You’ve probably heard of Vista Equity Partners, one of the world’s most successful private equity firms. They’re known for their factory-like approach to running businesses—it’s a science—and part of their formula includes a detailed plan for hiring the right people.
That brings us to Adam Houghton, who back in 2012 was the COO at a company acquired by a Vista Equity portfolio company. He’s brought his version of their hiring process to the teams he’s led since.
Today he’s the VP of Customer Success at Klue (a company that enables competitive research and the distribution of that information to the people that need it). And for a sense of scale, I first spoke to Adam last year when Klue had about 30 employees; they’re over 100 employees now.
In a recent interview, Adam outlined his philosophy on hiring in Customer Success. Here’s the TLDR:
- Hire proven “anchors” to serve on your leadership team
- Build around those anchors with unproven high potential people that challenge the status quo
- Provide a transparent career path for team members and create an environment where people earn the right to be promoted
Hiring is all about future-proofing your team by investing in high potential employees. Whether those people are recent graduates or otherwise early in their careers, or people looking to make a transition into Customer Success, our goal is to find those people who have 3-4 years of runway and give them the opportunity to grow into bigger roles quickly.
How to get "high potential" employees to buy in to the vision for their role
The first question I usually get asked is “how do you get people to buy in to the vision for a role?”
The best place to start is to look for individuals that have both a history of progression and a record of breaking away from the status quo. Maybe they went to university and studied something completely different than what was expected of them. Or maybe they’ve led projects that they initiated, that were outside their comfort zone. That’s the mentality we’re looking for.
And on the flip slide, we need leaders to be experienced enough to mentor their teams. The most obvious benefit for them of hiring high potential but less experienced employees is cost. But also, hiring people who are eager for the chance to grow within their career gives the team a strong bench to promote from.
Questions that help detect people who challenge the status quo
There are a handful of things we look at to detect whether someone naturally challenges the status quo, but the answers to these questions are most important:
- What have they done outside their role? Have they had a “that’s not my job” mentality or are they looking to fill gaps in the business?
- What have they created themselves? With some digging you can usually tell whether they were ‘part’ of a project or whether they led it. If it's not obvious at first, ask them why they made certain decisions or ask about the tactical details of how one part of the project worked.
At our stage, we need people who want to come in, put their fingerprints on things and get shit done.
That’s true across the company. But there is one additional question I ask in Customer Success: “Can you give an example of something you’ve done to help someone that wasn’t on your team?” That shows an interest and ability to work cross-functionally, which is so critical to CS. If you can’t work cross-functionally, you can’t support your customer the way you’re supposed to.
What happens when the new hire isn't actually high potential
Hiring isn’t an exact science so when it’s not working out, I have to ask myself: 1. Did I make a bad hiring decision, or 2. Did I do a bad job of coaching? We have to figure out whether it’s the environment or the person.
If it’s the environment, that’s within our control. If it’s the person, we have to move on quickly.
The other piece is that when there’s a problem, the rest of the team will know there’s a problem too. It can hurt the whole team to keep someone that's a bad fit for the company or the specific role they’re in. (To that latter point, we’ve had people at Klue who started in SDR roles, realized it wasn’t a good fit, but were an excellent fit for the customer side. Sometimes it’s the role, not the person.)
If anything touches “bad culture fit” you’ve got to move on a decision immediately.
How to handle a workforce that's highly capable, but with limited leadership roles
How you pitch the vision for a role and handle promotions depends on the size and growth rate of a company. For startups, we focus on creating a culture around “earning the right to grow.” As an individual, a department, a company, we have to earn the right to grow.
If someone wants to move into leadership and you only have a team of 5 people, who are they going to lead? There aren’t leadership opportunities there, until the business grows. So the mindset I try to put in place is to scale yourself where you are, start growing the skills of the level above you, and take action so there’s enough demand that we have to hire someone beneath you.
Apart from that, my goal is that everyone that works for me learns enough to get a better job. Sometimes the opportunities they want won’t exist at your company. Help them grow the skills, continue to build your “bench,” and support people when they’ve found something bigger.
This week's top posts
7 Top Trends in Customer Success to Learn From, and Maybe Emulate
Jason Lemkin adds commentary to a recent LinkedIn post from Nick Mehta rounding up some trends in CS. Among the list: “Companies are starting to give NRR goals to every department.” Jason adds, “It’s also a sign of a great VP of Customer Success when they are willing to sign up for growing NRR as the #1 metric and what their variable comp is tried to… It’s also one of the top metrics you’re graded on by both private and public investors now.”
"Driving Next Steps" Isn't Enough. This Is What Really Moves Deals Forward.
The Gong Labs team analyzed over 8,000 deals to understand what actions move them forward. One interesting takeaway: “Avoid feature-dumping at all costs… It’s so easy to fall into that ‘if they see it, they’ll love it’ mindset. But that isn’t true. Because they won’t really understand how those features address their biggest challenges.”
Strategic CSM Comp Plans
An important conversation from last year is revisited with interesting new insights from Ed Powers on why he thinks CSM compensation plans need to be reconsidered. Skip down to Ed’s newest post where he talks about establishing metrics: “Most organizations start with too few metrics, then drown in too many, and then finally settle on just the right ones.”
Hire People Who Give a Shit
A to-the-point reminder from Alexandr Wang, CEO at Scale AI. Hire people who will do meaningful work; be someone who gives a shit.
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