How to hire in uncertain timesOctober 7, 2009: 1:55 AM ET
by Jessica Shambora
Who's hiring? Hardly anybody, yet. But as you dream about recovery, you'd better be thinking about how to upgrade your talent. You'll be hiring again someday. Really.
We talked about hiring at the recent Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, where this year's theme was "Betting on the Future." A session called "Building a Standout Start-up" was led by two CEOs who are in major hiring mode. We thought we'd share some of their expertise.
Susan Lyne, who left the helm of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) to run the much-buzzed-about Gilt Groupe, is in a hiring frenzy. When she joined the company a year ago, there were 55 employees. Today Gilt Groupe employs more than 300. That equates to adding 10 employees every week.
When she arrived at Gilt, Lyne inherited a policy: No one can be hired after being interviewed only by people in their intended department. "They always have to meet with two or three other departments so that there's a consensus--so there's a cultural fit," Lyne says. This can mean six different interviews for some candidates.
It's worth it. "It's often hard to articulate exactly what makes a fit," the Gilt boss explains, "but people tend to know it when they see it. So if you can get someone out to enough people, you tend not to make the same mistakes."
Gina Bianchini, CEO of Ning, co-lead the "Standout Start-up" session with Lyne. She launched her company, which helps you build your own customized social-network, with the help of Netscape founder Mark Andreessen. What does she look for in recruits? Exceptional passion and comfort with uncertainty, she says.
Bianchini illustrated her point by telling a story about hiring Ning's chief technology officer, Diego Doval. She found her Doval by reading his blog. The fellow was getting his PhD at Trinity College in Ireland and, she says, clearly had a passion for "large-scale distributed networks," which is what Ning is all about. He was from Argentina--which turned out to be quite appealing. "He was telling us in our initial conversation how in one day the price of bread would go from 50 cents to $50," Bianchini explains. "I was like, 'You're hired.' Because that is truly the reality of a start-up situation."
Bianchini seeks "people who have been through high highs and low lows," she says, recalling the dotcom bust in 2001. Back then, she was struck by how many people showed up in her office with "looks of terror." Many had come from big companies; that's what everyone was doing then. Although she was much younger than many of these execs, she found herself telling them: 'You're going to have to chill out. You're going to have to just get it together because this is an uncertain situation, but we need to move forward."
She finds herself saying the same thing today.
All the more reason to hire wisely. And then you have to build the culture. Lyne certainly knows about culture, coming from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and Walt Disney (DIS). At Gilt, where so much talent is coming on board so fast, she says she has to communicate more than ever before. So every morning at 10 a.m., Lyne holds an "all hands" meetings for any employees who want a daily update on the company's doings and direction.
Culture-building also includes events like bowling nights and Halloween dress-up. These are also ways to "democratize perceptions" of Gilt's leaders, Lyne says. Translation? "I'm not great at karaoke," she adds.
P.S. We agree that comfort with uncertainty is a must for any leader today. Former Avon (AVP) President Liz Smith, who recently left to become a CEO elsewhere, has talked about it. So has new Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns, who says that the best managers "make a decision, and when they find out it's not right, they change and get on with it." American Express (AXP) CEO Ken Chenault, in this post, noted one of his favorite quotes from Darwin: "It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most adaptive to change."