How To Hire an Expert When You’re Not an Expert

One of the hardest tasks an early-stage founder needs to confront is figuring out how to fill a role in an area that doesn’t fall into their expertise.

6 min read May 3, 2024
Running Your Company Early Seed

Imagine this: You need to hire someone who’s an expert in a field you know nothing about. How in the world are you going to convince them to work for you? And anyways, how do you even know what great looks like in the role?

I’ve had that same thought multiple times. At this point, I’ve spent the majority of my career hiring people for my team who know way more than I do about their functional areas. This started when I was 25 at Google and managing a sales team of people who had 10, 15 or 20 years of sales experience and continued when I was hiring functional leaders for my People teams. 

Founders are often confronted with this dilemma with urgency, and it’s usually in the form of, “I’m an engineer and haven’t marketed anything ever. I now need to go hire our first marketer… help!”

There’s no need to panic. Overcoming this challenge requires clarity, respect and knowing when to seek external guidance. Here are a few ways to think about it

Define ‘great’

Several years ago, I needed to hire a VP of Total Rewards, and while I have working knowledge of compensation and benefits, I’m nowhere near a TR professional. I knew I couldn’t do this on my own.

I reached out to my favorite People leaders and search partners and asked each to name the best TR leader they knew. This wasn’t about recruiting them, but rather was about setting my bar properly. I figured if I could see and learn from greatness, I’d have a chance of pattern-matching in my upcoming interview process. 

I arrived at about 10 referrals and every single one of them was willing to help me calibrate. I asked:

  • What are the two or three things that you believe make a great TR leader?
  • How do you assess these traits?
  • Given what we’re looking for, what kind of profiles do you think would work best? Are there any things we should look for specifically or avoid?
  • Is there anyone you know and love who could be a fit? [I can’t avoid an opportunity for a referral — and it worked!]

My notes from these meetings defined the assessment process I built and helped me home in on what “great” looks like.

Don’t fake it

OK, so you don’t know a ton about marketing — that’s fine! An interview is not a time for you to demonstrate that you read a Marketing 101 article online last night that bestowed upon you deep marketing expertise. There’s no need to fake it. 

Another way to look at this is that it behooves you to develop deep respect for the function you’re hiring for. I can’t tell you the number of amazing candidates who have dropped out of processes, citing that the CEO was dismissive of their point of view (“You don’t need resources for something like that”), belittled the difficulty of the work needed to do their function well (“I’ve been doing this role as we’ve been hiring and it’s not that hard”) and acted like they knew more about how to run their function than they did (“Brand doesn’t matter, and I don’t know why you’d spend your energy there”). 

It’s not about agreeing on everything with your candidates, but I always tell founders that if you demonstrate respect for a function even if you don’t understand it well, you have the best chance of attracting the best people. 

Use your interviews to demonstrate you’ve done your homework (you just had a set of bar-setting convos with their peers) and to learn from these candidates and see how they think. Spend the time seeking to understand. In many ways, intellectual curiosity and humility can go much further than exaggerated understanding.

When in doubt, leverage external help

By now, you’ve met a set of amazing candidates. If you’re worried about being able to properly assess your final batch, go back to that list of bar-setters you talked to and ask if one of them would be willing to interview your final-round candidates or the one you’re almost ready to hire. If you impressed them in your bar-setting call and/or through a strong mutual connection, they may be up for doing you this favor. And it’s worth sending them a small token of your appreciation afterwards. The world is small and this is a great opportunity to have another strong leader out there affiliated with your company.

I often do this for founders and former coworkers who want my read as they’re hiring a People leader. Give specific instructions on what you want them to dig into and they’re likely to give you a helpful perspective. 

Figure out what you bring to the table

Yes, you may not have functional expertise, but there are other things that you’re amazing at that can attract people to work for you. 

Early in my career, I knew my company’s product inside and out and could navigate what was a very complex organization. People wanted to work for me because I had this information and could get stuff done, definitely not because my three years of sales experience made me a veteran! Later in my career, I sharpened my business acumen and prided myself on being a leader who wasn’t just living in the People silo. 

I hired someone who once told me, “I don’t need you to teach me how to be a better recruiting leader. I need you to teach me how to be a better business leader.” And thank goodness, because I had about 20 years less experience in recruiting than she had. 

You have something — or somethings — so figure out what those things are and lean in.

Pair your new expert with an expert of their own

You’ve gone through all of this and landed your new person, but you also know you can’t be the go-to for functional day-to-day questions. Encourage them to get that from the outside. 

Maybe it’s an equity advisor or simple mentorship from another, more experienced leader in the function. Once again, it’s worth checking with that list of bar-setters!

Lead with confidence and humility

It’s easy to assume that people only want to work for experts in their craft. I mean, who wouldn’t love to work for the Michaelangelo of their function? But the reality is, there’s so much more to career development, and what makes a great manager, than functional expertise. 

With some self-reflection, elbow grease, and humility, you’re likely to find you’ll be able to attract great people to work for you regardless of your overlap in interests.

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