Fledgling engineering teams and hundred-person juggernauts, boom times and lean years — Adil Ajmal has experienced them all. As an engineering leader for nearly 20 years at companies like Amazon, TenMarks Education, Intuit, Posterous and Homestead, he’s repeatedly grown teams from scratch or just three engineers to dozens — before jumping to another brand-new startup to do it all over again. He’s hired for entry-level positions, VPs, and everything in between. Now CTO for LendingHome, having finely-honed his recruiting craft, his candidate close rate is exceptional.
Over the course of thousands (and thousands) of interviews, a curious truth emerged that informs his approach: The secret to closing isn’t offering the most equity or saying just the right thing during an offer call. It’s really closely listening to and noticing what’s motivating each candidate during the entire process, and then explaining precisely how your company will serve those needs. This sounds straightforward — but given that people seldom know what they want or tell the full truth or represent themselves accurately in interviews — it’s anything but.
In the exclusive interview, Ajmal explains exactly how to suss out what’s driving your prospective hires, and how to carry that thread throughout the hiring process so that you’re not relying on a single closing conversation. The trick is to be closing the whole time. He also shares expert tips for delivering a comp package, the best way to explain its real value, and how to lose a candidate so gracefully that they eventually come back to you.
DECIPHERING CANDIDATE MOTIVATIONS
Closing begins with your first candidate interaction. That’s when you should start asking yourself the all-important question: What does this person want to get out of the role, and the company, and can we realistically make it happen for them? The recruiting process needs to be designed to investigate and answer this question. “You have to figure out each candidate’s motivation from the beginning. If you don't know that, then it's hit or miss when you're trying to close. The more you know about what truly excites each person, the better you can tailor the entire process,” says Ajmal.
Engineers, in particular, may hold their cards close to the vest, so you’ll need to develop keen people-reading skills to really boost your chances. “If you ask somebody, ‘Are you excited?’ they'll say yes. And that doesn't get you anything,” says Ajmal. The trick is to ask targeted questions to find out what excites them. Consider asking simple things like:
What in your career or life are you most excited about? (Never ask them directly if they are excited about the job in question. And if a ‘why’ is not inherent in their answer, then always follow up with that and see what you can glean from their response.)
Another way in: What fun stuff are you working on these days? (This is usually revealing because ‘fun’ is very relative and very different from person to person based on what they truly enjoy.)
For engineers driven by problem-solving, enthusiasm for the job manifests as curiosity; they’re motivated by meaty technical problems. “Drill deeper into that curiosity. Ask them, ‘What problems are you most interested in?’ If you're not getting anything from those questions, there's a good chance that you're going to lose them. But if you see something that you can connect to, start digging into that story.”
Other times, this might reveal that the candidate is less motivated by a problem than by the opportunity to make a difference. These candidates need to hear you define your mission and explain how their role supports it. “LendingHome is in the mortgage business, but our mission is not just to be the best mortgage company. Our mission is to have a positive impact on people who are going through the biggest purchase of their lives.” Mission-oriented candidates want to connect to the emotional core of what they would be doing.
You can identify these people because they're very focused on the impact they would like to make, versus understanding the technical problems they’ll encounter. They will talk about their desire to improve things for a particular audience. They’ll talk about what solving a problem will actually do for that audience in a broader sense (i.e. what will it empower them to do more easily or accomplish). They will often be excited about improving something they’ve experienced firsthand. Examples to spot might include:
They want to help small businesses because a parent or someone in their lives was a small business owner.
At LendingHome, they often want to improve the mortgage process because they or one of their friends just went through it and it wasn’t great.
They want to work on an education app because they want to improve outcomes for students, etc.
If you hit a wall and can’t suss out a candidate’s driving interests at all, try asking what they’ve gotten out of their previous positions. What are the most important skills, assets, or experiences those roles yielded? Pay close attention to the choices they make. “The way they approach that question, and the kinds of things they speak about, gives you a very good idea of what they're looking for in their next role, too.”
