John Colburn Finds the Right People for Sprout Social

John Colburn takes an employee-centric management approach when recruiting the right technical talent for Sprout Social

While rapid growth in a company is a good problem for executives to have, it can present challenging opportunities to find and scale top talent. That’s certainly the case for engineering leaders at Sprout Social, a provider of social media listening and analytics, social management, customer care, and advocacy solutions for more than twenty-five thousand brands. Sprout Social has been fortunate to grow through the COVID-19 pandemic. For John Colburn, vice president of IT, security and compliance, the past year has only intensified his need to staff up and cope with the company’s swift progression. Founded in 2010, Sprout Social now numbers more than seven hundred employees.

John Colburn
John Colburn, Sprout SocialPhoto by Erin Woloshansky

Hiring technical talent has been an imperative for Colburn since he joined the company in 2017 after four years with financial services firm Morningstar. The market for technical professionals has been tight during this period—especially in security and engineering roles, which are critically important to Sprout Social. Colburn’s employee-centric management approach has been effective in this tough hiring environment.

His staffing strategy aims to overcome a circumstance that no manager can change: soaring demand for technical talent in all industries. “All senior technical folks are difficult to find and recruit,” he says. “Every department in the corporate world leverages software, integrations, and automation to make their teams more efficient.”

To fill some key roles, Colburn is working to build a pipeline of junior-level people with certain intangible qualities. He provides them with a supportive management environment and coaches them up to take on greater responsibility. He’s patient enough to let them grow into their roles. It’s a philosophy that Colburn experienced in his own career and passionately believes in.

“My management style is informed by my past experiences,” Colburn says. “I’ve worked with both great and bad managers and you develop a style rooted in observing what works well and what doesn’t.”

To find people who will thrive at Sprout, Colburn looks for qualities that don’t necessarily jump off a résumé. “I look for things that go beyond technical experience during interviews,” he says. “I want to learn about their life story. Do they have grit? Do they have examples of being innovative, empathetic, courageous?”

“I look for things that go beyond technical experience during interviews. I want to learn about their life story. Do they have grit? Do they have examples of being innovative, empathetic, courageous?”

For example, a recent recruit had a unique response to a standard question that caught Colburn’s attention. A typical answer to the question, “What is the most important thing you have accomplished?” consists of a narrative outlining a particular work project or personal achievement. In this case, the recruit spoke of an experience teaching disabled children how to swim at a summer camp.

This experience is indicative of a high emotional intelligence and empathy, Colburn says. It demonstrated the person’s ability to go beyond typical boundaries of the question, indicating confidence in their technical and advanced interpersonal skills. These qualities are vital, Colburn says, to devising one’s own ideas and being able to develop them in collaborative teams.

After new employees get acclimated, managers help them define career goals and set them on a path to achieve them. Colburn’s team uses a classification system consisting of multiple career bands to track the progress of team members from junior to senior level. Twice a year, each employee goes through a review process to see where they are and what they need to do to reach the next career band, Colburn says.

“Sprout has developed an open and transparent review process,” Colburn says. This way, employees and managers clearly understand how performance is assessed. “When you align expectations, these conversations are a lot easier.”

“Some people have specific goals such as earning a certification or gaining a particular experience,” Colburn says. Others want to work on specific projects—a wish that is typically granted. Being able to select a particular assignment gives them a sense of ownership, Colburn explains.

COVID presented some unique challenges in addition to managing increased business volume. “We have an increased focus to find talent with new skill sets,” Colburn says. For example, before COVID, the company did not have much need for people who knew how to provide technical and production support for large virtual meetings. With staff largely working from home, that capability suddenly became essential.

“My management style is informed by my past experiences. I’ve worked with both great and bad managers and you develop a style rooted in observing what works well and what doesn’t.”

“What we’re building at Sprout is a once-in-a-career opportunity for folks to build and exercise new problem-solving skills,” Colburn says. “And our team has really stepped up.” Colburn’s team will be able to take on more responsibility while Sprout Social’s business continues to boom.

Colburn tracks this growth, looking out several years to forecast future staffing needs. But shorter-term metrics guide specific hiring decisions. “I look at the projects that we are working on and what impact they will have a year from now,” he says. “If a certain project will lead to a need for more support staff, for instance, I will schedule time to recruit in that area.”

“Understanding the potential his top-notch team could reach with the right tools, John recently managed a successful implementation of Salesforce Revenue Cloud that is transforming Sprout Social’s quoting and billing process, delivering significant value to his organization,” says Gary Benson, regional vice president of sales at Salesforce. “The outcome is a solid testament to his hiring and successfully building a very strong team.”

Colburn’s team is nearing twenty people. “After you hit about fifteen, you can’t lead as much from the front,” he says. “You have to be more hands-off and let the teams accelerate.” As a result, he’s adjusted how he takes the pulse of activity and progress. Now that his staff is more seasoned, he’s able to trust his managers to exercise more oversight day to day and rely on them to update him on the progression of projects.

Colburn is having less frequent interactions with junior staff, focusing more on strategy and planning. It’s a necessary step forward that indicates the maturity of his team. It’s a part of the job that he misses but given the rewards of building a team in a fast-growth company, it’s also a good problem to have.