How to Recruit for Scale-ups (and Avoid Fatal Mistakes)

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Introduction: Hiring for Scale-ups

Scale-ups are a unique work environment unlike any other, business changes and evolutions are the order of the day, but the company has reached a size where it can no longer behave like a startup. Processes and organization are needed to govern growth. 


One of the most delicate processes for scale-ups is recruitment. 


I have worked for several scale-ups in my career, and I can say that the ability to identify in the recruitment processes the most suitable resources for this type of context is crucial for business success and growth. 


There are many mistakes and pitfalls hidden in this process, and in this chapter I will guide you in structuring a scale-up recruiting process that leads you to save time and money and make better and more effective recruitment choices. This chapter is especially aimed at internal recruiters and hiring managers of scale-ups.


Common Mistakes

Scale-ups are special work contexts; they are no longer startups and are not yet large companies with an established and predictable business. People employed in scale-ups must have special characteristics that combine elements typical of the mindset adopted in startups such as speed, adaptability, and creativity with characteristics typical of people employed in large organizations such as vertical specialization of skills, structuring of repeatable processes, and complex communication between different business units. This mix of characteristics is not easy to identify during the recruitment processes of scale-ups. 


There are some common mistakes that are made by scale-ups when recruiting new resources:


  • expecting too much from internal recruiters
  • overloading hiring managers with too much ‘recruitment work’
  • relying blindly on the work of headhunters
  • hiring staff without coordination across departments
  • identifying figures who are suited to the context of a scale-up and who can stay for a few years

Let’s address each of these issues comprehensively.



Internal Recruiters can’t Be Superman/Wonder Woman

A scale-up normally has between 50 and 500 employees. Beyond this size I think we should refer to a large company that has exited the scale-up phase. Among the first departments that are created in the transition from startup to scale-up usually is the HR function, which is critical to governing the company’s growth and managing it over time. HR usually in this context is a small team composed of a few people, with some taking care of existing employees and others dedicated to operations to support the recruiting of new resources. A scale-up usually cannot afford to have internal recruiters dedicated to every company division, team and business area. 

My personal experience leads me to say that normally in a scale-up there are 2-4 internal recruiters who work “cross-purposes,” that is, they support hiring managers of different teams in the recruitment processes. It is not uncommon to find internal recruiters who at the same time are selecting engineers, designers, content managers, and sales directors. These internal recruiters are expected to be all-rounders who can read CVs and candidates underlying career paths and thus identify talent in a wide variety of areas, but no one is Superman or Wonder Woman. Even internal recruiters have limitations.

Very often internal recruiters are really embarrassed when they have to do the initial screening of candidates for whose job duties they have limited expertise, understanding and knowledge, especially when it comes to highly specialized roles. They very simply do not have the technical knowledge to understand whether candidates are good or not. They simply use automated CV parsing (keyword matching) systems to figure out whether candidates have the necessary qualifications to proceed to the next step of selection and/or they limit themselves to generic candidate screening calls that do not go into the specifics of the position, but focus on general candidate characteristics and other standard parameters (salary demands, notice period, and the like). Verification of technical skills is demanded to the hiring manager’s interview, but this often causes friction between internal recruiters and hiring managers as the latter are often dissatisfied with the quality of the profiles they have interviewed and accuse the former of wasting their time with candidates who are not actually suited to the specifics of the role.


Hiring Managers Have a Job, Let’s Not Forget It

In a scale-up very often the different departments begin to be delineated after the somewhat disjointed and confusing startup phase. Leading the different business areas are senior managers whose job is to manage the existing team and grow it, when necessary, with new members through hiring and taking on the role of hiring managers. In a scale-up there are often many positions open at the same time for a single hiring manager, this is due to the growth of the company in general, the possible opening of new markets and also the high turnover of internal resources (who are sometimes promoted to new roles or who decide to leave the company). 


It should never be forgotten that selecting human resources is a job; it requires dedication, time, focus and attention. Hiring managers already have a job for which they were chosen and many responsibilities attached to it, and when they are called upon to wear the hat of hiring manager, they must divert their attention from their main job. 


Many hiring managers are frustrated because of this, they have a passion in a specific area, they have finally managed to become responsible for a function that deals with that very area after years of hard work, but they find themselves spending a large part of their time reading CVs, writing reviews of unsuitable candidates after conducting dozens of interviews.


I have been a hiring manager and have had periods when up to 40 percent of my time was spent on recruitment activities, and although this area interests me personally, I had been originally tasked to lead the marketing department and felt guilty at the end of the day for not being able to spend enough time on my core activity because I was too busy recruiting people to add to my team. 


The only solution to this problem is to find a way for hiring managers to get only highly qualified candidates who do not “waste their time.” 


