By Fortune Editors
January 19, 2011

By Craig Driscoll, contributor

As the recruiting partner at venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners, I have the privilege of working with some truly remarkable young entrepreneurs. My expertise is in helping them build exceptional teams. While I don’t have all the answers, I’ve seen enough to know what works and what doesn’t. Here are some thoughts:

1. Treat recruiting as life or death for your company because it is. Building an exceptional team is the most important thing you can do as a young leader. If you’re great at it, you will likely succeed. If not, you will likely fail.

2. Build a road-map of key hires tied to specific business objectives/milestones. Decide which hires are “must-haves” now vs. later. How critical is the role and functional area to achieving your short-term objectives? Determine the right level (C-level, VP, Director, individual contributor) not only for today but for two or three quarters out. One good proxy to determine the level is to estimate how many people you expect to report to this person. Avoid the trap of making everyone C-level or VPs. At some point you may want to bring in a rock star and you don’t want to be title constrained.

3. Always be looking for talent. At times, 100% of your day should be dedicated to recruiting. Make it a competitive challenge and give yourself measurable objectives (i.e., three exceptional candidates this week). Paul English, co-founder and CTO of Kayak, asks recent hires to name the most talented people they know, and then Paul makes it a point to meet them in less than one week. Treat every discussion with someone as an opportunity to source candidates. For example, customers can point you toward great sales people, investment bankers to great CEOs, accountants to great CFOs, etc. Looking for great developers? Open-source communities are like watering holes for smart, collaborative talent.

4. Understand when you’re selling and when you’re buying. The best candidates need to be sold, and you need to do your work before buying a candidate. A critical part of selling is to develop a tight, compelling story of why candidates should join your company. Prospective candidates should hear the key themes of this story from everyone on your team. Your board should be involved in helping you sell and buy candidates.

5. For buying, leverage proven interviewing techniques. Evaluating top talent is a topic unto itself. That said, there are several effective hiring methodologies; one of the best is the Topgrading methodology by ghSmart. It’s captured pretty well in the book, Who: the A method for hiring.

6. Once you find the right candidate, speed and decisiveness are key. This is another key competitive advantage that you can have over other companies. But fast doesn’t mean easy. Reference extensively (10+ references) focused on off-list references (those not provided by the candidate). If they check out, make them an offer that they’re proud of and explain the associated expectations. Determine the current market compensation for talent at this level/function. For critically important hires, 75th percentile of market for cash and equity is a good target. Remember, you’re creating the core structure of your company with each hire.

7. Leverage recruiters where appropriate. Chances are you’re starting a company in a hot sector. Its also likely that top technical, product, marketing and leadership talent will be hotly contested. Recruiting is a full contact sport and sometimes you need a hired gun to help. Only work with recruiters who have been referred to you by your network and carefully screen them. Ask them for a recent search that didn’t have a successful outcome and reference that person. If you do engage a recruiter, be explicit about the bar for talent in your company. If you decide that they’re right for you, make them a true partner. Share everything you can about your company so there are no surprises and arm them with every weapon you can to help land that exceptional candidate.

8. Build a board of directors/advisors/ecosystem that can’t lose. Make a list of superstars that you think is unobtainable and then land one of them. The very process of shooting for these people will make your pitch better. Bring people into your company’s orbit who, by their very association, are a branding event. A young entrepreneur recently told me that one of the consistent characteristics of companies that have achieved greater than $1 billion in sales is that they had a board member who previously led a company at this level. For more information, the book is Blueprint to a Billion by David Thompson. Use this group as a source and to help close exceptional candidates for your team.

9. Be accepting of mentorship. People will want to help you and it’s a critical differentiator – people don’t want to help incumbent companies. Successful entrepreneurs will see you in themselves and will want to provide advice. Soak it up. Be proactive, follow-up and thank them. Make sure when you’re successful you do the same for another young entrepreneur.

10. As you hire your team, embed a culture of recruiting. Make it part of every employees target objectives. Plan and budget for the activity. Make it part of weekly company meetings. Celebrate successes.

And finally, enjoy being the leader of your newly created all-star team. You’ve earned it.

Craig Driscoll is recruiting partner at Highland Capital Partners, where he leads recruiting activity for the firm and advises Highland’s portfolio companies on executive recruiting issues. He previously was a client partner in the Boston office of executive search firm Korn/Ferry, focusing on venture capital and technology placements.

Follow Craig on Twitter @vcrecruiter.


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