Five mistakes executives should not make when interviewing for a startup role

The new year is a time where many people start thinking about their career. For executives, this is time when bonuses are paid, old plans are completed, and new plans are being developed, and for some, it is time for a new job. During 20 years in tech, I have hired many dozens of executives and was interviewed and hired (or not) many times over. As you are thinking of what’s next, here is some practical advice that will help you find the next great fit, without stepping on the same landmines so many have stepped on before.

Focus on the company, not the title

Many people come to interviews with titles in mind. They have to be the CXO, they have to be a VP. As it often happens, the company is either interviewing for a different position, or is not yet conformable with hiring you as a VP. If you really like the company, you should join regardless of the current title. Would you have not joined Slack 2 years ago as a director? Was Uber in 2010 not a good idea? If a company grows fast, you’d have many opportunities to get promoted, but your chances will be significantly higher from within.

  • Company advice: Don’t hire someone that is too focused on a title, without substantiation. Your candidate should probably mature elsewhere before they come back to you.

 You can’t negotiate a title

If the company is not willing to offer you the SVP title or responsibility you want, you can’t negotiate it. It’s that simple. You either built the conviction that you can do that bigger job, or you didn’t. Trying to “negotiate” it is a lost cause and would leave a poor impression. If the title is that important to you, don’t start an interview process for roles which don’t offer this title, or walk away if you failed to establish yourself.

  • Company advice: It is common to look for a director and find a VP but you should be the one coming up with the idea. If the first time you thought about the option was when the candidate brought it up, it’s probably not a good idea.

Don’t try to reorg the company before you join

Imagine you are offered a GM role in a large company. They make you an offer to own sales and marketing for a vertical. You are excited about the company but think it will be much more effective if that vertical’s product and engineering team will report to you as well. While you might be onto something, the chances you can get a company to agree to a reorg just for a candidate is near zero. Join the company and try to make the change from within. Not only are your chances to build an internal consensus are much higher, you will be much more informed about internal dynamics and politics and can easily make it happen.

  • Company advice: Sharing a reorg idea by a candidate is not bad. She might even be right. But if she makes it a deal breaker, break the deal…

No passive-aggressive emails

I am sorry. If you want to be an executive in a company, put on your big person pants and learn to speak your mind. I can’t tell you how many times we agreed on terms with a candidate only to get an overly aggressive email with completely different ideas. Even if they make sense, the fact that the candidate could not speak their mind in person, is not a good sign and usually makes me doubt the candidate’s ability to communicate openly and negotiate in person.

  • Company advice: building a hiring process that mixes email/in-person, and phone communications to get a full view of your candidate communication skills. An executive should be able to be consistent across all forms of communication.

You have to have a reason to join

From your first screening call, to the final interview, you have to have a good answer to the “why would you like to join us?” question. Initially, your answer should be based on external research, but as you progress through the process, I’d like to see how it changes as you are getting to understand the organization better. Startups should never hire mercenaries, so don’t be one.

  • Company advice: This is probably the most important question you can ask. Make sure you ask it…
Five mistakes executives should not make when interviewing for a startup role

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