ExpHire was created for this very reason: to relieve internal recruiters and hiring managers of much of the selection work by leveraging the use of Experts, managers who are qualified in the same job as the role being sought, but with greater seniority and who are able to really assess the skills of candidates to select only the best.


Remember also that even hiring managers are not living encyclopedias, the fact that, for example, a Marketing director is in charge of the marketing area does not mean that he/she knows every single aspect of marketing. In my personal experience, I was once a hiring manager for a Technical SEO Expert position, a role for which I did not feel qualified enough technically to judge candidates, as my skills in such a specific subject are limited and would have required the support of someone who could objectively judge the various candidates. I was lucky and hired a candidate who performed very well in the job, but in business you should never rely on luck. 


Headhunters Are Not the Solution 

When the tension between hiring managers and internal recruiters grows because of frustration at not being able to hire someone for a specific role, the solution usually put forward is to declare the position too difficult or specific to be filled by making use of internal resources, and the subsequent decision to use the services of an external headhunter/recruitment agency is made. 

My personal experience leads me to say that very often the decision to outsource the search does not lead to great results, except for the increase of tension between the different actors involved in the selection process, to which in this case is also added the headhunter, and the related costs.

Very often external recruiters are part of large agencies that, in order to keep their fixed costs low, hire recent graduates or otherwise junior people to support clients in their recruitment processes; even these people cannot be all-rounders, and no matter how much a headhunting agency may claim to specialize in a specific field, it will very rarely employ among its recruiters people who have real work experience in the field being sought. Have you ever seen a back-end developer or  a sales director be a full-time headhunter?

There are, of course, the exceptions, boutique headhunting agencies where those working as headhunters are people with 20 to 30 years of career history in a specific field, but also these solutions have two problems:

  • they are usually very expensive and only deal with the placement of very senior positions,
  • and the headhunters working there are people at the end of their careers, who after many years in the business world decide to devote themselves to headhunting.  This means that they are no longer doing their job and that their expertise is not continuously updated (which is relevant in very dynamic fields and roles).

Let me explain: a technical headhunter who was a partnership vice president in a large company in the 90s, or a former CTO who worked for an international company until 2009 no longer possess the skills to judge roles in these areas today, as the technologies, tools, and ways of working have completely changed from when they built their experience in the field.


It must be acknowledged that headhunters partially relieve internal recruiters and hiring managers of some of the work (by taking care of candidate sourcing and first screening), but they are not the solution to their problems. Blindly trusting them can become a problem; their goal is to collect their success fee and move on to the next project and client. I am generalizing, but in many cases their approach is aimed at quantity and not quality.


Hiring for Scale-ups is Like Playing a Symphony

Sometimes it happens that in a scale-up context people are hired in a disorganized way, this is due mainly to the strong growth of staff that happens in a tight timeframe and very often in a parallel way. There are adjacent areas of business that have different managers and hiring managers and that do not necessarily communicate properly with each other and so very similar functions and tasks can be duplicated. 

I have worked in scale-ups where, for example, the scope of work for the marketing team, the sales team and the business development team overlapped and were not well defined and therefore there were people with very similar titles, roles and tasks who find themselves working within different teams. It also happened to me that some central headquarter functions were replicated at the local team level and vice versa without proper separation of roles and scopes of the local and central roles. In a scale-up this can cause serious problems, even to the point of undermining the growth and very existence of the company. 

People want clarity and are uncomfortable with the internal competition that duplicated roles foster. 

Before starting a new selection process, the hiring manager and the human resources department need to understand whether the position is needed, what tasks it will actually perform in day-to-day practice, and whether those tasks (or parts of them) are already covered by another person in another department/team. 

Here’s a true story. I used to work for a scale-up and from time to time I would go to the job portal with the list of open positions, one day I see an opening that from the title (business development manager) looked like it should be a person part of my business development team, I read the job description and understand that there are commonalities with what my team deals with, but also other parts that are more in line with the activities of the sales department. I contact HR and the sales director to communicate that it would be best to change the position title and avoid overlapping activities with what someone on my team is already doing with excellent results, I get no response.

The following week the business developer manager working in my team asks to meet with me and resigns, in asking the reasons for her decision the answer I get is ‘you are looking for a replacement and so I have found another job’. This is what can happen when there is a lack of communication between departments and an incorrect identification of duties for the roles you are looking for can easily become a big problem in scale-ups that causes tension and corporate waste. We have created the ExpHire Recruitment Canvas, a one-page document that analyzes and summarizes the motivations and job duties and characteristics of a role and that can be easily shared internally before proceeding with opening a search.

The recruitment process should be like a symphony, in which all the instruments play in concert and no one screeches or goes off on their own.

Hiring and Retaining Talent in Scale-ups 

How to identify the right talent for scale-ups is the subject of the next section of the chapter, but in this paragraph I want to focus on the importance of retaining identified talent over time. My personal experience is that scale-ups tend to be the work environment with the largest churn rate of human resources. 