There is one motivation that should raise a red flag, though. “The candidates that I don't usually want to spend much time on are folks who are basically just looking for the next big check. Money is not a great motivation,” says Ajmal. “But it’s actually very common that this is driving the entire process for them.”
Few people lead with cash demands in their interviews, but there are some giveaways. “When they get into the offer process, this type of candidate will forget about everything else that they said they wanted to get out of the role. They become fixated on compensation and often have unreasonable expectations.” Other times, when asked about their past jobs, these candidates might focus not on what they learned there but how they were shortchanged financially or in terms of title (i.e. 'I was basically a Director'), or how they did more work than they feel their title or status in the company represented.
Short of these warning signs, though, few motivations are bad. It’s not a matter of looking for one over another, but rather developing the interviewing intelligence to frame the role in a way that will resonate for that candidate.
Once you understand a candidate’s motivations, you have to make that your North Star throughout the recruiting process.
For example, if you’re trying to close a problem-solver, you might continue to share some of the thornier goals or features your team is currently working on. You want to give them as much of a window into the tough challenges that actually exist at the company as possible.
If you’re trying to close someone who’s mission-focused, you might want to stack their interview panel with people who feel similarly and can speak compellingly about how the company’s objectives align with their values, and why the mission matters to them personally. You want the candidate to see themselves reflected back across the table so that they know they’ll be able to make the impact they’re seeking.
If you suspect that a candidate is driven by compensation, make a point to ask them early on about how rewarded they felt in past roles. Ask them what they are maximizing for in their job search and how they’re approaching that. People are not used to this question and may be more candid, saving you a longer time investment.
KEEP THEM ENGAGED
One mistake Ajmal has seen many times is the tendency for recruiters or hiring managers to front-load their sales pitch to prospective hires. “When it comes to candidates who weren’t necessarily looking for something new in particular, you're trying to get them to come onsite.” Once there, though, these candidates are often put through grueling interview panels where no selling happens at all. This is a mistake.
“If every person on the panel is just grilling the candidate and not making them excited about what you're doing, there's a good chance that you're going to lose that candidate,” says Ajmal. “They probably already have a good job, and you just put them through the wringer. Why would they leave?”
The hiring process is long. If you’re only bringing the excitement to early conversations, it’s unlikely to last. “You have the best shot at closing a candidate if they want to work in your office when they wrap up their last interview. Forget the offer details,” says Ajmal. “If they don't feel great about themselves, the environment, the job itself when they're leaving at the end of that onsite interview day, your chances are very diminished.”
To keep the excitement level high, make sure the last interviewer of the day doesn’t just walk someone out and say goodbye in a cold way. Have the hiring manager or recruiter do a short wrap-up to provide some nice closure, positivity, and respite from the stress of rapid-fire questioning.
Talk to the people on your hiring loop in advance to remind them that interviewing is not just about going down a checklist of questions. Encourage them to talk about the things that excite them, or integrate what they love working on into the conversation. A lot of interviewers shy away from talking about themselves. While they shouldn’t go on and on, it helps for them to proactively give specific examples of what’s revved them up to come to work every day. Make sure they start each session with at least a little personality-driven smalltalk before launching into the interview proper or a coding exercise.
Regardless of how well a candidate is performing, some ‘sell’ should be baked into every conversation they have.
Remember that interviewing is a two-way street. You should assess candidates for skill and fit, of course — but you can do it in a way that helps them evaluate your team, too. Ajmal has found particular success with incorporating collaborative work sessions into his interviewing process. “As they work, our engineers are absolutely evaluating the candidate. But they’re also helping them out, like you would when you’re actually working with somebody. That gives candidates an opportunity to see that they’re dealing with a team of smart, collaborative people.”
Indeed, interview work sessions shouldn't be about gotcha questions. “In one problem-solving exercise that I give folks, they start with a solution that is not optimal and are asked to optimize it. If they're not able to get there on their own, I start breaking the problem down with them.” If candidates can’t act on Ajmal’s hints and examples, that’s a red flag. But if they can, it’s a double win: he gets to see what they can do, and they finish the exercise with a positive sense of what they could learn on and from his team.
