Episode 19

Episode 19 – Hiring for Start-ups: HR Due Diligence and ‘The Founder’s Dilemma’ with Lesley Lightfoot and Jeremy Wurm

Mar 30, 2023

About this episode

In this episode, we are delighted to have Lesley Lightfoot and Jeremy Wurm join us from Brooker Consulting discussing the challenges of building the right teams in the early stages of technology transfer and new ventures. We look at their philosophies and approaches on how to engage candidates for the dynamic roles associated with start-ups. We discuss the ‘Founder’s Dilemma’ around building teams and the catalytic role that strong HR Due Diligence processes can have in getting the right people at the right time. We also discuss the ‘shopping list job description’ and how seeking aspirational ‘unicorn’ candidates often leads to pragmatic ‘zebra’ hiring outcomes!
We conclude, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the importance of culture.


CB: Hello, everyone, and welcome to Tech Transfer Talk. My name is Cameron Begley, Managing Director of Spiegare Proprietary Limited. And joining me today on the podcast, are two long standing colleagues of mine who occupy the world of HR and recruitment, and have been a source of an enormous advice to me over the years. And they are Jeremy Wurm and Lesley Lightfoot. Welcome to you both.

LL: Thank you, Cameron. Nice to see you today. Thanks for inviting us.

JW: Thank you for the invitation, Cameron.

CB: That’s quite all right. And I guess maybe to set the scene a little bit Leslie and Jeremy, a few words about Brooker and the activities that you get up to lead us into, I think, a rather interesting conversation around the notion of HR and HR due diligence.

JW: All we do is find people for people. The most common position we recruit for is the CEO. The second most common position is nonexecutive Director. Lesley has something I don’t have, which is HR training. I’m a humble scientist, but somehow or other seems to work. And we have recruited 300 CEOs and now getting up to 79 non executive directors, many of those in that area of commercialization that is germane to today’s discussion and to the target audience, we understand.

CB: So, Lesley, I’m interested to explore your HR background briefly because, working in concert with Jeremy, we’ve spoken on previous podcasts about this idea of two in a box, which is the technical expert and the domain expert. And to some extent that strikes me what you bring to the partnership when you’re working on assignments.

LL: Yes, well, look, I started in the recruitment journey very early on in my career. I worked at Deloitte and Tuch as a management consultant. And the human resource side of things very quickly gained a lot of interest personally. I did further qualifications in human resources management, studied psychology, became really interested in how organizational development worked and all of the various elements of that. So, my career has kind of evolved, starting with that kind of background and loved it. And then, of course, I was lucky enough to come across and throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to come across people like Jeremy who have incredible specialist knowledge on a specific competency area. And what I bring is really that sort of human, I think I have a radar for human attributes.

CB: The human resource rigour, I would call it Lesley.

LL: Yes. Just an instinct about people, being able to read them and figure out and get them to feel a little bit more comfortable about opening up as to what they bring to the table, what their skills and attributes are. Because very few people feel comfortable talking about themselves.

CB: No, too true. And possibly perhaps more so in this country than other jurisdictions where normally one doesn’t blow one’s own trumpet. But of course, the counterpoint there is that we have to know they have a trumpet to blow. So somewhere finding whether they have a trumpet that’s worth playing. The catalyst in my mind for this conversation was indeed something that happened quite domestically. And I remember calling you both going, I can’t believe what’s just happened. So for those outside of Australia that are listening, the Australian Rules football competition domestically has 18 teams. And one of those clubs hired a CEO who had to resign within 24 hours because there were discoveries made about his background that were seen to be incongruent with the position that the football club and the broader competition was trying to position itself with its customers and fans. And in that moment, so without going into the details because it’s not the point of this conversation, but the point is, how on earth does that happen that you can have such a significant hiring go so catastrophically wrong? From what strikes me as just a lack of basic due diligence. The question that then follows in the tech transfer world is, how on earth do we get this due diligence done about our people? Over the last 14 – 15 episodes, we’ve spoken a lot about market due diligence and technology due diligence. And we’ve had one of our guests talk about their due diligence Bible or their IP Bible, where they’ve got reams of information about what their intellectual property is and is not. And yet through all of that, while people speak of teams being the other key asset, where does due diligence fit into that? And that’s what I’d like to explore with you.

