Directness Begins With The Interview

At least once a week I have a coaching session that revolves around a difficult conversation. Most often, that’s around a team member who isn’t measuring up. And all too often, I’m the one driving the conversation.

Founder: “Employee X still isn’t turning in their TPS reports. I don’t know what to do.”

Me: “Have you had a direct conversation with them?”

Founder: “Kind of? I let them know that the TPS reports were important.”

Me: “Have you had a DIRECT and FOCUSED conversation about it?”

Founder: <hangs head>

Aaaaaaand scene!

More often than not, the first thing I do is point them to David Mandell’s amazing post, Passive Aggressive CEOs Destroy Companies. We’ll discuss the specifics of each section and we might even role play out what that looks like. And sometimes, the founder might even pull the trigger and have that conversation. But just as often, the founder just can’t muster the courage to have the difficult conversation because that shit is uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I was chatting with Nymbl CEO Ed Likovich about a recent executive hire. He ran the candidate through the usual gauntlet and what came back was 1) he really liked her, 2) the team really liked her and 3) the team had a handful of meaningful concerns that gave them pause.

At this point, a founder might say to themselves, “to hell with it, I like her enough that I’m going to take the risk and damn the consequences.” Another founder might say, “crap, I really liked her for the role, but if my team has concerns, then I’ll keep looking.”

Ed took a third path.

He sent an email to the candidate that basically said, “the team and I really enjoyed chatting with you and we have a handful of concerns that I’d like to chat with you about and see if we can’t clear up.”

Apparently, when the candidate first received this email she was a little pissed. She thought she had rocked the interview and was surprised to get any negative feedback. There may have been a bit of time where she was even like, “fuck this company.” And then she followed up with Ed and scheduled a followup conversation.

Ed was very direct with her about the feedback he got from the team and why it mattered, and each time, she crushed the response. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that each point sparked a powerful conversation that left Ed further impressed. Shortly thereafter, she was offered, and accepted, the job.

In my conversation with Ed yesterday, he said something incredibly powerful — this was an unintended litmus test of how the executive would work with him. Some people’s response to interview feedback would be “screw this” and ghost. And that’s fine. Ed is very direct in his management style and if a candidate doesn’t want to work in that environment, better to know before hiring them. On the flip side, if a candidate appreciates or even craves that directness, then Ed has just established that he’s The Man To Work For.

From here on out, Ed can always feel comfortable that if he brings feedback with care, this person will respond positively. There’s no beating around the bush in their relationship.

So for all my founders out there who might not feel comfortable with giving direct feedback, give it a try at the interview. Don’t just sell the company and the role; set the expectation that this is a place where everyone is direct and honest with one another because they care. Some candidates may fall out of the funnel in the process, and heck yes! You’ll never have to worry about giving feedback to the ones who make it through.

— Eric Marcoullier

If you are a founder struggling with hard conversations and getting what you want from your startup team, give me a shout at or visit my web site. I’d like to help.

(Photo by Evgeniy Smersh on Unsplash)

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