How to interview and find A-players for start-ups

    Start-ups can't make bad hiring decisions. Your ability to hire A-players is almost as important as your product and your approach to market.

    This guide walks you through an interview approach that will increase the quality of your hires. It'll also share how to increase the chances of those A-players joining your organisation.

    Please note there is no such thing as a perfect candidate and a 100% 'score' isn't required to be considered an A-player


    The outcome of the interview

    Every good interview starts with outcomes. Every question should lead to an answer that helps you make a decision. We like to consider the following outcomes when hiring A-players for startups

    • Does the candidate's career make sense?
    • Has the candidate excelled in their past roles
    • Do they have an internal locus of control?
    • Are they humble?
    • Are they hungry? (v. important for start-ups)
    • Are they emotionally smart? (more important for larger orgs)

    Nb: You don’t always need to ask a specific question to answer one of the above 5 bullet points. If someone is clearly internally locussed in their answers to other questions, it’s a waste of time to ask further questions to determine locus of control.


    Introduction (5 minutes)

    Outcome: We want the interviewer to feel comfortable. We want to build a rapport and we want to ensure that the candidate is excited.

    INTRODUCE YOURSELF: Let them know that you will spend the first part asking a few questions and will provide some time at the end in case they have any questions.

    START HUMAN: Ask the candidate what they're totally passionate about outside work and engage in their answers

    • This question separates you from most other processes because most interviewers don't connect on a personal level.
    • It builds a degree of trust that will lead to an open and honest conversation.
    • You’ll get to see what their body language switches to when they talk about their passions.
    • Improving the candidate's experience makes them more likely to say yes if you offer the job.


    Resume walk-through (15-30 minutes)

    Outcome: We want to understand the last 5 years of the resume. What made them join each company, and what made them leave? What makes them look for a new role and what makes them interested in this role?

    We want to see:

    • Rationality/planning - Each move should make sense. Reasons for leaving should be internally locussed. Reasons for joining should be more than simply ‘getting a job’.
    • Sideways moves should be investigated thoroughly. Did this person get let go? Did this person leave? Are they honest about it 
    • Were they let go or not? - Be sceptical. People are allowed to be let go - it happens. However, our candidates should be honest.
    • Clear upwards trajectory

    For each of their roles in the last five years, go through the following list:


    What made you decide to join Company X?
      • Remember to interrogate the answer if it isn’t absolutely clear.
    What were you hired to do?
      • This helps us understand what they wanted out of that role.
      • What made them feel that this was the right step?
    What accomplishments are you most proud of? (Limit this to the two most recent companies if you need a shorter interview)
      • You will find out what really matters to them, and you can use that to assess CULTURAL FIT
      • HUMBLE candidates will answer this with more mentions of WE than I. nb dive into the accomplishments to understand if the candidate is just being modest.
      • Did the accomplishment link in any way to what they were hired to do? This would show HUNGER.
      • A-players talk about outcomes linked to expectations. B and C players talk generally about events, people, or aspects without getting into results.

    🚩What is your biggest professional failure/mistake and what did you learn about it?

    This is probably the most important question as it pertains to the candidate's locus of control

    You want to hear about a mistake that was solely due to the candidate. You have asked them what is THEIR biggest PROFESSIONAL MISTAKE.

      • Most candidates will provide an answer where some external forces are involved in some of the blame. That doesn’t immediately make them bad candidates because LOC is a spectrum.
      • In our experience 10-15% of candidates will be wholly internally locussed. This value is probably the MOST IMPORTANT ONE for a scale-up “I did this which screwed up that. This is what I do to avoid that recurring”.
      • Answering this question with a real mistake shows the candidate as HUMBLE.
      • f the professional failure hints at an external locus of control, ie “I wasn’t given enough budget’, “I couldn’t convince my manager to go for my pitch”, “I wasn’t given the right resources”, then reject


    Who were the people you worked with? (Limit this to the two most recent companies if you need a shorter interview)
      • This is the threat of a reference check! When you force a candidate to spell the name, it sends a powerful message you will be calling.
      • By framing the question through the boss's eyes, it will create honesty.
      • What was your boss’ name and how do you spell that? what was it like working with them, what would they tell me were your biggest strengths and weaknesses?
      • How would you rate the team you inherited on an A, B or C scale, what changes did you make? Did you hire anyone, or fire anyone? How would you rate the team when you left?
      • How would that boss rate you on a scale of 1-10 (Ask this only for the last one or two)
      • What is stopping you from getting a 10 (This draws out weaknesses quite easily)

    What made you decide to leave?


