The 5 things to look for in your first Head of Talent

Let’s start with the bleeding obvious… if you’re an ambitious start-up then getting recruitment right is going to be absolutely critical to your success.
If you hire the wrong people, or if you hire them too slowly, or if you burn through your cash by wasting it on recruitment agencies and high turnover… you’re going to undershoot your growth potential.
Bad recruitment can be the death knell of a great start-up. One minute you have an awesome team that wins you a big investment round. Next minute you’ve doubled your headcount and everything’s falling apart.
I consider the most important job of someone like myself as recruiting. – Steve Jobs, The Man in the Machine
And if there’s one role that’s the key to overcoming this challenge, it’s hiring the right person as your first Head of Talent Acquisition. This is the person that's going to have the most impact on whether you get the people that will take your company to the next level.
And there’s never been a harder time to find the right Head of Talent. In the UK, there are simply too few candidates with the experience of building out recruitment in Seed and Series A companies to meet the demand. That’s why the best candidates command a big premium. You can now expect to pay £120k+ for a top performer with a good track record in tech scale-ups… but it’s such a critical role that it’s worth it.
What you don’t want to do is pay that much for someone who can’t deliver. So here’s our advice on the five things you need to look for in your first Head of Talent…
  1. A product and process mindset
  2. A great storyteller
  3. Someone who inspires you and who you’d be proud to have representing your company
  4. The ability to build quality relationships with colleagues
  5. Someone who takes DE&I seriously

1. Find someone with a product and process mindset

Often the biggest surprise for first time founders is how long it takes to create an effective recruitment pipeline. When you’re going through VC backed rapid growth for the first time, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you can throw money at it and get quick results.

But a pipeline will take at least three months to build from scratch and if you start to fall behind your targets, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of compromising on the quality of hires because “we just need someone who can start now…!”.

Getting the wrong people quickly, just accelerates your demise.

So you need to find a way to get the right people quickly, and to do it time and time again. And to do that you need to build a recruitment machine that looks like your marketing pipeline:

  • You need to be clear on your ideal targets, what they want and where to find them.
  • Your targets are likely to be high performers who are happy/busy in another role and who aren’t actively looking for a job. If they’re looking, they won’t be short of options, so you need a proposition that cuts through the noise to grab their attention.
  • The best way to do this is to experiment across different channels and A/B test tactics so you can generate the data and insight that allows you to improve over time.
  • Once you hook a great candidate you need to move at light speed. You’d be amazed at how many candidates are lost as a result of poorly designed candidate journeys and the unnecessary delays. Instead you want to give candidates an experience that reflects your brand so they’re inspired and know what they’re signing up to.
  • And at the same time you also need a process for filtering and selecting candidates that’s grounded in science, so you can be confident you’re hiring fairly and giving yourself the best chance of identifying the top candidate.

To do all of this well, you need a Head of Talent who’s an architect and a builder, not someone who’s used to maintaining and optimising existing systems or who’s just done a lot of hiring.

You need someone who’s got enough tech savvy to hack together solutions while at the same time creating the structure that can become the foundations for future improvement; which means they need that early stage start-up mentality that combines creativity and hustle, with an ability to take a long term, objective perspective.

Above all, they have to be data orientated. You need someone who can give you an accurate overview of your pipeline so you can identify bottlenecks and then initiate experiments so you can improve your speed and cost of hire.

What to ask a prospective Head of Talent to test their product mindset:

  • Ask about past experiences: have they actually built a recruitment machine or done something analogous (e.g. in a marketing context)? Watch out for people who’ve just done a lot of hiring, but not created systems and structure, or for people from larger organisations where the foundations were already in place.
  • Talk about your pipeline requirements and give them some hypothetical scenarios to see if they’re able to adjust their strategies accordingly. You want to see whether they’re able to build a strategy from the ground up: do they start with a clear problem statement or diagnosis of the challenge? Do they have a clear set of first principles they use to inform their approach to recruitment? And are they able to translate these into a coherent set of actions?
  • Ask for an example of when they’ve used a data-driven approach to hiring. Do they know how to construct an A/B test and have they got a basic appreciation of statistical significance? Ask about the KPIs they used in a previous role and why they picked these metrics.

2. Find a great storyteller

Building a data led pipeline is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. The engine will only come to life if your new Head of Talent can sprinkle on some magic, by telling a story about your company that differentiates you in the market and gets the attention of the best candidates.

There’s a temptation to see your Head of Talent as a sales person… and there are definitely shared skills, but the important difference is that a Talent person isn’t selling a product or service, they’re selling something bigger and more ambiguous: they’re selling a journey.

And to sell a journey you have to be a master storyteller.

So you want to find a Head of Talent who can articulate the journey you’re on as a company: where you’ve come from, where you’re going and why it matters.

They need to be able to tell stories that reveal the character and culture of your organisation. And they need to be able to sell the problems you’re trying to fix in a way that hits the Goldilocks’ mark: challenging enough to make them sound exciting, stretching and worthwhile, but not so difficult that a candidate might worry they can’t be overcome.

Finally, and most importantly, your Head of Talent needs be able to empathise with different candidates and to ask questions that encourage them to share their personal narrative, their values and ambitions. Because it’s this insight that allows you to tell your company story in a way that resonates with what’s important to the candidate so they can start to envision themselves as a protagonist in your story.

