4 Hiring Tips For First-Time Founders + More with Skylar’s Cat Chen
Effective Leadership Series
Cat Chen is the Founder & CEO of Skylar. They’re creating a new world of fragrance by using clean, conscious ingredients to craft beautiful, innovative and hypoallergenic scents for yourself and your home. Prior to founding Skylar, Cat was the Vice President of Operations at The Honest Company, a clean baby and household products brand, where she led a team of over 500 people and helped to grow the company from the very beginning to over $300 million in revenue through 4 years of hyper-growth. FirstMark is a proud investor in Skylar.
What was your first management role and what did you learn from it?
I started managing people about ten years ago at Activision Blizzard in 2009. I managed three direct reports as the senior manager of sales planning. I went from everybody's peer to becoming their manager. What I learned through that process was that it’s not necessarily always knowing more than the rest because chances are there are people on your team who are experts in areas you’re not.
I learned very early that it’s important to respect people and listen to them regardless of their title. Managing people doesn’t mean just telling them what to do, it means helping them succeed and providing guidance when and where they need it most.
Early in your career, before you assumed leadership roles, what was one quality you appreciated in a great manager?
A great manager gives you high-level guidance and vision without micromanagement.
One of my managers at Bain had a great quality that I still remember to this day. At the start of every project, he’d send the entire team ten strategic questions to think about and keep in mind as we went through the process. This simple action was extremely helpful because it kept me focused on the big picture at all times. Because he had given me this guidance up front, he didn’t need to micromanage people along the way.
That is the perfect balance that I appreciate, try to emulate, and strive for in my management style today.
How does that balance change depending on the employee’s level of experience?
Take, for example, department heads who have ample experience. I can stay higher level with them and really ask questions that are oriented around how they measure the success of the team, how they enable people, or what key metrics they think we need to be looking at.
Whereas if I’m dealing with someone more junior, I need to adjust the level up or down accordingly. But what I’ve learned is that even at the most junior level, you shouldn’t underestimate their ambition and power.
So, to the extent that you feel they are capable of pushing themselves one level up, it’s beneficial for you to engage them more strategically. This is motivating because people hate tactical checklists or being told to do mundane tasks even though every job has some component of those within it. At the end of the day, it’s just as important to know the why of what you’re doing every day.
When you identify an employee with exceptional potential, how do you set them up for success?
That’s a great question, and I think about that a lot. Since I work in direct-to-consumer e-commerce, customer service is always one of the key departments. As you can probably imagine, sometimes that job can become a bit repetitive.
One example is a customer service associate who has been at Skylar for about six months post-college and she’s just great. I could tell from day one that she had really high potential. Plus, she’s expressed interest in learning other hard skills (like Excel) as well as getting exposure in other departments like the Creative team. She’s in a stage where she’s not quite sure what she wants to do with her career but wants more exposure to help her with that next step.
First, let me just say what a great position to be in as an employer. To have the opportunity to guide her, expose her to different opportunities, and as a business create a plan where we can also get mutually beneficial value out of her potential. It’s a win-win.
So, what we did is enabled her to work on a project basis with some other teams in the company. She’s writing copy, assisting with photo shoots and video shoots, even producing content for social media. All of those are areas that are related to her job, but not directly in her scope. The key is to keep this scope limited such that it doesn’t get in the way of her full-time job and then to obviously loop in her full-time manager. So far, it’s been working out really well for her.
What and when do you choose to delegate and how have you become comfortable with it?
I’ll be honest, at first, as a first-time founder, it was very uncomfortable for me to delegate. At heart and in my DNA, I’m definitely a doer and an operator. Not to mention that I built Skylar from scratch, which means I made all the product, I made the website, I wrote the copy, I did all the photo shoots, I fulfilled all the products before anybody else joined.
Learning to delegate as a founder meant letting go of everything that I had initially owned. But I quickly became comfortable delegating more and more after seeing initial promising results. Now, I try to delegate as much as possible because I need to manage my time and make sure I’m accessible to others for our one-on-ones, weekly meetings, and other high-priority situations that come up.