JW: A lot of the work we do in that tech transfer arena is in the health sector in various ways, shapes, and forms. Everyone in healthcare will tell you they’re evidence based. We certainly are, because we are only as good as the last appointment we made. The old story, bad news travels so quickly, and the fact that we’ve done a number of successful assignments is irrelevant. If somebody out there has got some dirt on the candidate, we cannot let that happen. Our reputation is all and everything that we have. We call ourselves devout cynics and skeptics. We need to be persuaded, and we need to see the evidence of the person’s academic achievements, and it just terrifies us. And Lesley and I often joke that we talk to people and ask them for evidence of their academic credentials, and they say:

LL: ‘This is the first time anyone’s ever asked.’

CB: Fascinating. Yeah. Fascinating. So that’s that. That’s one of the things that you do. How does this process unfold from your perspective? You said in the opening there, Jeremy and Lesley, you hire CEOs, you hire non executive directors. Both of those are creatures that are necessary hires as part of a tech transfer journey. Somewhere in there we’ll sit the founder, and we might get to the founder a little bit later on. But how does this boat get sailing when it comes to finding these people for these startups and early stage companies that are built around technology?

LL: Well, there are a number of different sort of parts to how we identify talent in a search for a tech transfer expert. We employ a number of different methodologies. In order to do that, we have an extensive referral partner network who we contact. We get their advice as to who we should have in the frame in our research universe, who is interested, who hasn’t said that they’re looking, but you know that they are because you might be their mentor, or you might know a mentor. We advertise our roles. We’re very conscious that, that in and of itself is an act that not only is good governance because it’s announcing to the broader sector that this position is available, it allows the company to use it as a communications tool of sorts. If they are announcing a particular skill set that they’re looking for, or perhaps they’re announcing a product or technology that they are wanting to launch or commercialize. We also contact candidates that we have worked with in other assignments. So, there’s a whole sort of methodology that we employ to identify candidates in the first instance, and then we take them through a very rigorous process of assessment. Once we’ve identified the candidates, we’ve explained the opportunity to them, then we take them through another rigorous process to ascertain whether or not they have the right skills and level of commitment to this assignment.

CB: That idea of the advertising, it strikes me as a bit of a double-edged sword. I think it was a really interesting insight you shared there Lesley, about it’s a communication tool for the hirer to position itself. Say, we’re growing, we’re launching, we’re hiring. There’s a number of messages that can bundle in that. But I guess the other edge of that sword is that you’re going to open it up to potentially a lot of people who are under qualified, ill qualified, not qualified at all. That’s opening up a fair bit of wading for you. Do you find that you actually get a lot of ill-conceived applications and they’re not burdensome or how does that work for you guys?

JW: It comes with the territory, Cameron. The aspirational application, as we call them, we can’t dismiss them. We know that our reputation is on the line. Every time we talk to somebody, we don’t know who their godfather or their brother or their cousin, on what boards they sit on. So, we can’t be dismissive of anyone, however irrelevant they are. But the advertising thing is interesting because it is, as Lesley says, it’s a PR opportunity. And what we often find is the person who gets the job didn’t see the advertising because they’re too busy, they’re actively working on behalf of their employers. But it was brought to their attention by a mentor, a family member, a colleague, and that’s because we work at that level where CEOs sit on boards, boards recruit CEOs. That demographic, they still are sufficiently old fashioned. They will read newspapers but we don’t assume that everyone reads newspapers because everyone doesn’t. But is the online advertising crew, the peak body, the professional associations, that’s vital for us. So, we throw everything at it, including the kitchen sink.

CB: Yeah. I’m taking from that there, Jeremy, that you certainly see the sharper edge of that sword, rather than the blunter edge or the downside of having to wade through erroneous applications. It’s about actually drawing in the best you possibly can, perhaps, rather than, unfortunately, dragging in the less applicable.

JW: We recently advertised the chair for a very prestigious medical research institute that all of our listeners, I suspect, will have heard of. And we had a call from somebody who said, listen, I was amazed to see you advertising this role. If this was a serious opportunity, I’d be very interested. And this is a person who those Australian listeners will have seen on TV, and that was a very important lesson for us. But when we first spoke to the client about advertising, they were very skeptical. But Lesley and I took the view that this was a particularly important, high-profile opportunity and it worked like a dream. So, we do genuinely believe in that.