Startups are more static than scale-ups, they have lower personnel churn because the initial core team tends to stay with the company, partly for reasons of personal attachment to the product (which they helped establish), and partly because they are often incentivized to stay by significant stock option plans. Large companies also tend to have good staff stability over time as they tend to attract people who see the security of the big brand as a motivation to be part of the team (in short, people who place a high value on the security of a permanent position). 


For scale-ups it’s all more difficult. By nature these are companies that need to attract talent that can express the proactivity, energy, and creativity typical of a startup, but at the same time people who show the ability to work with outlined processes and structure. In addition, scale-ups are constantly evolving and changing contexts, which causes possible related stress and requires quick adaptability attributes. 


In such a context retaining talent over time is paramount for scale-ups. The company cannot and should not be in a perpetual state of massive recruitment; as we have said, this makes hiring managers and teams unhappy and de-focuses from the company’s core business activities. Identifying from the recruiting processes the right people able to have long careers in a scale-up is key to reducing the recruitment effort over time while increasing the average longevity/tenure of workers. Let’s address in detail the characteristics to look for in the right candidates for scale-ups.

2 women discussing a candidate profile

Criteria to Evaluate Candidates for Scale-ups

Scale-ups are not for everyone, and it would be good to know this before becoming an employee of one. The problem is that very often candidates are hired without fully considering the contextual characteristics of scale-ups and the qualities you should look for in candidates to make sure that the hired person firstly passes the probationary period and then engages in a long and lasting career path within the company.


There are certain characteristics that I have identified over the years as hallmarks of candidates who perform well and over time in a scale-up:

  • they are perfectly balanced between flair and structure are competent
  • love what they do and are willing to share it
  • communicate and collaborate successfully with other teams
  • they adapt to change without suffering it


Let’s take a detailed look at the different characteristics of ideal scale-up candidates


The Perfect Mix Between Startup and Scale-up

Scale-ups need people who exhibit traits and characteristics typical of both startups’ and large companies’ approach to work. The best candidates for scale-ups exhibit qualities such as creativity, adaptability, proactivity, and team building typical of a startup environment, but they also need the self-sacrifice to work, process organization, and timely communication typical of large companies. 


Those who work in a scale-up cannot expect work to be assigned to them or for their tasks to be regular and the same every day, but at the same time they must realize that they are working in a fast-growing context where rules, processes, and structures are necessary to avoid chaos. The ability of balancing these two extremes is critical and needs to be identified for selecting successful workers over time in a scale-up. Easy to say, less so to do. 


I have hired several people for different scale-ups over the years and have come to the conclusion that the way to test whether a candidate possesses these qualities is through an assessment of potential.


Interview questions about a candidate’s work history inform us in a relative and limited way about expected future performance in a scale-up (unless the candidate in question has had previous experience in other scale-ups), we need to focus our attention on other elements. Potential assessment questions are used to understand how a candidate will react and deal with real situations and problems typical of the role he or she will eventually fill in a scale-up. 


You have to submit real cases to candidates and understand how they deal with a given problem. There are no right or wrong answers, only elements that allow you to understand whether the candidate has those essential traits to be successful in a scale-up. 


I give an example by going fishing from my own experience: I was hiring a CRM manager for a scale-up, in addition to the typical questions about past experience I submitted some cases to the candidates. One I recall was about asking the candidate to find ways to increase user return rate and session duration on our company’s app through three main actions. This question would bring out the salient characteristics of the candidate and answer a series of implicit questions such as: Is this person creative? Is this person proactive? Does this person follow logic? Is this person collaborative? Does this person base his/her choices on data? Does this person respect processes? 


If, for example, you ask the direct question, “Do you respect business processes?” Every candidate will answer that they certainly do respect company practices and processes with thoroughness and diligence (empty answer to an empty question…). Otherwise in answering the above question/case aimed at assessing potential it will be you as a recruiter who will have to interpret and extrapolate useful information from the content of the answer. 


In the example case a candidate answered that one of the ways to keep users coming back to the app is to create a “wheel of fortune” that rewards with discounts those who open the app every day. I discarded this candidate. Another gave the same answer, but added that before doing so she consults with the sales and business intelligence teams to see if these discounts are consistent with business policies and if they are financially sustainable. I decided to hire this person (not solely for the answer to this question) because she demonstrated not only creativity and proactivity, but also consideration of internal processes and transparent internal communication skills, all of which are valuable in a scale-up context.


Potential-focused questions are an integral part of the selection process with ExpHire; our Experts ask at least three such questions and thus help our scale-up clients identify top talent.