A great benefit of delegation is that it actually empowers people. Since I run a very rigorous hiring process, we often hire people who hit the ground hungry to get involved on day one. This helps with delegation because they’re eager to own their work and then it’s just a matter of making sure we haven’t given them more than they can chew.
What’s your best hiring advice for first-time managers and other founders?
At Skylar, we have a great track record when it comes to recruiting top talent and I think it’s fundamentally because of four key tactics:
#1: Hire through the networks you already have — both yours and, more importantly, the networks of your current employees. This ensures that these potential hires will be people that your team knows and trusts from day one. That always works really well.
#2: Engage in a lot of two-way dialogue throughout the entire offer process. This means consistently following up to update the candidate on their status, being explicit about timelines, etc.
#3: Do a lot of reputation research — it’s all a reputation game and other people will know. In hiring, it’s very important to hear from their peers—not just their references—through grapevine backchanneling.
#4: Finally, this tactic is arguably the most important: we’re extra professional and structured in the hiring process. Nowadays, startups are sometimes not so great about this and end up being far too lax in this process. We give candidates very specific location info, we give them a beverage when they arrive, we even give them a sample of the product regardless of whether we hire them. It’s these seemingly small details that add up to a much more enjoyable experience for the candidates. Things like sharing the interview schedule ahead of time, following up right away, etc.
Just because they’re interviewing doesn’t mean they want to or are committed to working for you. So, for us, it’s always been that we’re interviewing them and we know they’re interviewing us, as well. Showing respect to them as you would to any full-time employee is something that I think is extremely valuable. And move fast—good candidates do not stick around. It should be a matter of hours or low days at the minimum to get back to them.
What framework do you use for your one-on-one meetings?
I hold weekly 1-on-1s with all direct reports and then quarterly career development meetings as well. 1-on-1s are not my meetings, they’re my direct report’s meeting.
The structure is that we sit down for 30 minutes. If there’s an update that is an FYI that’s not controversial, I prefer that my direct reports send me those via email.
1-on-1s are for things where email discussion isn’t clear or needs resolution. We also flash professional development goals and OKRs. I’d recommend that you pull those up and review them in your 1-on-1s every other week.
Everyone should always feel like they’re learning in 1-on-1s and that any issues are out in the open. These are meant to be less tactical and more for prioritization.
Have you worked with a coach, and if so, what was the biggest lesson you learned?
I do work with a coach and it’s been incredibly impactful for my leadership. Right now, I’m working on a lot of things. For example, as the team becomes bigger, being able to scale as a leader, going from a team of 3-4 people to 12 people in 45 days, how do continue to scale your leadership? What does large leadership mean?
My coach has taught me to really focus on motivation. It’s very difficult to have 1-on-1 interactions with every new member of the team as you grow. One unique approach to counterbalance that challenge is that I now send out surveys (at least quarterly) — to get anonymous feedback — and it’s been really useful insights. Not everybody feels comfortable verbalizing their questions or thoughts.
We also set up a new water cooler—yes, an actual water cooler—and I requested we put some chairs near it. Sometimes, I naturally go by that area and I’ll try to stop by and ask how an employee’s day is going and they just start to talk. I also make it a point not to have an office to make sure I’m always visible and the leadership feels approachable.
What would you say is your superpower as a leader?
I am a very fast and firm decision maker. I’ve made it a point to not be a leader who flip flops, wavers, or takes a long time to decide.
Instead, I use the data available, my logic, and the best common sense to make decisions. This applies to everything — product launches, new hires, project prioritizations, and more.
What’s your favorite non-email tool?
As a founder, I love Shopify’s mobile app. (FirstMark family shoutout!) I even have it on the front page of my phone, and easily check it 20 times a day. It’s a great way to keep a finger on the pulse of my business at all times.