Hiring as you grow: an interview with Kathryn Minshew of the Muse

The Muse panel discussion image

9 mins, 49 secs read time

In 2017, Greenhouse is hosting the OPEN Series, a monthly event series that explores and celebrates the most important topics happening in the People Team industry.

The Series kicked off in NYC on March 22, featuring Kathryn Minshew, CEO of The Muse. Kathryn took the stage with me to share insight on how she and her People Team successfully scaled The Muse to 4x growth in a little over one year.

Here Kathryn and I continue the conversation about her top tips for making smart hires and maintaining authentic culture during rapid growth.

Preparing for 4x growth

Q: 4x growth is a big deal! What did you do right before things took off to set your recruiting team up for success?

A: I’ve always been a big believer in prioritizing culture early and often. You need to know who the company is (and who you’re not) so you can keep your culture strong as you scale up. It won’t ever be the same at 20 vs. 200, but you can keep a lot of the most important stuff constant.

We set out parameters around our values and expectations; we plotted out key hires, timelines, the interview process, and made sure our hiring and promotions processes mapped back to our company roadmap and vision for growth.

We invested in HR right from the start, and grew our recruiting team in preparation to scale so we didn’t lose productivity from our hiring managers. We hired our first internal talent acquisition manager when we were only 25 people because we knew we were going to more than double the team that year—and hiring the right people was crucial to helping us achieve that growth. Recruiters will dedicate all of their energy to helping you attract and engage the right talent and are great advocates for your brand. They know how to find the people who will make a major impact on your business as you scale, and they know how to get people engaged and excited about your company and mission.

Equally important is making sure your employees feel supported and engaged once they join the team. To help make this happen, we hired our director of HR when we were about 60 people. Seeing the impact she made on our team and business, we could have benefited from hiring her even sooner.

Q: What was the most important, non-negotiable thing you asked of everyone involved in the hiring process?

A: We didn’t negotiate on values and culture. Our core values were clearly defined and included in our interview process and we didn’t skip those questions just because we needed to hire quickly. At the same time, we made sure that we were screening truly for values—things like teamwork and ownership that cross age, gender, and race—and not for “Am I chummy with this person?,” which can lead to a monoculture.

I would also recommend outlining the same set of performance standards across departments to ensure you don’t just get the culture fit right without performance standards being matched.

It was also very important to us to showcase that culture externally, so we’ve always aimed to create a great candidate experience by treating candidates with respect and giving them the opportunity to succeed. This means making sure the candidate feels welcome when they visit our office, giving them time to ask plenty of questions and adhering to a structured interview process that evaluates their skill set as well as culture fit.

Early learnings and how you adapted

Q: What were some early learnings your People Team encountered as they kicked off the hiring process?

A: An early challenge was how to get candidates engaged and excited about opportunities at The Muse when we had little to no brand recognition. We engaged our employees—made sure they understood how to talk about our mission, brand, and culture; we encouraged them to share opportunities through their social networks and to share referrals. I also did a fair amount of speaking to broaden our profile, and some of our top early employees joined because they heard me give a talk somewhere. And of course, our Muse profile has been a huge resource to give candidates a sneak peek inside our office, meet the team, and learn more about what makes The Muse a great place to build a career.

Q: What was the biggest change you saw in your process when comparing the first months to the last months of rapid growth?

A: As The Muse has grown exponentially, we’ve learned firsthand the importance of developing the top of the talent funnel. A lot of great people will come to you, but you also have to go out there and attract them!

Making sure you have enough managers in place before hiring a ton of people in one department is so important. We learned this as our sales division grew; scaling up one without the other isn’t going to get you the results—or the happy, productive team—you’re looking for.

We also hired a head of talent & HR after we scaled from 60 to 130 employees, which was optimal timing because the People Team needed to shift their focus from talent acquisition to making sure we were scaling our culture as we grew. Again, this is another hire we could and should have had even sooner. One of the things that’s been helpful is doing an employee engagement survey to spot cultural growing pains before they became real issues and proactively re-evaluating our policies, compensation packages, and diversity data to make sure we were in line with the original parameters and values we had put in place.