LL: I can’t say that we often get bizarre applications. It’s definitely the exception rather than the rule. And we wouldn’t do what we did if we didn’t really enjoy meeting people and getting to know the person behind the resume, we have in front of us anyway. So even if this particular opportunity might not be right for them, we really do take the view that at some stage, something will cross our desk that will strike a chord with that candidate and that will be relevant. So, it’s an exploratory conversation in that first instance, which we thoroughly enjoy.

CB: I think that’s a tremendously positive way to view it. And indeed, I could reflect upon that comment personally, Jeremy, because when we first met, I was probably ill equipped for the sorts of things that we were talking about. And now here we are, I don’t know, 20 plus years later, sitting on a podcast, having a yarn. So, I think the way you describe that, Lesley, well, certainly resonates with how I came into orbit around Jeremy. So, I think that it’s a terrific positive view of, I guess, to put it one way, is building a network and a base of people from which you can draw upon for whatever roles come your way. And additionally, you are filling senior roles, you’re not filling junior positions with what you described in our opening introduction.

LL: Exactly right, Cameron. It takes a village to spot a leader, and, yeah, as many people in the village as possible will help ensure that we get the right decision at the end. We get the best available candidate identified, rather than a candidate identified or the first available candidate identified.

JW: The fact that we’re talking to you today is evidence of the fact we do take a long-term view. And while a particular candidate may be irrelevant for a particular role that could be absolutely spot on for the next assignment we have. So, we can’t be dismissive of anybody, and we know the connections that people have. As I said before, CEOs sit on boards, boards recruit CEOs.

CB: Yeah, absolutely. With that mindset, my mind immediately turns to the particular issue of due diligence for new companies. And in amongst those new companies one normally finds a founder and that founder, I’d suggest more often than not, is of a deep scientific ilk. They will have some external awareness outside of their science, but the breadth of their corporate business market orientation pretty variable thing. I’m interested in exploring what I think I’d coin ‘the founders dilemma’, which is typically little or no board governance, and yet is now charged with trying to build a team to get a particular technology to a certain inflection point. Could be anything because it depends on your sector and your market and so on and so forth. Would you like to just help me explore ‘the founder’s dilemma’ a little bit? And what on earth do we do, particularly from an HR perspective, what do we do to get good people in around this?

JW: May I suggest it’s not the founder’s dilemma, it’s the company’s dilemma. Because dealing with the founder, the founder syndrome, we all know what that can be like. This is a person who is so obsessed, and I use that word advisedly with the technology, they can’t understand why the world is not beating a path to their door. They don’t recognize that until the regulatory authorities say so. It is not a product; it is a project. It is IP until such time it becomes a product. And even when it is a product, if it’s not priced accordingly, it will never pay back the investment that the founder had in their starry-eyed view.

CB: Yeah, that’s a really interesting distinction you’ve drawn there, Jeremy, between the notion of a project until it becomes a product.

LL: Yes.

CB: So, I would suggest that the project that you just referred to is normally called product development. But in its way, you’ve put it in one word, it’s a project until it’s a product.

JW: We hear all the time that companies are so convinced that this is a blockbuster that they haven’t necessarily done their due diligence on the market. Is this really an unmet need? And very often it’s not. And we’ve seen plenty of instances where products have been created for which there is no market.

LL: You’re right though, Cameron, this is the time when the founder comes to us. Help me find someone who will be able to take my ideas through a process, try it out there and see if this will indeed ever become a product. I don’t have the skills to do that. I don’t have the resources to be able to amass a team. I’ve got my idea. I know it’s going to work. I found an investor who’s interested. I now need someone to deploy out there to make it happen.

CB:  And I guess the question that strikes me is how often does that moment consciously arrive? So, you I think Lesley perfectly described the question that should be asked. We’ve reached a point the founder needs help. We reach out and we try and find the right person to put the right sort of help in place. But the question is, how often does that moment consciously arrive and does it arrive early enough?

