time to directly evaluate candidates against the company’s core values. This is often done as an independent step in the interview process known as a core value screen. 

“We kick off the interview process with a core value screen, which is a formal interview where we ask a series of questions to see how candidates line up with our culture and values,” Allison said. “Ultimately, the goal is to have a conversation and get to know the candidate. So instead of just going through their resume, we ask things like: ‘What motivates you?’ What was the most successful moment of your last job and why? What makes you really excited to go to work?’ These questions are designed to help candidates open up, show off their personality and talk about things that excite them.”

While the answers to these questions can speak volumes about a candidate, this is one of those situations where actions truly speak louder than words. Anyone can say they value what you value, but few will truly embody it.  

For instance, say you’re evaluating candidates against a core value of curiosity. They may share examples of times when they showcased it at their last job, but how well are they really exhibiting it? Are they asking questions? Do they want to dig deeper into the topic? Does their body language show a genuine interest in the conversation? If not, they may not really value curiosity—at least not to the degree that your team does. 

This doesn’t mean you need to disqualify said candidate outright. It simply means you should look more closely at how they will mesh with your culture and core values. 

As Allison explains: “This is where founders sometimes mess up a little bit. They assume that they need to find somebody who matches every single one of their core values perfectly. But, in reality, it’s not so much about finding someone who has one-to-one identical qualities, but someone who fits culturally and is able to live up to your values.” 

Step 4: Know When to Walk Away

Ultimately, even the best plans can go awry. You will still interview candidates who are not a good fit. But this doesn’t mean your culture is bad or the candidate is bad. “There isn’t a right culture out there,” Brett said. “It’s what’s right for you and what’s right for the people that you’re hiring. It’s okay to walk away from the candidate because they’re not a good culture fit. It doesn’t make them a bad person. It just means they’re not a good fit for your company.” 

“The bottom line is, you need to be self aware as a company,” Brett added, “You need to know who you are, what you do, and what your values are, and then stick to it when you start hiring.”

Core Values, Hiring, talent

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