The Key To Startup Success: Attracting The Right Talent 

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Colette Freeman, chief people officer at Attain, shares the five key characteristics she looks for when hiring.

For startups to succeed, they need to focus first on hiring the right employees—and the process isn’t simple. 

So says Colette Freeman, chief people officer at Chicago-based Attain, a permissioned commerce data company in the adtech space. Freeman shares what she and her HR team consider must-have skills when seeking the best talent for their startup—and how to maintain a thriving company culture. 

How do you build company culture in a startup? 

For 23 years, I’ve had the great privilege of working alongside incredible CEOs within both the corporate world and startup community. The elements of a successful company culture anchor on the people first and foremost, quickly followed by setting very clear expectations for new employees as they dive in and attempt to help move the needle forward. 

Hiring the right people to build your startup is key but it’s certainly not easy. There’s no secret sauce and curveballs are inevitable, but for two decades now I’ve attempted to set the foundation of each team by quickly identifying if the candidate that I’m interviewing—and eventually hope to work with—possesses three to five core characteristics.  I look for the following: 

Passionate. Hire people that believe in your mission and values. Seems simple but it’s critical. 

Humble. Ability to drop one’s ego at the door. Things will break, one will hit their head against the proverbial wall multiple times, sometimes all in the same day. Each employee, regardless of their tenure within the organization, must be able to keep the bigger picture in mind, never lose sight of the goal and always focus on “we, not me.” 

Gritty. Foundational to everything else, you’ll encounter failure after failure and frustration after frustration while building anything that’s worth building in life. The people who become better the harder things get are the ones who will fly—and those are the ones I always want working on our team. 

Resilient. The answer is not always obvious. You will deal with a ton of ambiguity. You will have to work hard to get the answer. That said, one who is ready to dive in the deep end, problem solve and swim against the current, is needed. 

Forward thinkers. I seek out people who are constantly learning and instinctively finding ways to create value, add to the culture and think ahead.  

How do you maintain the company’s culture in a startup as it faces rapid growth? 

Human capital needs have been growing and as our company, Attain, has nearly tripled in the last two-plus years, we’ve been mindful to support the business growth—but also be thoughtful and calculated about measuring it. I personally lived through the economic downturn of 2007-2008 and I witnessed the 2022 tech layoffs. The last decision any leadership team ever wants to make is to lay off even just one person on their team.  

This said, we’re being calculated as we’re moving forward to build Attain this year. We’re filling gaps in core areas of our business. When you’re a small company, you have the obligation to wear many hats. 

At our current stage of the business, we’ve been hiring more employees with deep functional knowledge and people who can work cross functionally, not just people who can deliver, but also people who help others on the team continue to innovate and deliver. We’re hiring leaders that are strong communicators that can help bridge the gap between departments and help keep everyone in the same boat, rowing in the same direction—most especially as the boat grows to ship size.  

We’re also investing in more tools and processes for our people to keep moving in the same direction. We continue to lay the building blocks that need to be in place to take us where we need to go.   

Finally, I’ve found that it’s incredibly important that as your startup scales, you make a conscious effort to uphold traditions and acknowledge employee achievements and contributions. We have a Slack channel dedicated to “living our values” where we draw attention to individuals who are personally and professionally attempting to embody our mission on a regular basis. 

We have team all-hands, lunches, dinners and offsites that foster connectivity and celebrate the wins of our business and our employees. People are working hard, and compassion is imperative. We’re doing our best to lean into it by “checking in” on our employees regularly, recognizing, appreciating and respecting all that they do—regardless of if they’ve been here from day one or if they’re just getting rolling with us. It helps us stay grounded and on the same page. 

What does your role as CPO entail and what have you accomplished at Attain so far? 

The role of a chief people officer over the past several years has drastically evolved. In the post-pandemic era, employees’ personal and professional lives are completely intertwined, multifaceted and very complex. I’m constantly learning more about myself and others, communicating, attempting to model good leadership, working to establish strong emotional human connections, staying positive and adapting to the surroundings to meet the needs of my customers—which are our employees, our leadership team, board and our investors.  

I’m personally responsible for managing the strategy and processes related to building and retaining a rock-solid team of professionals. I play an equal part advisor and consultant to our CEO, and I have an obligation to provide clear and concise data to our stakeholders, focused on operational efficiency. I’m charged with thinking programmatically about the investment decisions on the team and designing outcomes for staying focused on the big picture while also sweating the details.  

The other part of my day is purely spent doing: rolling up my sleeves and getting it done for our people. I’ve spent the last year building the tools and support that they need, including a top tier insurance and benefit package, wellness programs and learning and development plans to keep thriving as they travel down their own professional journey. It’s my job and privilege to showcase the strengths of our human capital.  

What are you most excited about as you look into the future of Attain as the company grows?  

Hiring amazing people that can help power us to the next level. The world is more opaque than ever, struggling with market volatility, rapid change and transformation that impacts both the hard and soft skills that are needed to drive success. I’m feeling incredibly fortunate to have a CEO/mentor and colleagues to work alongside that are individually and collectively motivated and excited about what’s in store for us. While the challenges are steep, we’re confident that great things are ahead as we build Attain together. 

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