What to ask a prospective Head of Talent candidate to discover if they’re a great storyteller:

  • Ask them how they identify what’s important to a candidate. What are the questions they ask people to identify their personal history, values, motivations, fears and ambitions for the future?
  • Can they tell a simple, but emotionally compelling version of your company story? What is it about the journey you’re on as a company that attracted them to apply?
  • Do they have an active professional social media profile? What’s your impression of the employer brand of their last company? Remember most of your prospective candidates will go to social media to get a credible insight into your company culture.

3. Find someone who inspires you and who you’d be proud to have representing your company

Your new Head of Talent is going to be a face of your company. They’re going to be the one who creates the first impression with candidates and their personality, attitude and behaviours are going to be taken as a proxy for your company culture and values.

Unfortunately recruiters are too often the estate agents of the business world… there’s a reason the industry has a bad reputation! There are lots of recruiters who have a strong track record but who, to put it frankly, just aren’t likeable people. Recruiters who are only interested in closing the deal so they can hit their targets.

Avoid these people like the plague. They’ll kill your company culture and you won’t realise until it’s too late.

Great recruiters are like matchmakers… they’re motivated by the idea of being the catalyst for a beautiful new relationship. They care about every candidate and they care about the company they represent and this is what drives them to go the extra mile for the right hire.

When recruiting a new Head of Talent, your number one watch-out should be for someone who’s great at ‘managing-up’ but who doesn’t treat candidates or colleagues with respect. You need to avoid the person who will say what you want to hear to your face, but then behave completely differently behind your back.

I always tell people that you should only hire people to be on your team if you would work for them. – Mark Zuckerberg

To do this it’s worth spending the time to get to know the real person. You need to find someone you like. Someone who cares about what you care about and who shares your vision for the company culture. Above all, you want someone with very high standards and the integrity to stick to them when no one’s watching.

What to ask a prospective Head of Talent to get to know the real person:

  • Ask them about the experiences that have shaped who they are, what they value and what motivates them.
  • Spend time talking about the company culture you’re looking to nurture and what you ought to be looking for in new recruits.
  • Ask them about the impression they like to create with rejected candidates and ask what tangible actions they put in place at their last company to achieve this.
  • Ask them for an example of when they’ve put in extra effort to get the right candidate instead of taking the quick hire.

4. Find someone who can build quality relationships with their colleagues

An effective Head of Talent isn’t just externally facing - they know that their success depends on having quality relationships with their colleagues.

So you need to find a Head of Talent who has got the commercial acumen and domain expertise to be taken seriously by the rest of your team. You want someone who can be a ‘consultant’ to your hiring managers. Someone who’s able to demonstrate that they understand the role requirements, so they’re taken seriously when they push back with constructive challenges and ideas for different ways of fulfilling that brief.

You also need a Head of Talent who can coach inexperienced hiring managers through the selection process and who can nudge and chivvy managers to make hiring a top priority. Being responsive, well organised and quick to make decisions is crucial if you want to hire top talent. Part of this is about having good systems and processes, part of it is about having the relationships you can call on to get stuff done.

What to ask a prospective Head of Talent candidate to discover if they can build relationships:

  • Ask them to share an example of how they supported a first time manager through the recruitment process.
  • Ask them about the nuances of working with Hiring Managers. How to coach them to be more effective interviewers? How to help them be more objective in their evaluation of candidates? And how to get them to prioritise recruitment so decisions are made quickly?
  • Ask them to share an example of where they redesigned a candidate profile to get a better result or to fill a role that was proving difficult to fill.

5. Find someone who takes DE&I seriously

The first wave of hiring in most start-ups comes from the founder’s personal networks and it’s typically when this source of hires starts to dry up that companies look to bring in a Head of Talent.

So it’s likely that your first Head of Talent will be joining you at an inflexion point in your growth. A point at which you need to start taking deliberate steps to increase the diversity in your team.

Now everyone agrees that DE&I is important. Everyone will tell you that not only is it the morally right thing to do, but it’s also likely to make your company perform better.

But warm words don’t translate to real change.

Heads of Talent who take DE&I seriously have done the hard yards of researching and learning about which solutions have a strong scientific evidence base, and which ones are well intentioned but ineffective (or even harmful). And they’ll be able to give you examples of when they’ve deliberately slowed down or changed the recruitment process to improve the diversity of candidates or intervened to try and mitigate the bias of hiring managers.

When it comes to DE&I, you need a Head of Talent who can speak through their actions not words. Otherwise, when the pressure comes on to fill roles and hire fast, you’ll end up hiring people in the image of the team you’ve already got.

What to ask a prospective Head of Talent candidate to discover if they take DE&I seriously:

  • Ask about talent attraction strategies they’ve seen or employed to improve the diversity of a candidate pool.
  • Ask about selection tactics that they believe help to mitigate bias. What’s the evidence? And are these things they’ve implemented in the past.
  • Talk about the diversity profile of your company and where you need to take deliberate steps to promote diversity and inclusion in your hiring process.

What next?

If you’re the founder of a growing start-up and you’re struggling to find the right Head of Talent, please get in touch. We’re always happy to help with free, well informed(!) advice if we can. And once your new Head of Talent starts - tell them to talk to us about our People Products in this area! We can help with employer branding and talent attraction; talent selection and candidate experience; and automating your onboarding journey.

In the meantime, if you'd like a bit of help hiring brilliant candidates and giving them an exceptional experience that reflects your culture, check-out our Recruitment playbook.

Related articles