Marketing Team

Five Traits to Look for When You Hire for Your Startup

Who you hire for your startup team significantly influences performance. Look for these five traits to ensure your team member can succeed.

I’ve built marketing teams from scratch at two startups, and I can tell you right now that who you hire will make or break your success. I’ve learned five traits to look for when you hire for your startup team.

When I’ve hired someone great, I look forward to every meeting with them.  I know they will come prepared to talk through updates and decisions that really matter.  I know that every obstacle they encounter will be met with “okay, got it.  We will figure this out.”  And I know that as priorities evolve and change, they will ask great questions about “why.”  Then they will dive right into solving for the next big thing (rather than getting stuck on yesterday’s goals).

When I have a weaker team member, I go into my meetings with a deep sense of dread.  We’ll likely have discussions about a critical detail they completely forgot to consider, with some finger pointing about why it was not their fault.  We’ll get stuck talking about an idea that we already decided to deprioritize, or that could be good for the future but is not our focus right now.  And I’ll likely have to coach them on a skill that I’ve had to coach them about before. It’s probably a skill that should be table stakes for a high performer in the role.  It just does not click.

Here are five traits to look for when you hire for your startup, both in the interview process and their first three month on the job.

1. Flexibility

Imagine this: your customer acquisition manager spends two quarters testing paid digital ads and getting the CPA and ROAS down to your target levels. Your manager has a lot of insight on how the program works and has hit all their goals. But when the company is assessing acquisition channels for the next 2 quarters, there are more efficient and lower cost channels available.  You decide to ramp down the paid ad channel and keep it in our back pocket for the future

Now your customer acquisition manager has to totally switch gears.  This happens all the time at startups.  Sometimes you and your team see it coming, and sometimes a decision at the leadership level changes plans overnight.  Having the mental flexibility and resilience to adapt, even when it’s disappointing, is a hallmark of successful startup employees.  Great managers can make change management easier, clearly explaining the “why” behind decisions. Successful startup employees have often dealt with change before. They have the business judgement to get onboard and adjust when change impacts their own work.

2. Move from Idea to Action 

A get-it-done attitude is essential for startup employees.  In the first few years of a company, most of your team members will start their projects with a blank Google doc much more often than a spelled out strategy and roadmap. You need someone who can bring structure and a plan to an area of your business that starts as merely an idea.  And you need someone with the desire, discipline, and action to make it happen, over and over.

At one company, we hired someone for our lifecycle marketing team to look into key areas of dropoff in our product funnel and develop email tests to nudge users to take the next step.  Yep, a typical growth marketing maneuver. They had (according to her interviews and reference checks), done just this at a past startup targeting restaurant owners.  But after three weeks into the new job, they were still hesitant to share any ideas about how they were going to approach this research and process.  “I need more time” they’d say, and when asked to put some initial thoughts on paper they were stuck. 

Creating plans from scratch is hard.  It’s not for everyone.  But your team members need to be comfortable with typing out what they know, their initial hypothesis, and a recommended approach to their projects. Creating a plan is the first step of many steps someone has to be able to take to move a team from an idea to action.

3. Empathy

Many times people at startups are juggling many projects, overwhelmed, and in “reactive mode” because they have so much on their plate. Asking your team to accomplish big goals with limited resources and times is stressful.  It’s exhilarating, and working with constraints definitely requires a team to get creative. But these conditions also require team members to have a high level of self-awareness and empathy to understand what others on the team need or are feeling as they move through this amped-up environment.  

Team members have to make a lot of small (and big) decisions every day to keep the team moving, often with incomplete information.  When something does not go as planned, or when another team does not deliver what’s expected, it’s critical to start with empathy.  A team member needs to start by understanding “why” the slip-up happened versus jumping to the conclusion that someone did something bad, wrong, or negligent.

Your team needs to constantly practice this desire to seek understanding of the other side and work hard to move the team to a more positive place. A great way to encourage this is to demonstrate empathy as one of the critical ways you behave as a great manager.

Five traits to look for when you hire for your stratup

4. Accountability, even when things go wrong

Here are two things that will get your team into trouble. First, when a team member makes a mistake they do their best to hide it or pretend it never happened. Second, when a mistake happens in their area of the business, they try to blame anyone but themselves for the error.

There’s huge importance to being about to own and speak up about a mistake, whether it’s small but noticeable or huge and career limiting.  Sometimes the mistake is irreversible, like sending an email to 1000s of people who were not supposed to see it.  Your team members need to know they always have to take accountability, address the damage and look back at what to do differently next time.  

Sometimes mistakes just cause a delay for the team or rework.  Regardless, having team members who know they have to update the team on the mistake (and not sit on it, hoping it will disappear) is critical to a high-functioning team.

The willingness for team members, especially more junior ones, to show accountability may hinge on having a great manager.  Team members need to know that when they own up to mistakes, you’ll meet them with empathy and inquiry rather than judgement and rage. You and your fellow managers can practice behaviors that enable this environment. 

5. Assertive communication

A theme that runs throughout all these qualities is the need for anyone you hire to be direct and clear in their communication style.  There’s no time to waste, and to thrive at a startup team members need to be able to share their ideas, results, and decisions.

A few tools that I like to use to coach my team members on how they can be more direct and assertive include:

  1. Always have an agenda – agendas are essential for good meeting management. They’re a great way for team members to have more control and get better outcomes from a meeting
  2. End every conversation by summarizing clear next steps – during a meeting, it’s helpful to pause before moving onto the next topic to recap who has to do what next, and by when
  3. SBI model for feedback – avoiding giving tough feedback can make challenges between team members escalate and become personal.  A sure-fire way to approach these conversations is to use the SBI model for delivering feedback. Being able to deliver direct, timely feedback is a critical stepping stone for career growth.

Traits to Look for When you Hire for Your Startup

That’s what it takes!  You’ll see that when you look for these five traits when you hire for your startup team, performance will improve. Your most successful team members exhibit these qualities, and they will expect the same mindsets from the rest of the team too.  

Five Traits

  • Flexibility
  • Move from idea to action
  • Empathy
  • Accountability, even when things go wrong
  • Assertive communication


Let's unlock your business growth

I work with VC-backed startup founders and leadership teams to define the most effective marketing strategy.  I’ve built and scaled highly-engaged marketing teams, all with limited resources and tight timelines. I’m a decisive, action-oriented leader known for my empathetic style. Let's get results for your startup too. 

Allyson Letteri
Marketing Leader & Startup Advisor

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