December 31, 2021

​The battle for the C-level: how scaleups can attract the best digital leaders

Filling central C-level positions can make or break the success of scaleups.

Martina van Hettinga

This year, more VC capital has flowed into the ambitious European scaleup scene than ever. Founders are raising amounts that previously they could have only dreamed of. But the deluge of fresh capital also means that the battle for the best leaders in Europe is intensifying. After all, filling central C-level positions can make or break the success of VC-backed companies stands and falls with filling the central C-level positions — and no one knows this better than the investors. The ink has barely dried on the term sheet, yet the founders are quickly confronted with the vehement demands of their investors to hire the best — and more like yesterday than tomorrow.

So what can founders do to catch the attention of Europe’s top executive tech talent? Here are my top tips: 

Founders should be ready to spend up to 20% of their time on recruiting other leaders 

Investor Ben Horowitz said: "We take care of the people, the products and the profits — in that order."  Founding a startup, followed by rapid growth, can result in a permanent balancing act between operational business and strategic vision.

Top-level recruitment needs the focus of founders

The development of a strong management level is the decisive lever for founders in hyperscaling, but is often ignored for far too long. That is why we have to emphasise it again and again: top-level recruitment needs the focus of founders. Some of the most successful companies we know in hyper-growth phase have their founders spending at least 20% of their time just on recruiting other strong leaders. The interview process and the evaluation of candidates thereby take up most time resources, as these are also the most important steps to make a good decision.

Make sure the process is a great experience for every candidate 

All too often, we see ambitious scaleups alienate excellent candidates by going back and forth in the interview process. Even as a founder, you should always be aware: the best talent in the digital economy currently have the upper hand. And depending on the calibre and experience, it is highly likely that you are dealing with a small pool of well-networked candidates. A disorganised process or incomplete communication quickly makes you unpopular with the entire market, while word of a positive experience is likely to spread just as quickly.

A disorganised process or incomplete communication quickly makes you unpopular with the entire market

Founders usually have to question a blind spot (and also their own ego), so bringing in an external moderator for interviews or the application process, for example by cooperating with leadership consulting firms, can ensure the right dialogue and efficient process.

Communicate at eye-level

Avoid asking candidates brain-teasers along the lines of "How many ping pong balls could fit into an Olympic swimming pool?". Give the candidate a case study challenge relevant to the position to assess how creatively and efficiently they will handle situations that could occur within the role. Case studies enable founders to communicate with candidates at eye-level and to go into depth with regard to content — this way, both sides quickly realise what cooperation at management level could look like. Candidates want to see that the company takes the placement process seriously — after all, it's not just about the future of the company, but also about a potentially life-changing professional decision. 

Network, network and... network

Cold outreach via LinkedIn is an increasingly competitive method of sourcing talent. When building a network, the snail shell formation applies: start with your most resilient and trustworthy contacts (your inner circle), use them as multipliers and work your way from there to distant network points.

Look for similarities in values, but complementary skills and differing personalities  

It is human nature to surround ourselves with those that are similar to us, even more so in times of growth and pressure. But especially for companies experiencing hypergrowth, the broader repertoire of skills, perspectives and personalities in a team, the more successful they prove to be. Therefore, when building a company’s C-suite, founders should look for candidates who complement their own strengths and skill set. Clones are only needed in terms of attitude ie. in the values that are shared. Ideally, one piece fits into the other like a puzzle. In other words, the leadership personalities complement each other ideally through their diversity instead of cloning themselves.

Martina Van Hettinga is managing partner at executive search company i-potentials