JW: The other issue here is, of course, that the founder has hopefully persuaded some investors, whether that’s friends, families or fools or whichever groups have invested in this technology, unless they have that investment, they can’t afford to talk to us, which means what they then do is talk to their mates. And in the life sciences, in biotech, in devices, agri-bioscience, whichever field it is, these are resource constrained entities, I think is the official terminology.

CB: Yeah, that’s a lovely way to put it.

JW: Do not have a lot of runway and they are cash strapped, and they need professional advice but either they don’t think they should afford it even though they know they need it.

CB: Yeah, so the talking to mates bit is an interesting one that sort of fits into the fools, friends and family category to some extent. So what strikes me about talking to your mates is that mates sometimes give you good advice.

JW: But they also may tell you what you want to hear.

CB: That’s what mates do.

JW: We are dispassionate in this. We pride ourselves on asking the right questions and finding out what what they want and what they don’t want. Which is even more important, I suspect, than what they think they want. And then finding the candidate is actually easier for us than finding people who will pay our modest fees to find the candidates. Because these organizations at the early stage, every dollar is hard earned. And if they can find people through their own networks, that’s the obvious way forward. They won’t skimp on the patent attorneys or the regulatory advice but using a recruiter they will.

LL: Yeah. And the thing is that it’s specialist and we do call ourselves consultants for the very reason that Jeremy’s outlining. We are able to advise them on the best way forward. And very often, just in our exploratory conversations with clients, we will ask them questions that they haven’t even considered. And we help them refine what it is that they think they need and what they should be looking for, not necessarily what they came to the meeting to tell us about. It changes as we go through a fairly extensive briefing process. Jeremy and I ask a lot of questions, and through that process, the whole refinement and definition of what it is that they’re looking for happens, as if we’re facilitating a roundtable discussion with them, trying to get their thoughts aligned.

CB: So, you’re acting in that catalytic mode where perhaps you’re helping the startup come to the realization that there is a need. And then there’s a conscious decision about whether to formally invest in an external search or work through their own networks to solve particular problems. What strikes me again, there are many aspects of this that have me sort of on edge, I would say, because you’re trying to build that right team that can carry you forward. Founders, let’s again go back to that premise that they are prominently of a scientific orientation, are going to be reaching out, trying to find people in their network that are not scientists, hopefully, because you’re needing now external facing people that aren’t focused on the tech, but those people may not be natural in their networks. Coupled with that, you did highlight there, Jeremy, I think the point that drew me to reach out to you, which was that all this resource, scarce though it might be, will go into the regulatory packages and the IP, building the tech. A few shows back, Julian Turecek talked about teams, technology and markets. So, we’ve got the technology well and truly invested in. But this team’s bit is still the hole that needs to be filled for follow on money to follow. Because based on Julian’s comment and indeed my own experiences, venture money tends to follow teams as strongly as it follows markets and technologies.

JW: You raise a very good point, Cameron, that is that the scientific founder won’t have networks in the financial markets, they won’t necessarily know who the VCs are who understand technology driven companies. And of course, what usually happens is, like appoints like, Rotarians recruit other Rotarians to boards, golf club people recruit other golfers to boards. And that’s the way it’s always happened. We believe in applying the same rigour to the appointment of an executive as we do to a nonexecutive appointment. The fish rots from the head. So, if you get it wrong in recruiting the wrong board chair or treasurer or non exec directors at the board table, they can send a company in a completely wrong direction.

CB: Yeah, and without naming names, I suspect we’ve observed and experienced those phenomena through our journeys. But I absolutely agree with you with the notion that the fish rots from the head and the tone is set from there. And as you were just answering there, it struck me there’s another dimension to this, as the founder scientist possibly doesn’t have the reach into these networks that we’re talking about around commercial market, financially oriented type experiences, folks with those experiences. But there’s another dimension, I suspect in all of this, that a senior scientist hiring experience may well boil down to the hiring of postdocs, technicians and the occasional executive assistant. And really important that those roles are, and hiring those people requires a certain background and levels of competency, but they’re not in any way I sense, the sorts of competencies we’re talking about today.

