When and how should an entrepreneur hire students and recent graduates into an early start up?
This question was raised in a lecture theatre filled with some 300 students from the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida.
I was representing the venVelo venture fund on a panel with several entrepreneurs. We were hosted by Lonny Butcher, the Director of Professional Development and Placement.
Many students had strong interests in either working for a start up or starting one of their own. Some had already done both! The discussion went quickly to the pros and cons of entrepreneurs and students working together. Here is a quick summary.
For the entrepreneur the benefit of employing students and recent graduates is being able to add affordable talent, armed with the latest professional training, with high energy and attitudes that can still be molded into a dream team.
The benefit to a student is exposure to many aspects of business and a chance to become an early leader and earn a stake in a company that could grow and become very valuable
The risk for the entrepreneur is that the impact of an immature, poor performer can be very significant on a small team. Desperately limited funds and management bandwidth can be wasted. The entire team can be disrupted.
The risk for the student or recent graduate is that the duration of the job could be cut short by a lack of funds and that the experience turns out to be little more than cheap, unskilled labor.
So what is the best way to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks?
Take a look at the above diagram. Along the vertical axis are the four levels of an employers “desire to hire” a candidate. Along the horizontal axis are the four steps that help a candidate cross each of these thresholds to reach a job offer.
This is a simple diagram to help people understand the mindset of a potential employer. I normally use it to help people land a job. However it should also be looked at from the employer side to help them make better selection decisions.
Lets go through the steps from the viewpoint of both the applicant and the entrepreneur.
Objective – Cross the like and trust threshold
Before an employer will believe anything an applicant says, the employer needs to feel an initial level of like and trust toward the applicant.
On the above diagram I advise applicants to work their way up the diagonal line using their I.P. (inter-personal) skills to cross over the like and trust threshold to earn the interviewer’s desire to move on to the next step.
Studies have shown that under the time pressure of a formal job interview, up to 40% of employers will eliminate candidates who fail to cross this threshold within the first ten minutes.
Good to know!
However, my advice to entrepreneurs (in fact any employer) is to try to avoid a pressured initial decision in this manner.
First of all this is a two way street. The best way for both sides to like and trust each other is to develop longer-term relationships through multiple networking meetings and short-term engagements such as internships before any formal interview takes place. This is not always possible, especially at more senior levels, but it’s ideal for entrepreneurs looking to employ students and recent graduates.
Objective – Cross the credibility threshold
Interviewers need to know that a candidate actually understands the requirements of the job.
Candidates often lose credibility by overlooking this step because they are too eager or feel pressured to impress the interviewer as fast as possible. They start making one random strength claim after another.
It only takes two irrelevant strength statements for candidates to position themselves as the wrong fit or give the impression they do not understand the job requirements.
However employers often overlook this step too.
This is especially true for entrepreneurs in early startups who do not have all the strategic business, financial and H.R planning disciplines and skills in place.
I therefor advise applicants to ask questions about the team, culture, values and expected behaviors. They need to ask about the business case for the job. Why is it needed? What are the objectives? How are the results measured and what are the specific skills needed? They should ask about the mission and their immediate and longer-term potential impact within the organization. Applicants need this information to position their strengths accurately – and to make sure they really want the job.
For this to work entrepreneurs need to have thought this through and be very clear about this themselves.
I sometimes see entrepreneurs who feel overwhelmed and know help is needed but are unclear as to the above specifics. They often want people who will just roll up their sleeves and be prepared to do anything – in which case that needs to be communicated.
Startups in particular require extremely hard work from everyone on the team. I therefore advise candidates to understand and be sure that they relate to the purpose and passion of the enterprise.
If they do not share the passion, working for a highly passionate and driven entrepreneur WILL feel like hell – for both sides!
This is one of the most vital parts of the selection decision for an entrepreneur.
Skills can be taught, attitudes can be adjusted, incentives can be put in place, but the will to step up to the often unglamorous sheer grind requires a total buy in to the mission. The entrepreneur therefor needs to become skilled at:
Objective – Cross the Suitable for hire threshold
Employers do not want to waste time listening to unsupported strength claims. They need relevant examples of a candidate’s previous achievements.
I advise candidates to use S.O.A.R. to document any Situation, Objective, Actions they took and the Results they achieved that were very similar to each of the desired results that were uncovered in the previous step. I also advise them to have credible references to verify their achievements.
The flip side of this is that the entrepreneur must only accept verifiable S.O.A.R examples as proof and not be swayed by any unsupported claims.
Here is the challenge. The chances of a candidate who has had no previous contact with the organization being able to demonstrate enough relevant and compelling S.O.A.R.s are not high. This is especially true for students and recent graduates who typically have limited experience. As entrepreneurs feel the pressure of their workload mount up, they let themselves be swayed by unsupported claims that turn out to be overstated at best.
So I advise entrepreneurs to network extensively with potential candidates and really help them develop relevant S.O.A.R.s through internships within their organizations. Their mentorship can extend into advice on further studies, additional skills development and what clubs and associations they should join. The degree to which a student is coachable and takes action to align to an entrepreneur’s needs is also a good indication as to how far they have bought into their vision and their likelihood of fitting well into their team.
This is how an entrepreneur and a student can collaborate for several years to ensure the candidate reaches the entrepreneur’s suitable for hire threshold by the time they graduate.
Objective – Cross the “This Is Who We Want!” threshold
Proactive entrepreneurs will ensure they constantly have a number of candidates crossing the suitable for hire threshold. Then it comes down to selecting the best.
I tell candidates to ask what the employer worries about most in terms of their toughest challenges and their worst consequences of failure. Managers think about these all the time.
Using S.O.A.R. to demonstrate how a candidate has experienced and handled the same situation can have a powerful connecting effect that has a high chance of triggering a “This is who I want!” emotion.
Of course the ultimate trigger for that emotion is for the entrepreneur to have witnessed the candidate handle such situations within their own business during an internship.
Successful entrepreneurs tend to be less reliant on the interview process. They proactively coach a number of students across the four thresholds long before the workload becomes too great. It soon becomes clear who will best fit into the team, who has genuinely developed the most relevant abilities and who has really bought into the mission with a “what ever it takes!” attitude.
Many entrepreneurs do this by working closely with the faculties of their local Universities, including their Entrepreneur Centers and Startup Incubators. It’s win, win for both the entrepreneurs and the students. Good luck to both of you!View More Blogs