Focus on Competent and Collaborative Candidates

Scale-ups do not need egocentric superstars, let me explain: The specific context requires people with some acquired skills, but also with a real desire to learn other ones and a willingness to share their knowledge with other team members. Superstars, “self-proclaimed” geniuses and non-collaborative people are not suitable for a scale-up context (they may be better suited in startups or in individual contributor roles in large companies), the rationale is simple: a scale-up is a company that is learning how to run, is oiling the systems to turn an initial business idea into something that can be replicated effectively and efficiently on a large scale; in this scenario collaboration and sharing of skills and information are key. 


Identifying collaborative resources is therefore very important, but in order to be able to share expertise, one must first possess it. For this reason, ideal scale-up candidates have a good vertical competency, i.e., at least 2-3 years of experience in a given field of work. They have this foundation of expertise and experience that allows them to start work in your scale-up with sufficient, but not exhaustive, background and they will be able to use it as a “bargaining chip” with other colleagues, to learn new skills from them while sharing their own. 


This is a very important concept to support the longevity/tenure of chosen resources; those who have opportunities to learn new skills from others and transfer their own tend to stay longer in a role than those who already have many years of experience and (believe) that they already know everything and have a defensive attitude toward their scope of work and skills. 


In my personal experience in a scale-up you need to have directors/VPs (who are also the hiring managers) with established expertise who are primarily responsible for coordinating and facilitating the work of the team, which is composed of collaborative specialist figures who possess acquired skills but are constantly looking for new ones and are willing to share their own. Having too many senior figures in a scale-up risks creating barriers between different business areas and within the teams themselves, because it introduces practices of territoriality and over-politicization (typical of large companies) too early into the company life. 


How do you identify competent and collaborative candidates who have a desire to constantly grow and learn? 


You must objectively assess hard and soft skills early on and avoid value-free questions such as “Are you a team player?” that generate obvious and useless answers. 


At ExpHire we have found the solution to assess these types of skills: our network of Technical Experts test hard skills by having more experience and seniority than the role sought, while in our Behavioral Experts are psychologists who are able to assess and understand the real attitudes and personality traits of candidates.


Once again coming to the aid of understanding, these traits are situational questions, possibly related to the position the candidate will actually be filling instead of just examples from the past. Personality tests can also help here, which should be considered as a support in understanding the candidate’s real aptitudes. The results of the test should be compared with the needs/requirements of the role and the existing personalities in the team to balance them out. Having people with the exact same personality in a team is counterproductive and could make the work environment un-challenging and disincentivize the exchange of skills and information; you must have the right mix within the team of different but compatible personalities.


An Aptitude for Change

Scale-ups are companies that are trying to go big and encounter a thousand difficulties and setbacks on this journey; they remind me in some ways of teenagers, who try different paths before defining their style and personality more stably.

All this involves change, sometimes continuous and at various levels: organizational, business, priorities, processes, strategy. 

I remember working in a scale-up whose budget for the year was varied 3 times with repercussions on products and priorities and team organization. 

Many people suffer from change, simply their mindset and cultural heritage makes them unhappy in unstable situations, on the contrary there are people who see in change new opportunities and challenges, a way to never get bored. 

Scale-ups need people with a good attitude to change, but who at the same time are not chaotic and confusing in their approach to work. Once again we highlight this trade-off between two opposite poles: startup workers need to be well predisposed to change, but they do not need to instigate it or pursue it as a pattern of daily practice, very simply when change happens they need to take note of it and enthusiastically begin working in the new context.

People who don’t live well with change can suffer a lot emotionally and get stressed and therefore are not suited to work in a scale-up for a long time, for your sake and theirs. 

There are ways to recognize these people right from the selection process, for example I always ask about something that is outside the candidate’s area of expertise but in an adjacent area, for example I ask a content manager about something related to retention, if the candidate responds annoyed it is an indication that that person will have trouble adjusting to a change in structure that for example may include a merging of the content team to the CRM team in the coming months.



Hiring for Scale-ups: Conclusions

We have reviewed a number of issues that involve scale-ups in their growth processes and that include recruiting new staff in a short period of time. We have seen how hiring the right candidates early on helps scale-ups find stability in their staff over time that allows them to focus on business and growth. 


We reviewed some of the key characteristics that candidates must possess in order to be a potentially good fit for scale-ups. There are many other elements that make the recruitment process for a scale-up effective, such as cultural fit and in-depth analysis of skills using tests and evaluation by ‘peers,’ which I have covered elsewhere in this book and decided to not repeat here, anyway remember always that there is the right candidate for the right context, including the ones for your Scale-up. 

ExpHire: We are Here to Help Scale-ups

At ExpHire we have thought deeply about the recruiting problems of scale-ups and how to solve them, our direct experience in this type of company leads us to think that we have found a solution that is particularly suitable and meets the needs of scale-ups, we have called it SELECT and we invite you to better understand what it is by visiting this web page. Our Technical and Behavioral Experts are an excellent opportunity to support you in your selection processes and to identify perfect candidates for scale-ups.

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