LL: Yeah, it’s very true. Cameron not everyone has the capability to take a candidate through a rigorous enough process that you get a good sense that what has been written on the piece of paper in front of you – number one is true; number two, that they are able to articulate projects that they have led or initiatives that they’ve introduced in their previous workplaces that have had meaningful success or measurable success. Very often, people just sort of say, well, tell me about a situation where you did X, Y, and Z, or tell me a bit about your last job. They don’t kind of delve into the right. how did you measure success? What does that look like in terms of facts and figures? How many people did you lead? What were some successful factors of your leadership? What didn’t work? Just to get that level of self-awareness? A lot of people don’t have those skills because they haven’t had to do this very often. Let’s be honest., how often do scientists and founders have to interview people? Not very often at all.

CB: Not very often.

LL: So, they’re skills that you learn. So why not find someone who has those skills, ensure that, as you say, you’ve done your due diligence, and you’ve hired the best possible candidate.

CB: And as you were describing that Lesley, you spoke to that idea of the evidence and digging and digging. And so, the counterpoint that struck me, as you were saying that was, okay, so we have scientists who are absolutely brilliant at digging down into the scientific evidence, that is, that they have run an experiment, they’ve generated evidence, they’ve dug into the evidence, they’ve form conclusions. And then we’ll go and hire someone and just ask a few general questions and move on.

LL: Exactly right.

CB: So, there is that strange counterpoint, and indeed, I think we’re all comfortable in digging into things when we feel comfortable, we get the things we really like. We go right down to the detail of either personally or professionally. We wormhole into things – sometimes to our detriment. Whereas here the sort of rigour that’s being demanded on the HR due diligence, if it was replicated from the science, I suspect this would be a bit of a moot conversation.

JW: Well, so true. And we’d like a dollar for every time we’ve recruited for a board. And we said, ‘so, show us your skills matrix’, and they’ve looked at us blankly. We need to have boards which have diversity of skills. We need to have boards which have diversity of gender and age and ethnicity. People talk about diversity of gender all the time, but we strongly believe that boards should have other types of diversity as well. And, of course, the classic, you’ve got to have an accountant and a lawyer, etcetera. We will test those hypotheses, and the skills mix will change according to the evolutionary cycle of the company at the stage that it’s at.

CB: Yeah.

JW: The founder will survive those early stages and stay on the payroll. That’s another discussion that we may well not have time to talk about today. But it’s a real issue.

LL: You can apply that same construct to an executive position yeah. Because the skills that you require of your executive change depending on the maturity of the organization.

CB: Absolutely.

LL: So not very many people take that into consideration.

CB: Ah, no. Absolutely, Lesley. And I think I think that that idea of the skills matrix for the board and the skills for the senior executive team and how that changes from early stage to growth to moving into a more operational efficiency modality inevitably shifts around. But whether boards and executives are adapting through those phases . We had a great conversation, actually, with Victor Pantano only in the last couple of podcasts.

JW: There was a conference that Osmetech ran a while back, and one of the sessions was all about the evolution from startup to grown up. And things changed dramatically through that. And that particular session focused on how the boards makeup needed to keep pace with the company’s evolution.

CB: Which is really interesting because one of the questions I wanted to touch on with you was that role of the board in executive hiring. And the example I led in with from the domestic football competition, really prompted that question about, so what is the role of the board in these moments? But when we’re dealing with startups, there’s a really interesting conundrum that the board may not actually be there in any meaningful way. So, I’d be interested just to get your reflections on this moment, of the role of the board in these startups and what happens when there’s no board.

JW: Well, good question. And what we often find, of course, is these companies are at such a stage of development that they don’t have a nominations and remuneration committee, which is a subcommittee of the board. That’s the entity that we usually deal with listed companies. And that’s great because these are people chosen for their skills in HR and people development startups very rarely have that luxury.

CB: Let’s assume there is a small board or at least a gathering of shareholders that meet occasionally to reflect upon the performance of the company they’ve invested in. We won’t necessarily call them a board, that would, might be an exaggeration, but a small gathering of shareholders come together, and they say, ‘oh gee, we need someone’. And now we enter this world, which I think you’ve described to me privately as the board-catalyzed appointment, or in this scenario, the shareholder-catalyzed appointment. I’m interested in your insights there because, particularly in Australia at the moment, we’ve got a lot of startups. Company creation is all the rage, for want of a better turn of phrase. And if you’re going to generate a lot of companies, that means you’ve got to generate a lot of governance to go with those companies. Unless you’re expecting well, I don’t know what you’d be expecting, to be honest, if you don’t govern them. Probably a bit of a mess. So, I’m interested in your views, particularly with this company creation modality at the moment. What are you seeing of the board-catalyzed appointment phenomena.

