When corporates setup startup divisions or new ventures the first order of business is staffing. While hiring is always challenging, it is especially so for a corporate venture or innovation unit in the early stages.

Hiring for uncertainty

Setting up a venture unit is often a deliberate embrace of uncertainty, unchartered territory and an attempt to move outside the box, which by definition precludes any clarity on the purpose and specifics of the roles that need to be filled.

Cluelessness and challenging the status quo

Ideally a corporate venture should harness both the nimble practices and mindset of entrepreneurs and the domain space knowhow and organisational advantages of the corporate sponsor. Combining the two and creating a mixed team of insiders and outsiders would be the optimal approach, but this requires very careful mixing and deliberate designation of roles and responsibilities.

Too often ventures units get setup either by simply transfering talent from the core organisation or by deliberately staffing only with outsiders, but they should really warrant a mixed approach. Worst case you end up with career corporate employees playing entrepreneurs or clueless outsiders disrupting and challenging things that they don’t really understand fully.

Finding and attracting talent

Articulating the role or type of person you are looking for requires a decent understanding of the role. Anyone who has ever witnesses non-technical people trying to hire a software developer will know this, but this goes for all kinds of roles.

Scaling up the newly formed unit will often be slowed down by a need to hire a person, who can hire the next person, who can hire the next person, but rapidly hiring people without fully understanding the roles being filled will inevitably lead to duplication of roles, internal confusion and an incoherent structure.

Finding new employees can also be challenging. The job boards and company website may not be the appropriate place to reach out and there are few internal referals or network effects from the existing employee base. Identifying the channels and places where the potential hires can be reached can be hard. Partnering with specialised recruiters or innovation hubs can alleviate some of it, but it remains a challenge to most corporates.

Even if you can write a role description and get it in front of the appropriate audience, you still need to get them interested. These are often people who have actively decided not to pursue a corporate career and are not impressed by the size or dominance of big companies.

Anything that smells even remotely of corporate bureaucracy will be considered a disqualifier. Corporates need to work hard to prove that this will be a different setup and it represents an exciting opportunity.

A short recipe for initial staffing

  • You are hiring for uncertainty, so hire for a wide skillset and managerial experience initially to ensure flexibility and a gradual build up of hiring competences.
  • You need to carefully mix outsiders and insiders, picking off talent from the mothership and giving them well defined roles of subject matter expertise and liason.
  • You need to actively target other channels and communities than your regular recrutment and scrap the regular corporate recruitment proces. It is designed to pull in people with certain profiles and will turn off the corporate-nevers you are looking to attract.

I hope you have enjoyed my ramblings on hiring for corporate ventures. Please reach out or comment if you have feedback or input.

Take a look at my other writing on corporate innovation and ventures.

Chief Digital Officer & Head of Strategy, Boxer A/S

Chief Digital Officer & Head of Strategy, Boxer A/S