A Growth Lesson: Who should you hire?

Number one question, always. No matter if I’m meeting a founder over coffee, or if I opened up Q&A to a room of 2,000 conference attendees. The number one question is – but if I’m looking to hire out for growth, who should I hire?

Spoiler alert: no one ever likes the answer.

They are hoping I’ll say something like “go looking for a marketer with technical chops” or “I’d find someone with a product background that has worked closely with marketing.” To them, even searching for a hybrid, cross-team hire like that feels hard enough.

Sadly, it’s soooo much harder than that. Finding someone who sits on marketing that understands product, or someone in product that understands marketing isn’t enough to assure they are going to drive real impact along your growth curve. And if I can be brutally honest for a minute…isn’t cross-team knowledge and awareness more of a pre-requisite for any hire these days? I mean who is hiring someone who only knows their domain at a startup these days? Yuck. Anyway, I digress.

So, what are you looking for when hiring for growth? You’re looking for a t-shaped hire. Not the t-shaped hire of yesteryear, but an even higher bar. Just a few years ago you could get away with hiring for a t-shaped hire that was domain specific. For marketing, it would look something like this:

As most of you already know, it means they are deep in one domain of marketing but exposed broadly to all other marketing domains. My personal example would be that I’m a performance marketer by trade – started my days in Adwords back when it first opened, I played around in Panama, and remember contributing to the very first versions of the Adwords Editor (ahhh those dreamy days when we were all buying keywords for cents on the dolla #memories).

But then I began stacking channels. I learned SEO (thanks Rand!), community marketing, lifecycle marketing, retention marketing, loyalty and brand, and so on and so forth. With each job, I would take on a little more so I knew how to do each channel – as if I was deep in the weeds. Fast forward 14 years and I’m a t-shaped marketer.

Worth noting that t-shaped domain hires are still super useful, especially if you are early to mid-stage and have small teams, limited resources, and big goals (i.e. most of us).

But what I think is needed to really staff for growth these days is even more – I think you need a t-shaped hire that is domain agnostic.

[Looks around, shaking head] Say what?

Yeah, I think the real impact hires are ones where the deep domain is an ENTIRE domain, and the broader stretch is exposure to all the other domains. It looks more like this:

Great growth contributors don’t think as a one-team contributor, they think as a cross-team contributor. They are aware of every single lever across the business that could drive growth, and they have built the relationships across the company to influencer those levers.

If growth can happen from either acquiring more people, retaining them longer, or monetizing them more effectively – then the levers are all around us. Marketing. Product. Engineering. CX. Finance. Ops.

If a dollar could be made, or a dollar could be saved – it can impact growth. The right hires intuitively get this. They see the company as one big growth machine, independent of the team they sit with in the pit.

I freaking love these hires. I mean whoa.

Now, are there many of them? Sooo, uhmmm, welllll. Maybe not quite yet, but it’s happening. You’re feeling the shift, or at least I am. I think it’s happening with the rise of a few other macro trends like:

  • The rise of training institutions/programs like General Assembly, CodeFellows, etc.
  • A shift towards in-house training/brown bag lunches with cross team shares/training
  • The general acceptance of doing side projects when employed at a startup
  • The millennial renaissance where they are constantly seeking new experiences/striving to be better
  • The best companies out there expecting this as you apply for a role on their team

I actually believe, that we are quickly seeing a revolution where the early career hires I make tend to have more exposure than the more seasoned ones. It’s like the early career hires were never told they had to pick a domain, so it never occurred to them. I also think that tech as a field is so much more prevalent, that it’s assumed many of them will land in it in some capacity. So, the idea that they will just sample all it has to offer is an obvious one, making their backgrounds broader by default.

One thing is super clear to me though – T-shaped hires, that are domain agnostic, are critical to creating a growth culture. Here is an example skill set list I’d look for in any marketing hire on my team these days:

  • Performance and organic marketing exposure
  • Technical marketing chops – SQL, html, etc.
  • Design theory/UX/UI knowledge
  • Product knowledge – can they wireframe? Do they know how to write a product brief? Do they understand the product development lifecycle?
  • Finance knowledge – can they understand a P&L, can they forecast/model?
  • Engineering awareness – have they worked directly with engineering before? Do they understand the common tech stacks? Have a working knowledge of engineering tools, QA processes, etc.

Sound like a lot? Damn right it is. Oh yeah, I also want them to have high EQ, be kind, and a culture fit.

The heart of it is this: if you want to staff a company that wins a market you have to hire the absolute best talent out there. They have to think differently, see opportunity where others see blockers, and they have to work well with every team so you don’t lose cycles to friendly fire.

So that’s what I think makes a great growth hire…a domain agnostic t-shaped hire, with low ego, high EQ, that wakes up every morning obsessed with making an impact.

I told you that you weren’t going to like the answer.

But if you think those hires are magical creatures that don’t exist, think again. I’ve met them, and they are out there – participating in forums like GrowthHackers, completing programs like Reforge, and grabbing coffee together sharing ideas, helping each other make the world a better place. They are out there, you just have to keep the bar high and do the work to find them.

Wishing you all the luck in your hiring adventures and high-fiving you from NYC, go get ‘em.




  • trenton

    1. Does somebody need experience in all of those areas to “see the company as one big growth machine, independent of the team they sit with in the pit?”

    2. I think you should differentiate domains by classifying some as subdomains. It was hard to follow when email marketing, marketing, and finance were all considered domains. If it can be nested under a category it’s a subcategory.

    3. I love the list at the end. I’ll use it to determine which projects I go after so I can build skills in those areas.

  • snosnap

    …and then, will you give them the freedom and responsibility once you hire them? These hires can scare others.

  • https://www.linkedin.com/in/williamaking Bill King™

    Thanks for posting this Joanna. I’m always stressed out that I don’t know enough! Fortunate to be attending Reforge in two weeks. Can’t wait :)