LL: Look, it’s interesting because usually Jeremy and I are approached when all other avenues have been explored and failed, and they realized that they don’t have the skills required to make a good placement. So, they call us to fix it.

CB: Having exhausted all the available alternatives,

LL: Exactly, they then go ‘can you come and fix this problem for us?’ It’s either that way or they have heard through their networks, whether they are professional or private, that we have worked on a similar appointment, and it’s been successful. So, there are a number of different ways. We don’t often hear about failures unless they have come to us after the fact and said, we tried this and we failed ourselves. It’s not something that’s talked about generally.

CB: No.

LL: You agree with that, Jeremy? I mean, we attend all the odd biotech conferences, we’re very plugged into BioMelbourne Network, we do all the networking events, but I can’t say that, that is water cooler conversation at a conference either. We don’t get to hear about the many times that this has probably failed.

JW: I think what companies fail to realize is that it’s actually extremely time consuming to do what we do. And using an external search firm, they’re not just buying our database, they’re buying the fact that we have a system that we know works. We know how to minimize the risk of it going horribly wrong. We can never eradicate the risk, but we know how to reduce that failed hire.

CB: To reduce that risk.

JW: We guarantee our work, and we can only do that if we are evidence based, if we have rigour, if we ask the question that interview about ‘o, Susie, if we did a deep dive into social media, would there be anything in your background that might raise the eyebrow of a selection panel member?’ And you’d be surprised how forthcoming some people are about some unpleasant stuff that might appear on social media. We work on a ‘no surprises’ basis. We have to because our reputation is at stake.

CB: Yeah, no, I think that’s a really fascinating question. Would there be something on social media? Yeah, that certainly, from a ‘no surprises’ perspective, I think is a really insightful question.

LL: That’s how our AFL example perhaps, would have been highlighted before the appointment was announced.

CB: Yeah, indeed, it was out there on social media.

JW: When we prepare for our clients, an assessment matrix to be used at the short list stage. In other words, when the panel interviews the shortlist of candidates, they’ve chosen from the people we’ve recommended, we still recognize that ‘gut feel’ is a criterion that should not be downplayed. It is something we always recommend and equally, not wanting to sound too counterintuitive either, we also have very often clients who say to us when we get to that stage, ‘come back to us with a wild card appointment, somebody who might not meet the original brief that we gave you, but somebody you have this feeling about this candidate. You think they are of such quality that they can really bring something to the table that the standard orthodox appointee might not have’. And we enjoy that.

CB: The unorthodox candidate.

LL: Yes, and there are many, many unorthodox candidates out there. Every assignment has one.

CB: Now, it’s become crystal clear to me how we managed to get along for so many years. I’ve now got my little pigeonhole.

JW: And while the wild card candidate, and I don’t imply that we recommend to our clients that they appoint some wacky funster to the position, they should nevertheless use that candidate background as a means of teasing out why they like or not, some of the other candidates and what do they really want? And it really is amazing how that person’s background can generate some really meaty discussion that is actually quite useful.

LL: And can inform their decision making at the very end of the day in terms of, no, this is a non-negotiable. We really need this skill set. We’ve teased alternatives, we’ve looked at very capable people who don’t have that skill set, but we can’t move from this. It’s required.

JW: And the scientists love that because we are testing the hypothesis.

LL: Absolutely.

CB: Yeah, no, I can see that in the way that you’ve described that. And what’s come up in my mind is you have described the unorthodox candidate and the way that that tests a whole lot of hidden assumptions, is a phenomenon that I’ve certainly witnessed. And I suspect you may have come across, which I’d just like to quickly explore before we close out, -which is the utopian job description. I’d say a number of times – I wouldn’t, shouldn’t say many, number of times I have seen the well, this is just the perfect description. So, we’re just going to we’re going to put out in our JD the perfect description of what we want. And I’d be interested in your thoughts on the utility of the perfect job description.