You can and should work with your interview panels to implement this kind of collaborative evaluation. Realistically, though, your engineers are not going to go the extra mile to paint a picture of the company for an interviewee — that’s the role of leadership. “We keep our managers and directors involved in even junior hiring loops (including me, the CTO), and they are tasked with creating that narrative,” Ajmal says. “They’re proactively answering things like ‘How am I going to grow here? What's the impact that I’m going to have?’ Make sure that you’re giving candidates a healthy dose of that along the way.”
MAKE THE OFFER
When the interviews are over and the decision has been made, it’s time to make the offer. But this isn’t just a formality or a cursory call to deliver those eagerly awaited compensation numbers. When a candidate picks up the phone, they should be the most excited about the opportunity that they've ever been.
Ajmal identifies five steps that you should walk through with every offer call, each of which can make the difference between closing and losing a top hire.
1. Review the interview narrative.
“When you get to closing, begin with a recap of how the interview process has gone,” says Ajmal. “I usually start by asking, ‘How did your interview go? Do you have any feedback?’” If you have a candidate who’s clearly all-in on your company (indicated by major upfront enthusiasm or detailed positive feedback), by all means, fast-track to the next step.
But in the majority of cases — when you get an “I felt pretty good about it” response — that's your chance to remind the candidate of the high points (they’ll be touched you have this information. Be sure to instruct your hiring panel to take notes on these ‘highlights’ and supply them to you — including wins during their conversations, breakthroughs, specific great impressions they made on various people). Then talk through their lingering concerns. Tell them to be candid and pull no punches, demonstrate that you’re highly invested in making this the best candidate experience possible. It says good things about your company, and it’s crucial to learn about and/or mitigate any of these reservations or worries before you get to the numbers.
Once you start talking money, that overshadows everything else. You want to make sure the person is at ease and feels good about everything before making the formal offer.
Whatever mood or attitude you inspire right beforehand is what the candidate will bring into the comp discussion with them. So, if you’ve gotten them feeling just terrific about the opportunity and the people, etc., they’re more likely to look favorably on any package you present. If they have doubts, those will become reasons to poke holes in the offer.
If you’ve done a good job fostering open dialogue at every stage of the interview process, this is the time to leverage those insights. “Don’t throw all the positive things about the job or the company at them. Be focused and targeted. Dive into the experiences that speak to the kind of work they want to do or the impact they want to have,” says Ajmal. “If they're overlooking something that you think is important, you can always remind them of that. Or if they're particularly excited about something, you can build on that even more. Give them a vision of where they could go in six months or a year. Who will they get to work with? On what projects or features? What will they stand to learn, and — importantly — where can acquiring those skills or experiences take them eventually?”
2. Highlight potential mentors.
Often during the interview process, candidates will bring up team members they would particularly like to work with, or potential mentors who could add real value to your offer. If they don’t share this themselves, go ahead and ask them directly if there’s anyone they’d be particularly excited to work alongside. Or suggest people you know align with their interests or have complementary skills.
“The candidate might say, ‘I'm really excited about what person X is working on.’ If they’re being hired for the same team, emphasize that during your offer call: ‘You'll actually have the opportunity to work directly with person X. Even if you're not on the same project to start, you may very well end up working on the same project. Either way, she's a resource for you. She's somebody that’s always excited to answer questions and provide support.’"
Other times, a candidate may express interest in mentorship that’s outside the scope of the role you’re hiring for. “They might say, ‘I want to do a lot more machine learning. That's an area I really want to grow in.’” This is your chance to surface any learning opportunities that might not have come up in the course of the interview. Highlight machine learning work going on elsewhere in the company, and explain how the candidate can still benefit from that.
“I'll usually tell them about some real projects that are happening and where they may be able to help. It's about understanding where the candidate wants to go and — even if the position isn't exactly that today — being able to show them how they will get to that point. That part is extremely, extremely important.”
3. Set up the offer.
Once you’re excited and the candidate's excited, you’re ready to talk money. But there’s one more step that can give valuable context to the nuts and bolts of your offer. So don’t rush — take a moment to give the candidate insight into your company’s compensation philosophy. “Explain what’s special about what your company offers. Because every company has some unique asset to showcase — figure out what yours is and how to talk about it.”
