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Techstars’ VP of People, Sabrina McGrail, is responsible for all things talent, culture and human resources across the organization. Her focus is mainly on internal talent acquisition, retention and organizational development within Techstars. Below is a Q&A with Leanplum CEO and Co-Founder, Momchil Kyurkchiev (MK), and Dinna Davis (DD), Head of Global Talent. They discussed hiring for culture fit, how to recruit A-players and how that criteria has evolved from early startup days to the present.

Hiring for culture fit is invaluable at a young startup. Creating an inspired startup culture that is alive with authenticity and hard work begins with hiring people who share the same values and vision. Creating an engaged culture is all about recruiting engaged people, and potential employees should align with your culture’s priorities and values.

Leanplum (Seattle ’12) had 3x employee growth for three years in a row, but has maintained its commitment to culture even as they continue to scale.

When you first started out hiring people at Leanplum, what did you look for in a potential employee?

MK: When we founded Leanplum in 2012, we had a high bar for hiring smart engineers, but we were also looking for people who could get things done and who had a go-getter mentality. Being able to move fast with limited resources is even more important than strong technical skills for an early startup.

DD: We have a lot of incredibly smart people at Leanplum. Everyone is very open to sharing their experience and knowledge. It was important for candidates to have a strong technical foundation and to think outside the box to continue to contribute to that culture.

How did you identify A-players?

DD: We look for three things. The first is attitude. Employees should check their ego at the door and have a collaborative mentality. Second, they should be great communicators. They have to work in a team environment and must be able to articulate their decision process. The third thing we look for is a genuine interest in learning; do they actively research developing technology, are they interested in applying different perspectives, etc.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of an individual owning what they are really great at and contributing toward the growth of the company. But they should also be aware of what they don’t know and have the initiative to learn or seek out the answer.

What were you looking for as far as culture fit?

MK: We were (and still are) looking for people who are collaborative; who want to work on a team and work together with other people. We follow the “No Asshole Rule.” We look for people who are great to get along with and nice people to work with because we spend a lot of time together. We’ve always valued transparency, integrity and the ability to both work hard and play hard.

How has that criteria evolved to what you look for now?

MK: Culture is set in the beginning by founders and early employees, and I think you maintain the culture of the early days as you grow. The guidelines we set for culture haven’t changed since day one. You continue to find like-minded people as the company gets bigger.

DD: With all the growth that Leanplum has experienced in the last year, we have consistently maintained our amazing culture. It’s not so much changing our criteria, but being more mindful and continuing to focus on how our culture is aligned with an individual’s practice and perspective on teamwork, learning, communication and feedback.

Do you look for different things in potential employees? Ask different questions?

MK: The go-getter mentality and looking for people who can get things done has stayed the same, but I think we’ve gotten a lot better at finding the right people faster, and at recruiting for culture fit more effectively.

DD: We’ve learned to look at what resonates for each candidate — what’s important for them in their next role that they may not be receiving at their present company, as well as their current working relationships. We want to know about the type of company culture that they would thrive in.

How has this affected what you look for in more specialized roles as the company grows?

MK: In the beginning, we looked for generalists who could handle any kind of challenge that we threw at them. As we’ve grown, we have begun to look for more specialized roles, like growth marketing, B2B sales development, business development, etc., but the attitude of being up to the task and ready for anything has remained the same.

DD: I have always taken the humanistic approach and looking at the opportunity in a whole way. With any growing company, it’s important to learn what is important for the Co-Founders and Hiring Managers. But at the end of the day, my role is to connect with the individual and go deeper than the job description. If you take the time to learn and understand each individual candidate, interviewer and hiring manager, you are better able to determine if a candidate would be an amazing addition to the team.

How do you hire for culture fit?

MK: It’s tough to interview for a good culture fit. It’s easy for candidates to answer questions the right way or to create a great story about themselves. We’ve found that a great way to hire for culture is to experience it together through a trial period or by doing contract work initially. We also assess by strong references and try to leverage our network and rely on backchannel references whenever possible. It also helps if a person has previous startup experience.

DD: I look for personality and demeanor. This could be demonstrated by confidence, ease and professionalism in their communication, if they are thoughtful and mindful in their interaction and if they understand their audience. I gauge their level of passion about the role and if they are excited about what our company is building. If they have an inquisitive nature (i.e. are open to learning) and if they care about their coworkers, that’s a plus. I also see if they are proactive with feedback to see how they would be a team member.

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Sabrina McGrail Sabrina McGrail
As Vice President of People Ops at Techstars, Sabrina is responsible for all things talent, culture and human resources across the organization. Her focus is mainly on internal talent acquisition, retention and organizational development within Techstars. Sabrina received a BA in Communications and Information Technology from UMass Amherst and is now enjoying her time living in sunny Boulder, Colorado. @sabrinamcgrail

  • wilsenx

    Great insight. Hiring for culture fit!

  • sue funkhouser

    I agree about assessing for culture fit…and it can be a screen for bias if an interviewer is not skilled. Hiring is critical for a growing startup. So is letting go. Founders have shared with me that one of the hardest things they had to do is to fire a loyal early team member.

    Often it is because team member is not able to scale their capabilities or as the company starts professionalizing, they are no longer a culture fit. The CEO of Edmunds.com, Avi Steinlauf told me, “You need to have the difficult conversations. As a leader, you have to make the decisions that are right for the company. 99 times out of a 100, you know in your gut—so make the decision early. This requires intestinal fortitude.”

    Thanks for your post.