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When To Hire People Based On Experience Vs. Trajectory


There are two types of candidates: experienced and trajectory. 

Experienced hires have lived through the wringer. They’ve solved major problems for other companies and they have robust networks. They’re the people who can come in and immediately help solve pressing issues. Trajectory hires have done some pieces, but you don’t hire them because of what they’ve already done. You hire them because of what they’re capable of doing.

Great teams consist of a mix between experience and trajectory. Like professional baseball teams, you have the big leaguers who play in front of your fans and a farm system where you cultivate homegrown talent. Teams with great farm systems succeed in the long run; teams with weak farm systems only have a few years of sustained success.

There are a few key differentiating factors between experience and trajectory:

  1. Availability in the talent pool. Experience takes time to develop and is in limited supply. Folks with high trajectories have fewer accomplishments, but make up a higher percentage of the talent pool (especially during a talent shortage).
  2. Willingness to roll up their sleeves. As people get more experience, they gravitate toward tasks that give them energy and delegate other responsibilities away. Trajectory hires have everything to prove so they’re eager to wear as many hats as it takes to make a name for themselves.
  3. Compensation. More experience drives higher compensation. 

In the early days, companies typically hire for trajectory. They have a limited recruiting brand and smaller budget — two key factors in attracting seasoned pros. As the company grows, companies should both invest in their trajectory hires and complement them with experienced operators. Making (and supporting) the right trajectory hires can be the difference between a generational company and stagnation. Here’s how to do it the right way.

What does an ideal trajectory hire look like?

Knowing how to identify a promising trajectory hire is step one. It boils down to two main factors: work ethic and growth mindset, both of which should be apparent during an interview.

Strong Work Ethic

Ask: “What’s the hardest thing you’ve done in your life?”

Overcoming adversity is a prerequisite for a great trajectory hire. Trajectory hires need to live outside of their comfort zone in order to keep growing quickly. Asking about their greatest challenge will help you understand if their lives have already made them do this.

Growth Mindset

Ask: “Tell me about a time you received difficult, constructive feedback. How’d you respond to it?”

People with a growth mindset know that they don’t have all the answers. They want to work in situations that force them to stretch, and they want to be around people that push them to grow. 

Receptiveness to feedback is the differentiating factor between a growth mindset and fixed mindset. People who want to grow use constructive feedback as fuel and learn to crave it; others take it as an assault.

How to help trajectory hires fulfill their potential

If you can find people that work their asses off and are obsessed with growth, you have potentially huge careers on your hands. These are the people who will be your cultural backbone. But they can’t do it alone. They need opportunity, resources, and a support system that their nascent experience and network can’t give them.

Give too much responsibility

Experience is the best teacher. People with high trajectories want opportunities to prove themselves. Giving lots of responsibility will keep them motivated and bend their learning curve. 

Help build their personal board of advisors

The majority of learning doesn’t happen through online courses or trainings. There’s some utility to those paths, but the absolute best way to help someone grow is pairing them with a person who’s done it before.

Finding these people goes both ways: Employees should network independently, but they will run into a local knowledge maximum — the end of their personal reach. So, employers should complement this by paying to bring on experienced operators as consultants and advisors to help trajectory hires grow. 

Engaging experienced operators will also form crucial relationships with people who might someday turn into a hire (or help you hire someone else). Think of it as “try before you buy” — you learn much more about people when you work together. 

Create an environment in which it’s okay to fail

Everyone is going to fail. Particularly in a company’s early days, failing forward is an integral element of success. If you create an environment of psychological safety, one in which failure is okay as long as you learn from it, you’ll help people continue to grow. 

The combination of these development methods serves as an accelerant for trajectory hires to reach their potential. Opportunity to prove themselves and stretch. Personal boards of advisors to help them scale and avoid catastrophic mistakes. Psychological safe environments encourage risk taking and failure.

Trajectory hires fuel company growth. Understanding their value, knowing how to identify them, and nurturing their development are the ingredients of success.

My team and I are building Continuum—the marketplace for executive opportunity. I’m passionate about building winning teams. It’s been part of my DNA since playing D1 baseball in college. I believe every organization’s potential is determined by its culture, who is hired, who is fired, and who is promoted. Before launching Continuum, I was the Chief People Officer at Carta ($7.4B valuation) until 2020. In 2015, I joined DoorDash as the first people ops hire and went on to become Head of Talent, hiring 800+ people across the US and Canada. Before DoorDash, I was a recruiter at Google working on special projects.

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