Ajmal, for example, sells candidates on this particularly compelling moment in LendingHome’s lifespan: they’re now a relatively mature, Series C startup, they’re part of the largest market in the U.S., they're consumer-facing with a lot of growth in front of them. “Because of that, our equity still has a lot of multiples left on it. That sets us apart from many other four-year-old companies. I talk about that because it’s a unique differentiator,” he says.
Here are a few other things you can mention to differentiate your compensation package — or reposition it in a candidate’s mind:
The pace at which your company has grown, which could be more auspicious than your competitors.
Where the company is headed in 6 months, a year, 5 years. Explaining in detail why you firmly believe this opportunity is big.
For mission-driven candidates, don’t forget to reiterate the difference your company is making in the world or for an audience you know they care about.
Most importantly, don’t throw a ton of reasons why your offer is great at them all at once. Highlight a couple key points you believe speak to their interests in particular. The more arguments you add on top of those, the weaker your overall argument will become.
4. Deliver the numbers.
Now it’s time to share your starting comp package. While Ajmal cautions leaders to steer clear of anyone who only has eyes for pay, that doesn’t mean you should give this important topic short shrift when you get to it.
For starters, be explicit about the company’s valuation and growth potential, and explain how candidates should look at the equity portion of their package. “Series C investors look at about a 20X multiple over the next four or five years for their successful companies. So I show candidates what that would be — and then I recommend they discount it, first to 10X and then to 5X. Walk backwards so they know that the lower end of the spectrum is a potential reality, and that you’re not ducking that scenario,” says Ajmal.
“At a certain point, I’m very explicit: ‘Look, I think 5X is absolutely conservative given how we’re growing. That's the worst-case scenario for me — and personally, I think it’s a good scenario. But if you don't think that's a good scenario, this is not the company for you. You've got to be excited about the potential of the company.’" Don’t be afraid to be this dissuasive explicitly. You really don’t want people who, in this case, would see 5X as a poor outcome. They’re not going to go the extra mile for the sake of it. They may not even stay for very long.
Delivering numbers, though, is just the beginning. When it comes to equity in particular, candidates will come from a wide variety of backgrounds with wildly different comfort levels. Be prepared to play the role of educator — don’t assume that even very brilliant people fully understand what they’re being offered. “Some people will be very well versed in how equity works,” Ajmal says. “In other cases, this might be the candidate’s first or second job, and they might not understand stock options and equity. Even experienced people may be coming from larger companies where they’ve only gotten RSUs and don't really understand how this works.”
Settle in and answer every question — every single one. No hard stop on the call. “I spend as much time educating candidates as they want. People are extremely appreciative.” He likes to schedule his offer calls at the end of the day, when it’s easier to create open-ended availability. “I don't set up a 30-minute call and say, ‘Oh, sorry, our time’s up. If you have other questions email me.’ That’s not compelling. That’s not what people want to work with.”
In fact, he’s open to any number of follow-up calls if that’s what the candidate needs. “As long as their questions are within reason, I will spend as much time explaining things as they need. Where it starts becoming unreasonable is when someone comes back to you and says, ‘I want 1% of the company.’ You might think that never happens, but it does. And examples slightly less extreme are commonplace." At that point, give the candidate the benefit of the doubt and one more brief equity explainer. “If they’re still being unreasonable, this is when you say, ‘This is what it is. This is why. I believe it is a competitive offer.’ Then hold firm.” Be confident that if you lose them, it was for the best.
5. Follow up, warmly.
That excitement you’ve been so focused on generating, and sustaining? Don’t let up after you hang up the phone. “On my team, once we give a candidate their offer, we have everybody they spoke with reach out to them.” Within a day of the final interview, the recruiter on the case emails everyone on the interview panel to let them know it’s time to reach out, share a positive memory or something that impressed them from the interview process — and ask if they can be of any help or support.
