Matt Blumberg on Hiring, Finding Senior Talent, and the CEO’s Role in Recruitment

March 19, 2015

“Why would you ever settle for less than an A player in every role?”

Startup CEO by Matt Blumberg

Every company dreams of hiring only all-stars and having a vast rolodex of eager, exceptional talent ready to go to work when a position opens in their area of expertise.

But how do you actually achieve that?

The delicate balance of acquiring talent quickly — but only hiring the exceptional — is what Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path, explores with the chapter The Hiring Challenge in a Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business. 

How to “Get the Right People On the Bus” – Quickly.

The easiest way to plan for future hiring needs is to be in constant communication – not just about talent needs interdepartmentally – but also with potential candidates. Blumberg speaks directly to this point:

Most of the managers on your team are making tactical decisions that can be forecasted and planned for in advance. This includes hiring: if you’re planning to roll out a mobile app in the following year, you need to start recruiting mobile developers 6 to 12 months ahead of time. CEOs, by contrast, focus on long-term, strategic planning. When those plans change or go into a new phase, you’ll find yourself needing an entirely new set of talent on very short notice. You can either scramble to find those people at the last minute, or you can go back to a contact you made years ago – just in case.

A Shortcut to Placing Exceptional (and Senior) Talent

As a leader or a hiring manager, it’s important that you always stay “in-market” for exceptional talent. Pay attention when you receive a recommendation from a trusted advisor – and Blumberg advises you always take a meeting with the person they recommended. Even when you don’t have a position for the candidate to fill yet.

There’s nothing disingenuous about taking these meetings even if you’re not hiring: when a need arises that this person might fill, you will get in touch. (It’s important to be up front about this: don’t give people the impression that they’re interviewing for an active position if that’s not the case.) You’re just being honest when you say that you don’t know when that will be. We’ve been able to fill more than a few key senior roles over time quickly, and without having to use expensive recruiters, by being actively in-market all the time.

Personal referrals are the #1 source of both hiring volume and quality for a reason – their reputation was earned working alongside someone you (or your employees) trust in a professional environment.

The CEO’s Role in Recruitment

Once a company reaches a certain size the task of recruiting and hiring belongs to a team of professionals from human resources and, perhaps, an external recruiter or RPO. But senior leaders, particularly the CEO, have a unique role in the recruitment process that can be leveraged to the company’s advantage. Return Path’s lead recruiter, Jen Goldman, points out that maintaining a public persona is an opportunity “for the CEO to become a big part of sourcing talent.”

Candidates typically “follow” a CEO on Twitter, LinkedIn or other social media, and these are all great avenues for finding and attracting talent. They give candidates a very good sense of a company’s culture and whether they want to work for it.”

But what if senior leadership is motivated to be materially involved in talent acquisition – what should they ask in an interview? For Blumberg, the CEO’s role is not about filtering candidates for appropriate skills and requirements.

As a CEO, your goal should be to look for cultural fit and engagement – the X factors. The best way to do so is by interviewing candidates yourself.

And the advantages to senior leadership participating in interviews don’t stop with being able to help assess a candidate’s cultural fit.

…interviews have been great mechanisms for collecting data about the organization, for making a personal impression on the culture, and for continuing to get to know all employees, at least a little bit. Moreover, it was a great recruiting tool: good candidates really appreciate the fact that the CEO is interested in them, even if you give them only 15 minutes of your time.

Blumberg’s Favorite – and Least Favorite – Interview Questions

Matt Blumberg

Matt Blumberg, CEO of Return Path

Blumberg opens the chapter by saying “hiring is one of the many full-time jobs you take on when you become a startup CEO.” His actions would back up this opinion; he personally interviewed everybody Return Path hired until the company grew beyond 275 people. He reveals the most important question is the one that separates genuinely interested and motivated candidates from the herd.

Perhaps the most important interview question you can ask is, “What do you think of our business?” If the interviewee doesn’t have a cogent response by the time they get to you, you don’t want them. And it doesn’t matter what job the person is applying for.

Interestingly, Blumberg is not a fan of the compulsory “What’s your greatest weakness?” interview question. He finds it “usually shuts people down.” In its place, he asks:

“I’m sure, like all of us, you have had a development plan at jobs in the past. What items keep showing up?”

He explains that this question is more specific and requires the interviewee to provide an “equally thoughtful answer.”

If someone gives a B.S. answer (“My greatest weakness is that I care too much”; “People say I work too hard”) – they aren’t self-aware enough to handle our feedback process.

Related: 7 Critical Hiring Questions Every Interviewer Should Ask Themselves


In Startup CEO Blumberg generously shares wisdom he’s gleaned from years of hard-won experience in that role; from idea conception to navigating mergers and acquisitions. But the best bits are applicable to businesses of all sizes – and none moreso than the chapters concerning every businesses’ most important asset: its people.

Do you have a favorite business book? We’d love to hear about it. Drop a comment below or tweet us @HireEngineers.


Photo Credit: images_of_nature / Flickr