    Competency match (2 mins)

    Only ask this question if you have created a candidate profile with ideal competencies. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time. (Read more about creating the candidate profile here)

    Question: What are you really good at professionally?

    • 8-12 items are good here.
    • They should provide an example of when they have shown this PROFESSIONAL STRENGTH, in the last 3 years of working.
    • Compare against the job scorecard, and screen the candidate out if it’s a miss.


    Assessing their humility (5 minutes)

     Humility in a team member shows up as a lack of excessive ego, or concerns about status. They are quick to share credit, praise others freely, and sometimes even forego credit due to them in the interest of celebrating the team’s collective win. They demonstrate strong alignment towards the team’s goals, and prioritize collective wins over individual ones. Humble team players are self-confident, but not arrogant. Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.

    What’s the last thing you learned and applied professionally, what was the impact?

    • We want to see evidence of READING SOMETHING, WATCHING SOMETHING or WITNESSING SOMETHING, then trying this in their day-to-day
    • 🚩If the answer is wishy-washy or simply, I saw this in the news or something that clearly wasn’t implemented, they may not be humble.

    Tell me about the last time you apologized to a subordinate.

    • This should be an extremely clear story. If the candidate has to really press to think of an occasion they probably haven’t apologized to a subordinate recently. That doesn’t make them immediately not humble!
    • Humble people accept they will make mistakes.
    • This question also shows good EMOTIONAL SMARTS

    Can you tell me about someone at a similar level who is better than you in an area that really matters to you?

    • The question speaks for itself. You want a candidate to demonstrate a genuine appreciation for the people who are even more skilled. Humble people find this question easy while ego-driven people will struggle to answer this question.


    Assessing their hunger (5 minutes)

    Startups are hard work. They are harder than working in enterprise companies. You need people with the hunger to go above and beyond. Hungry people are always looking for more. They are intrinsically motivated, diligent, and have a strong desire to do more by going above and beyond. Hungry people do not have to be pushed by their managers to perform; they are constantly looking for more responsibility and thinking about the next step and the next opportunity (for the team). This is exceptionally important for start-ups where hunger is one of the key advantages that you have.

    This is a touchy subject. mental well-being is really important, especially in the high-pressure start-up environment. It is the company's responsibility to ensure their workers are cared for, especially during those harder periods.

    That being said, start-ups often have less of a work-life balance than scaled companies so those who repeatedly mention the need for work-life balance may not be the right fit for a rapid growth startup.


    Question: Tell me about the hardest you’ve ever worked.

    • Compare this to other candidates. You want to see well, and truly hard work and you want to see an element of understanding that these things happen.
    • There will be a degree of joyful sacrifice and the candidate will be grateful for the experience.


    Assessing their emotional intelligence (5 minutes)

    The capability to conduct oneself in a group situation and deal with others in the most effective way. Emotionally intelligent people ask good questions, listen to what others are saying, and stay engaged in conversations intently. Smart people exercise great judgment and intuition around the subtleties of group dynamics and are fully aware of the effect their words will have on the team.

    This is much more important for larger orgs, particularly where more people are involved in decision processes, the ability to politic to get the right outcome is sometimes as important as the idea itself.

    Question: Tell me about a difficult colleague you worked with and how you improved the working relationship.

    Question: What would your friends say is your most annoying habit?

    Question: What kinds of people annoy you the most and how do you deal with them?



    Open up to questions about the role (5 minutes)

    Always finish with questions from the candidates

      • It will help you discover how much work the candidate has put into researching your company.
      • It will uncover some of their values (what question do they ask first)
      • It is a great sales point because candidates must be at the centre of any process