The benefits of this approach are twofold: It’s a friendly touchpoint that reminds candidates of the team they could be a part of. And it also gives them an easy way to maintain a productive dialogue as they weigh their decision. “Many of them will circle back with those people and ask specific questions,” says Ajmal.
Other companies may send gifts at this stage. While he generally advises against this, it can be meaningful if you keep it humble and observe one key guideline: be personal and use this chance to demonstrate that you were listening. “One company I was at interviewed a candidate who was excited about a particular type of beer, so somebody from our staff sent them a case of that special beer.”
Just don’t get caught up in gift-giving for gift-giving’s sake. “Good engineers take jobs because of the mission of the company, the people they're going to be working with, or the problems they’re going to get to solve. Period. Whatever you do at this stage, it should be to get them excited about those things. Gifts rarely provide any additional insight,” says Ajmal.
In an ideal world, your offer will be accepted. Congratulations! That’s the time to shower the candidate with your company schwag and keep the energy high until their start date. “We send new hires a card that everybody on the team has signed,” he says.
In most cases, people won’t start for a few weeks or even a month — don’t go radio silent during this time. Invite your new employee to a happy hour, send them interesting articles that reminded you of them, invite them to join any team events, talks given by team members, cultural events different groups at the company enjoy that might dovetail with their interests.
Keep them engaged until they're in the door. You want them to come in with as much excitement as they had when they said yes to the offer.
However make sure to strike a good balance and not overwhelm them. And under no circumstances create work for them.
TACKLE COMPETING OFFERS HONESTLY
Realistically, not all offers are accepted, and definitely not accepted immediately. To make it to a successful close, you may need to support the candidate as they weigh other opportunities. “You can pretty much rest assured that if you’re making an offer, that person is getting other offers, too,” says Ajmal. This is not necessarily a bad thing, you just need a playbook.
He strongly cautions against trying to force candidates to make a quick decision with exploding offers or other tactics. “I will never tell somebody that they have by tomorrow or three days from now to make a decision,” he says. “Generally, if someone’s excited they will say yes, right? You don't want them to say yes and then have regrets.” So while your offer letter does need to have an expiration date, set it based on a transparent conversation about how much time the candidate needs.
That’s not to say you have to just sit back and hope for the best. Ideally you’ve already hammered home what sets your company apart and how facets of the job speak directly to their motivations and professional goals. If you haven’t, do that now as an additional differentiator. “Tell them right upfront that you’re not going to compete with somebody like Google or Facebook, that you’re in a different position. Then explain what you can offer — rapid advancement or impact, for example — that a large company can’t.”
If the candidate is willing to tell you, find out where else they’re interviewing so you can better highlight your key differences and advantages. Under no circumstances, though, should you disparage those other companies. “I am a huge fan of Google. I am a huge fan of Amazon. I’ve worked at some of those places, and I’m proud of those organizations,” says Ajmal. “But they're very different. This is the moment to speak honestly about the experience that other opportunity will provide versus the opportunity you’re offering.”
Beyond high-level differentiators, this is also your chance to make sure the candidate understands the true value of their compensation package. Walk through the numbers together one more time. In some cases, it may turn out that your offer already beats the competition’s. The candidate simply didn’t know because they didn’t fully unpack its meaning or extrapolate what it will mean in the future.
“If we offered someone a $160,000 salary, it's not just that 160. It's also the equity. So I will first factor in the equity at a 1X rate for today. If we’re currently giving them equity valued $100,000 over the next four years, that already brings them to $185,000. Then I remind them again that this equity is multiplying. Even at that worst-case scenario of 5X growth, they’d potentially make an additional $125,000 a year. Now, you're looking at something like $285,000 per year. That may be way more than any of the other offers.”
These are estimates, and conservative ones at that, and you need to be very clear about that. “I tell people, ‘What I can promise you is if we don't do well, I will lose way more money than you do.’ It lightens the mood — and it’s honest.” Whatever your approach, the best way to improve your offer is often just to help the candidate understand it.