JW: Cameron what you’re referring to is what we call a shopping list, and this is the ideal candidate. We see this so often. People over produce the documentation, and they say, we want this, do we want that? We want Nobel Prize and all the rest of it.

CB: In two disciplines.

JW: We are the reality check. But through the process, irrespective of what the original brief determined and having asked the questions about what they want and what they don’t want, we will come back to them through the process. Okay, we’re finding candidates who’ve got loads of this, but not much of that. How strong are you on the qualifications? How strong are you on the governance skills? How strong are you on the geography? How strong are you on the salary? And we will calibrate each of those parameters.

LL: We provide the evidence that the unicorn they have asked for does not exist, and we ask them if they will accept a zebra instead. And we explain why we think, in our opinion, the zebra would be a great fit.

CB: Yes, the unicorn and the zebra, of course. Yeah, of course. And you raised there, Jeremy, an interesting parameter of salary and it’s interesting, not going to dig through that particular issue, but the observation I’ve drawn after many years of seeing shopping list job descriptions, I think that’s a better description, is I do actually hold deep down the belief that there is someone there that can make the full job description, but they’re not prepared to pay the salary that is required to attract the candidate. When I see things written like oh, we’ve gone around the world and we’ve done a worldwide search and this is the person we’ve appointed, I always in my mind follow with for the salary you are prepared to offer.

LL: Exactly. There is always that qualifier

JW: Try as we might to be scientific about recruitment, there are a range of very corny expressions in recruitments and they’re all corny, but almost all of them are true and one of them is, you will get what you pay for.

CB: It’s been terrific just exploring this question because as I said, as we opened today, this notion of HR and HR due diligence and getting rigour around this, given the clear emphasis that investors put on teams, and ultimately teams and culture will drive the success of any venture. It doesn’t matter whether it’s two people or 20,000 people, teams and culture will drive success. I’d just be interested in your final thoughts. We’ve bounced around a few different areas. I’d be interested in any final thoughts you got either, an experience you’ve had in the startup space or some general observations about making sure we get this right so that we optimize the chances for success for these ventures and startups.

LL: Well, my response, and I’m sure Jeremy’s will be totally different, but I think it’s imperative that that initial conversation where we get briefed by someone who says, this is the person I’m looking for, that is the key conversation. In us posing questions and further trying to get to the bottom of whether it’s unicorn or a zebra that we’re looking for, that is the key conversation; that is the crux of the matter. And if they aren’t able to answer our questions, it’s a surefire sign that they haven’t done their own due diligence from their side and they have unrealistic expectations about what they’ll be able to find.

CB: Really interesting. So those answers reflect their own thought and due diligence around what they’re looking for.

LL: And if they are not crystal clear about what they’re looking for, it’s impossible for us to find that person.

CB: Yeah.

LL: We go out and we find someone that is being described to us in general terms, albeit general terms. But if that isn’t clear, and if there isn’t agreement from the broader board or stakeholder group that that is indeed what the organization needs, we will never find them the right person. And it would probably not end up being a successful venture.

CB: Yes, that’s great. Thank you, Lesley. Jeremy, any last thoughts?

JW: Lesley and I have often said culture eats strategy for breakfast. Yes, the culture of an organization is determined, again, by the founder and by the investors who have a role, and that’s whether we like it or not, but certainly the board. And so often we’ve seen that inability to adapt to a small culture, an emerging company, if you’ve come from a big multinational into that sort of environment, it’s so difficult. People say they will adapt and can adapt, but we really need some persuasion that’s the case. And that whole cultural thing, it is the thing that will undo any appointment.

CB: Yeah, no, that’s fascinating. And, indeed, we touched on that idea, that example earlier of the right background from their own experience and the ability to adapt to this brave, crazy world of startups and early-stage venturing. With that, I’d like to thank both of you, Lesley, and Jeremy, for joining us today. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed exploring this HR due diligence question. And what really strikes me from our conversation is that we need to move away from the ‘break glass in case of HR emergency’ mentality and actually start to think about this more strategically in the early stages of forming up, rather than getting to a point and hoping that the problem will get solved because I’ve got a few mates who might have an answer for me. So, with that, thank you both again. Well, I look forward to chatting with you soon. To all our listeners, thank you for joining us today and we look forward to you joining us again soon on Tech Transfer Talk.

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