By Kasey Gandham, co-founder of Packback

Many people appreciate that joining a great startup can be an enormous career accelerator. But how do you know if you're joining the right startup?

I interview hundreds of strong candidates every year, and I recognize that joining a startup is a big commitment. It's not like any other job, and, unfortunately, I rarely see candidates ask the right questions to understand if it is the right place for them.

Joining the right startup at the right time can seem like winning the lottery, but by knowing the right questions to ask you can identify a company that is primed for growth and built to last. These companies have what I like to call "resilient cultures." To identify a resilient culture, understand how the company indexes on growth orientation and intentionality of culture.

Growth Orientation: How fast is its growth and how ambitious are its goals?

Startups are defined by growth. In growth environments, there is often an accelerated rate of challenges to overcome, which requires you to quickly master the learning curve. High-growth companies almost always come with more opportunity to make an impact and have more ownership over projects.

Intentionality of Culture: How thoughtful is the company's approach to its culture?

If you asked every employee in an organization why it exists (the company's purpose) and what it strives for in how it operates (its values), would they all give you the same answer? Companies that make it a priority to spend time building a strong, well-defined culture with good alignment across teams have intentional cultures. Research extensively shows that companies that deliberately work on culture have a higher likelihood of success. Their team members go to work because they have ownership over the company's purpose, not just to collect a paycheck.

Resilient Cultures: High-Growth, Ambitious Companies With Intentional Cultures

Because resilient cultures have been battle-tested by growth and strengthened by tough times, they are built to last. There is rigor and ownership in performance, and you'll see an element of optimistic dissatisfaction from team members -- not just leadership. Most importantly, these teams demonstrate an extraordinary amount of curiosity and are constantly learning. In a resilient culture, your role will be tough, but your personal growth will be unprecedented. It will challenge you, excite you and inspire you to be your best.

However, resilient cultures aren't for everyone. You will have to work hard to meet ambitious goals that might feel unattainable. You'll be challenged, constantly uncomfortable and on edge through the rapid change.

Interview Your Interviewer: How to Assess Company Culture

Does joining a resilient culture sound like the right next step of your career? Use the quick guide below to help you identify resilient cultures during your interview process with some tough questions you can ask your interviewer.

Question: Based on the company's performance goals over the last quarter, what did you observe as the biggest opportunities to improve performance? How have you talked about that as a company?

What to look for in their answer: Look for easily recited, ambitious goals with clear accountability for what could be improved. Great companies will have a strong perspective on how this knowledge is transparent across the organization. For the best insight, ask this question to a team member, not a founder or executive.

Question: What's an example of tough feedback a team member recently gave you?

What to look for in their answer: Resilient cultures are feedback-intensive environments that come with high degrees of trust. It should be commonplace for team members to give each other feedback and feel great about it along the way.

Question: When was a time where your culture was tested the most?

What to look for in their answer: Company culture is an insurance policy through the tough times -- it is not defined by when things are going well. Companies that have ambitious goals will inevitably see some dark times. Look for companies with real stories of tough times that aren't afraid of telling them.

Follow this guide to finding your next home in a startup and you'll find yourself on a fast track to being a leader in your community -- so long as you're willing to put in the work.

Kasey Gandham is co-founder of Packback, a Chicago-based education technology startup helping students become more curious through discussion and questions.

Published on: Oct 25, 2018
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