Scaling advice

Q: Tell us your secret sauce! What were the keys to maintaining quality of hire? I’ve heard of other companies suffering through hypergrowth. How did you make sure that didn’t happen at The Muse?

A: For us, the keys to scaling were prioritizing culture from the beginning, having great managers, developing a clear interview process with straightforward criteria and values. As well as being transparent about growth plans while also providing channels for employee feedback along the way (we take anonymous questions on a regular basis—and we answer them all).

In terms of prioritizing culture, we knew how important it was to have a solid understanding of who we were as a company right from the start, so we could make growth decisions with those values in mind.

We were very deliberate about our culture and that’s how we’ve been able to maintain quality of hires. For example, when we had only 25 employees, we sat down to discuss our existing culture and outlined the core values, team motivators and behaviors we wanted each new hire to possess. In addition to our famous “No Assholes” rule, we have five other core values, and we list them out with examples of what we mean as well as sample interview questions to help us ascertain each element. To this day, we hire with those in mind and we make sure to screen for each of our values by assigning each interviewer one specific core value to score the applicant on.

Bonus tip: I am religious about finding other successful founders and executives who’ve been through scale, and asking them, “What’s one thing you’ve learned?” or “What was the biggest mistake you made?” A lot of the same scaling mistakes get repeated over and over again, so the more you can learn from others, the more you can avoid yourself. That said, you also have to cut yourself a little bit of slack when things inevitably don’t go perfectly. Scaling a business is difficult! The important thing is that you work hard to get back on track.

Importance of employer branding

Q: How has The Muse maintained a positive candidate experience through the growth?

A: Candidates are becoming informed consumers, and they expect far more from companies than they did 3–5 years ago. Great candidates want to hear more about the company culture, why the company exists, the core values and mission, and whether there are employee growth opportunities. This is literally the thesis that we built The Muse on, and it’s been incredibly fulfilling to see it play out. Why shouldn’t a candidate get to vet a company just as much as they’re personally being vetted, both before they apply and during the interview process?

We pay very close attention to our candidate experience survey data. For example, we know it’s important to have a greeter at the door, offer water or coffee to candidates, review each person’s interview agenda, give them an office tour when appropriate, and have a conversation about our core values. My cofounder and I make sure at least one of us interviews every single candidate, too, which is great for us—we stay connected to the hiring process at every level—and hopefully, for candidates, who often take the opportunity to ask us a ton of big questions.

Q: How should companies think about Employer Branding as they scale?

A: It’s never too early or late in your growth phase to be thinking about your employer brand. Every candidate will go through a discovery phase when researching and deciding if they should join your company. The story they tell themselves as they uncover information from their online searches, reference checks and network is basically your employer brand. That’s what your brand is: the way people talk about you when you’re not in the room. So thinking about those touch points and what candidates may learn at every step along the way is really important regardless of where you are in your growth phase.

It’s worth noting that as you grow, you will likely experience greater turnover, which is completely natural. Making sure employees leave on a positive note is always important but becomes even more important as you scale, because those employees who leave carry stories with them that add to your employer brand.

The bigger picture: People Team’s business value

Q: How can People Teams best position themselves to demonstrate the value of their work—the value they have on the bottom line?

A: At The Muse, our head of talent & HR is involved in our goal-setting process, our strategy discussion, and even in the process of setting company KPIs. It’s important for HR to be involved in strategy discussions for two reasons: one, it’s people who will be executing on any strategy, so your People Team can be an invaluable resource here in making sure the desired strategy and approach is aligned with the people, talent, and engagement you have; and two, so this team can be proactive about making sure that your people strategy going forward supports the company’s goals.

Beyond that, the key to contributing value is using data to support what you are seeing in the company as it relates to performance standards and engagement. Also, don’t be shy about discussing what you are doing on the employee relations level. So much of what you do daily is not discussed, but when you see trends through your meetings with employees and solve issues every day, be sure to share those key themes and learnings with your leaders so they are aware.

Kathryn Minshew is the CEO & Founder of The Muse, and author of the forthcoming book, The New Rules of Work, which hits shelves April 18.

Stay tuned to GreenhouseOPEN.com for news on upcoming OPEN Series events in your city.