“I really want to switch to a smaller company.”

This is something I hear a lot from candidates for marketing leadership roles. Perhaps you have too. How do you know whether the person:

  • Is really ready and could make a great hire for a smaller startup or scale-up?
  • OR: Likes the IDEA of a smaller company more than the REALITY?

In short, are they Ready For Real or Potentially a Poser?

Figuring this out can be the difference between a great hire and a disastrous cultural fit.

An executive from a big company can bring valuable experience working at scale — not to mention credibility. But cultural fit matters more than the “wow, what a get!” reaction from your board or investors.

Here are some things that I’ve heard from candidates who have successfully made the transition from a big to a small company… and some things from people who ultimately have not been serious about that switch.

Ready for Real:

  • “I am OK with risk.”
  • “I like to clean up messes.”
  • “I am OK with trading off money for equity.”
  • “I understand that the hours can be long.”
  • “I have been at a small company before and helped to grow it. I want to have another growth experience.”
  • “I want to actually get stuff done.”

Their reasons tend to be well-thought-out, and grounded in reality. The Ready for Real contingent will often show you that they are ready. For instance, they demonstrate their ‘get stuff done’ quotient during the interview process, like calling up customers themselves for insight.

Potentially a Poser:

Are your candidates seeing things like the following? If so, pause carefully and dig deeer.

  • “I have to pick very carefully, you know. You can only leave once from [Big Company They Are At Now].”
  • “Hmm….. are your VC’s any good?”
  • “Will you cover my business class travel/executive coach/[insert other perk more typical at bigger companies]?”
  • “I want to work in a smaller company but I am making X and I want to make at least X+Y. I don’t have a lot of flexibility to switch from cash to equity.”
  • “What you are asking for is a tall order; I would need a bigger team and budget to get that done.” (The candidate could be right here. Often, small companies have outsize expectations and under-sized resources. But top candidates get excited about being creative within constraints, while potential posers are more likely to show nervousness or defensiveness.)

Reticence alone is not necessarily a bad thing, especially early in the hiring process. But it can get concerning when the candidate doesn’t change their tune as the process continues.

How to vet the fit further:

To help evaluate the fit for candidates who are considering a switch from a big company to your smaller one, here are some tips:

  • Go into the ‘5 levels of why.’ Often, the first time you ask a candidate “why a small company,” you will get an answer like, “I am sick of the politics of a big company.” Don’t leave it at that! Ask why, and probe for more details. Ask about the pros and cons that they see in the switch. And at the next phase of the recruiting process, rinse and repeat: “Why a smaller company? Why, REALLY? What are the pros and cons of making the switch?” See if their story holds up. Do they demonstrate a deepened understanding – and excitement about — the work environment and challenges? Or does their reasoning get shaky?
  • Sell them out of the job. Discuss the downsides of working with a small company. That way, they have a realistic job preview, and have more data to make a go/no go decision. It’s a good sign if they push back and show their excitement despite those downsides.
  • Invite them into the office to observe, so they get a ‘day in the life’ feeling. Don’t just put them in an interview room. Instead, invite them to key meetings they would attend in the job and show them key deliverables they would be responsible for owning.