I get emails every week from mid-level and senior executives who want to join a growth company. You’re going to be spending 40-plus hours a week with your new colleagues, which is more time than most of us spend with our spouses. So, I put together some notes on how to perform due diligence on a management team, from the point of view of a prospective colleague. The whole process feels a lot like dating for marriage. This is the process I used when I recently joined HOF Capital.
Interview the team members (separately).
You should be interviewing your colleagues just like they’re interviewing you. Ask them for their full resumes. If they can’t provide them, that’s a red flag for how much they value you and how transparent they are willing to be.
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It’s critical to meet people one on one. In a group, the more extroverted personalities will dominate the conversation, but they’re not always the most insightful people. In addition, people in a group are more likely to speak the party line, because they’re self-monitoring to align with the views of their colleagues. One on one, they’re more likely to tell their true opinion. Lastly, you’re going to have to work with everyone — both the talkative and the laconic — so you need to evaluate fit with every one.
For ideas on what to ask, see “The Master List: Questions to Ask Potential Co-Founders” and “8 Issues You Need to Discuss with Your Startup Co-Founder.”
Think about cultural fit.
As a way of getting to know your colleagues, my coach Ben Dattner recommends that you write a “user’s manual” for your co-workers. I did that, shared it with my colleagues, and they in turn shared their user manuals with me. Looking for examples? Linkel Eakman, a prominent limited partner, published his guide: “A Human User Interface … with lots of quirks,” while Jeff Epstein, CEO of Ambassador, posted his.
I also suggest it’s helpful to draw up a list of the areas in which you are most likely to have friction. When you understand the major risk factors you face in working together, you can then discuss how to mitigate them. By analogy, when I was in the process of dating my now-wife, we read Don’t You Dare Get Married Until You Read This!, which is a list of about 500 pre-marriage questions, including “How would you feel if my mother moved in with us?” and “What would you do if I gained 50 pounds?” Typical sources of friction you’ll want to discuss with your future colleagues: equity splits, working hours, number of hours worked and corporate strategy.
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Identify management domains.
The paper org chart is always different than the shadow org chart of how things happen in an organization. Explicitly ask people: What is your area of responsibility?When you last made a major decision about hiring, firing, new product approvals, investing, etc., who was in the room where it happens? In theory, the CEO controls everything, but in practice that’s never the case (except with a true micro-manager, whom you don’t want to work for).
I think a great tool for understanding the shadow org chart is to review a group Asana, Trello or Basecamp account where all firm initiatives are listed and prioritized, along with who owns what. It’s also helpful to look at where standard processes are documented, in those platforms, or in a process automation/documentation tool like Process Street.
Another helpful way to do this: write jointly with your proposed teammates a culture guide to the firm. This could even be posted to the website in summary form. As some models, see Bridgewater’s Principles; Goldman Sachs business principles; Blue Future Partners philosophy; and Brad Feld on TAGFEE.
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Dattner suggests asking, “What are some unique norms or cultural practices at the firm or on the management team that new team members sometimes find out the hard way, and can you please let me know what they are and how to avoid inadvertently violating them?”
He also adds, “What is the management team’s collective accountability and/or authority, if any?” to see if it really is a team, rather than just a collection of individual silos or tops of different functional pyramids.
Establish ethical boundaries.
It’s important to understand the parameters of whom you’d work with. For example, are you and your colleagues comfortable working with:
- Companies selling alcohol or cannabis, e.g. Privateer Holdings’ investments
- Companies likely to be a channel for NSFW content, e.g. Zivity
- Companies selling surveillance and monitoring technology to governments, e.g. NSO Group
- Companies selling weapons, e.g. Zore X (smart handguns)
- Companies that provide abortion services
- Nonprofits or political parties which advocate for political positions with which some of your team members (or you) may not agree
- Companies with leadership accused of unethical behavior, e.g. sexual harassment
- Companies with leadership who are prominent supporters of politicians you oppose
Even though most of the companies you’ll partner with or sell to are not doing anything controversial, you’ll inevitably have opportunities like the above over time, so it’s helpful to get a sense of your joint decision-making filter.
If all goes well, the next step is to make a smooth transition out of your prior firm, and stick the landing at your new home.