If you’ve had these candid conversations and you’re still coming in below the competition, there are a few levers you can pull — and some you should not:
Without changing the meat of your offer, you can often sweeten the package by offering a one-time signing bonus. You do want to exercise some caution, or you risk creating a scenario where every candidate knows they just need to push a little and they’ll score a bonus. “As a policy we don't have sign-up bonuses, but that is something that you can play with,” Ajmal says.
Tweaking the initial package is an option, too, but he also recommends against making any big changes for a couple of reasons. First, particularly as an organization matures, you’ll likely settle into fairly standardized compensation bands. “You can go above a little bit here and there, particularly if you’re looking at a competing offer that’s close. But we will not do really crazy things to imbalance our internal equity for our existing employees by responding to an unreasonable demand.”
Second, you want to have credibility that you're making good offers. When you stick with your original package, or close to it, you may lose one candidate but your reputation will stay intact. “People will say, ‘Look, if they gave you a number, they're serious about that number.’” Don’t start with a low-ball offer and force the candidate into a position where they must negotiate to get something reasonable. Put your best foot forward, be clear about it and then stick to it.
“People think giving someone a better title is easier, but that’s the worst thing that you can do,” says Ajmal. When you give a candidate a higher title than the one you’d intended, you’re inevitably doing one of two things: setting them up to underperform in a role they’re not qualified for, or giving them a title they don’t deserve — and sowing discord among your team in the process. Leave this lever alone. It will only come back to bite you. And honestly, if title is the bargaining chip that brings someone in, are they truly a culture fit? Do you see them being a team player?
This is where you should focus your efforts. “At this point in the process where we’re seriously negotiating, I typically ask people, ‘How do you evaluate an opportunity? What are the criteria?’ And most people have not thought that through.”
Your job, then, is to help them. “I'll tell candidates how I evaluate an opportunity. I look at two key things.” First up is the people. “You can have the highest-paying salary. But if you don't like the people that you work with, your life is going to be miserable.” Beyond mere personality fit, help candidates understand how their potential colleagues could help foster their career. “’How are they going to contribute to you, and how will you contribute to them?’”
Next, help them consider the problem they would be tasked with solving. “Is it a hard problem? Most smart people want hard problems to solve, hard challenges. In addition to that, does it actually make a difference? What type of difference does it make? And finally, is the problem viable from a business perspective? Because if it's not viable from a business perspective, it's just a hobby, right? And I have plenty of other hobbies.”
Despite these best efforts, you won’t win them all, and that’s okay, too. “Everybody's trying to do what they think is best. Just because their best might not be what you thought was best for you, that’s absolutely no reason to get offended.” In fact in very occasional cases, I’ve even encouraged people to take another competing offer because I thought that it aligned better with their motivations.
There’s an art to this last conversation, too. Ajmal sees it as another opportunity to serve as a mentor — potentially one who will be remembered fondly for years.
“We'll talk through why the job they’re taking is a great opportunity so that I can learn more about that, and then I absolutely wish them the best of luck and offer myself up as an ongoing resource for advice, introductions and future referrals,” he says. Let the candidate know that your door is still open. This world is small, and you never know when they’ll come back to you. Make it easy for them to do so by ending on a warm and encouraging note.
This is an important reminder. Because at the end of the day, you could run through your company’s impressive growth numbers again, or do another tutorial on the ins and outs of equity. But it’s always, always, always going to come down to what excites the candidate.
“Accepting a job is not about analytics, no matter how data driven you are,” says Ajmal. So, do your best from start to finish to foster that kind personal enthusiasm for the problem you’re solving and the team you’ve built. Then accept that sometimes the other company is going to be more enticing for that person in particular — that doesn’t go for everyone. Do not take it personally.
“Your entire job as a hiring manager, as somebody who is closing, is to keep the person energized, curious, engaged. Because if they're not excited, they're not going to join,” he says. “We've sometimes closed people where we've been the lowest offer, and of course we've lost people, too. But the ones that we closed where we weren’t the highest offer, it’s because we were able to connect very specifically with what the candidate wanted to do now and in the long-term. For smart people — the ones you actually want to close — that's usually the most important thing.”