Hiring the top 1% BUT we’re offering what everyone else is

The most common conversation I have with companies in the start-up and scale-up space who are looking to recruit goes something like this: “We want to hire the best. We can’t compromise on this. It’s key to our growth, identity and/or our next round of funding.” The same adjectives appear time and again, such as: ‘clever, ‘ambitious’, ‘optimistic’, ‘analytical’, ‘collaborative’. The kind of person who is able to get any job they want, is leading in their field, yet has managed to remain humble; in other words, a tall order.

I will ask what they have to offer in return to such an illustrious candidate. The responses I receive are telling. It’s often difficult for start-ups to offer the salaries that reflect the quality of the candidate they’re looking for, but those that do are usually the ones who successfully gain and retain the talent they need for high-growth and success.

Candidates who are interested in joining a younger company or one that is facing an exciting period of growth will likely be attracted to the opportunity for taking on greater responsibility, for making themselves an intrinsic part of the business. It’s generally a given that they’ll want to work in a friendly and talent-focused environment. These are individuals who are extraordinary, and there will be hundreds of companies willing to offer them this. Free fruit, caffeine, and equity options are available with almost all small and growing businesses.

I find that the companies most determined to attract exceptional people will go above and beyond the norm. They will offer a benefits package that stands out. They will prove to the candidate that their talent is visible and that their contribution will be valued.

Five years ago, working in a start-up or scale-up with a chance of an interesting exit was a rare opportunity. It isn’t now. Any candidate with a defined skillset and history of success can have 500 new job options with 15 minutes of research, so it really is incumbent upon prospective employers to make sure that what they’re offering is truly competitive for the best candidates in the job market.

Instead of pulling together a predictable job spec, this time and effort might be better spent determining what really makes you an attractive employer. Work out what you have to offer that others do not and honestly consider what you can change to make your company stand out.

A quantitative or qualitative look at most start-up job specs would tell you that all the bullets or graphics say essentially the same thing. Indeed, we’re currently carrying out this exact piece of analysis to calculate what the average job spec looks like. Of course, a start-up spec might be a bit different to their more traditional, corporate world counterparts, but they’re no different to the thousands of others in your space. Make sure that you can differentiate between offerings that are so basic that they are really must-haves and those that are superfluous or just plain pointless.

In order to do this, you need to ask some serious questions. How are you really different? What’s your culture really like? If you were to ask existing employees across different functions and seniorities, what do you think they would say?

There’s a lot of jargon that goes along with start-ups, but when you talk about your company’s ‘impact’, define clearly what impact your company can have on the market and what impact the candidate you are seeking can really have on your company. What does that look like? Because jargon can foster a sense of camaraderie, of being an insider who understands it, but it can also be unclear and empty. Instead, use language that connects. Articulate what you mean when you say ‘responsibility’.

Be prepared to explain – and back up – why your business is going to work where others aren’t. Why are the founders different? Why are the investors different, and what do they see for the company’s future?

When it comes to recruitment, run a process that’s human, that allows candidates to understand what’s different about you. Would the candidate be able to walk away from an interview and explain what you’re offering to someone else in straightforward terms? If not, rethink.

And finally, get real about salary. Know the market and determine how you can compete. Ultimately, you cannot seek a gold-standard candidate with a bog-standard employment package. Work out what you’ve got that sets you apart, and discuss honestly what you’re missing and could do better. And then do it