How to Hire Great People

- Leadership

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by Ralph van Roosmalen

At one moment in my career, I really got involved in recruitment. Not just doing a few interviews, but the whole recruitment process. We were growing in three locations, two in Europe and one in the U.S.

As I recall, certain people in the organization such as HR and higher management got stressed on progress and often tried to push me to just hire more people. “Ralph, why don’t just settle for less? Is it really that necessary to find the top of the bill?” Yes, it was really important to find the people that have the right fit with what we needed. I explained to them that it is like fishing. You need that special fish for your dish. You could go for that other fish that came by, but then the dish would just not be as it should be.

There are many fish in the employment sea. Really, lots of fish. Still, we are going to try and catch that one special fish. Now sometimes you get lucky and you catch the fish in mere minutes. Sometimes you have to wait for weeks before you catch that ideal fish.

It’s the same with recruitment, you need that one candidate that will fit the role and fit your company culture. It may take days, or it may take months but finding the right candidate is well worth it.

How to find the right person for the job

hiring for cultural fit

Based on my experience, I created a new Management 3.0 Module: Hire Great People. It combines all lessons learned, theory, and some games relating to how to hiring the right fit for your team. In this blog post, I would like to give you a small excerpt of that module.

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As management guru Jack Welch talks about in Winning, hiring great people is hard, and yet nothing matters more to winning than getting the right people in the field. But the current labor market is challenging. Heck, it is even very challenging to just find candidates, let alone the right candidate. In fact, 75 percent of global employers responded to a Manpower survey that they particularly struggled with this talent shortage. Why?

There of course are several reasons but the most important reason is just a lack of quality candidates available.

In the same report, they also examine how organizations are trying to solve this staffing problem. It turns out that many organizations choose to just retrain their existing team members. This, however, does not solve the problem of finding fully new team members. The question is also if (just) training is the way to go? According to Laszlo Bock in his book Work Rules, some experts go so far as to say that 90 percent of training doesn’t cause a sustained improvement in performance or change in behavior. This leads to the question, should we focus on hiring people that are a 100 percent fit with what we are looking for or should we hire people that are just a 70 percent fit and train them on the job? Probably both. As always, it is about finding the right balance and looking for the right addition to your company culture.

What is most important is to find people with a growth mindset. There are people with a fixed mindset and there are people with a growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe their skills, abilities, talents, etc. are fixed. You can grow all of these qualities a bit, but it is more about finding the right seat on the bus where your fixed mindset qualities can be put to use best. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset not only are open to expanding their skillset, talents, and abilities, but they can reinvent them. These are people that can adopt new technologies and methodologies again and again. With the right learning, challenges and competence development, they can really become smarter. Whenever possible, you want to hire people with a growth mindset.

Now there are candidates who are a “perfect” fit and you can look for the broad-shouldered T-shaped people who are a 200 percent fit, and there are the sheep with five legs (as we say in the Netherlands). You may be able to find such sheep but the question is if you really want to hire those star team members. There is a huge risk in hiring star employees. Remember Enron?

This great New Yorker piece clearly explains what can happen when you hire only star employees:

“Groups don’t write great novels, and a committee didn’t come up with the theory of relativity. But companies work by different rules. They don’t just create; they execute and compete and coordinate the efforts of many different people, and the organizations that are most successful at that task are the ones where the system is the star.”

Four steps to recruiting the right candidate

Do I need to explain just how fast things change nowadays? Be aware that you want to hire people that are ready to adapt to solve whole new types of problems that you don’t know even exist today.

So now that we’ve defined what type of people we are looking for, let’s take a look at the four steps in recruitment:

  1. Define the job.
  2. Search.
  3. Interview.
  4. Hire.

All steps are important and some take a more time than others. Note that onboarding is also really important but let’s discuss that in a future blog.

Recruitment Step #1: Define the job.

Stop writing boring job texts. Seriously. Stop writing boring job texts. We are looking for a candidate with five years’ experience in XYZ, a strong communicator, team player. C’mon, trust me, these are boring job texts that do not attract any candidates anymore. So don’t let your HR representative push you into some boring corporate template. Make sure your job text is fun, stands out, and stands out. Most importantly, make sure it describes the reasons why a candidate needs certain skills. Why does a candidate need five years of experience in XYZ? By describing why someone needs a certain skill, you can attract a bigger audience.

In short, a great job description must meet three criteria:

  1. Have an inspiring job title, that stands outs. The Guy-Nagging-About-Scrum will attract more interest than Scrum Master. (Just make sure you add Scrum Master somewhere in there too so it’ll appear in job board search results.)
  2. Write a job text detailing what the team member will learn, do and become. In the future the candidate will leave your organization, that is a fact. So focus on the job text in how you are going to help the candidate to become a better professional while they are with your organization.
  3. As said before, describe why a candidate needs certain skills. Are you looking for someone with leadership skills? OK, why? How is the candidate going to make use of those leadership skills?

Recruitment Step #2: Everyone is a recruiter.

One of the challenges organizations have is finding candidates. The best way to solve this is to make everyone in your company a recruiter!

Leverage the networks of your existing team members and ask them to ask around for good candidates. But be careful with this, people like to be friends with people who are likeminded. So this could result in losing diversity in your team, which is a big risk (and probably also worth a future blogpost.) You could reward people with a referral bonus, as long as the bonus is not too big. Take a look at these six rules for rewards. Referred candidates still need to do all the steps in the interview process. No exceptions.

What to do with the candidate profiles you get? Simple, you can reject candidates based on their profiles, but please do not hire based on profile only. If somebody makes many grammar mistakes, unreadable descriptions, etc. it is clear. If someone can’t even take the time to create a decent profile, the candidate is not committed and definitely not a fit.

Recruitment Step #3: Interviews and first impressions.

Next up? The interview. Make sure you approach the interview as a professional. You represent the job, the product and the company. It is not just you who has to decide if you are going to make the candidate an offer.

The candidate also has to decide if she would like to work at your organization. If your interview is boring, poorly organized, hierarchical, you will make a bad impression on the candidate.

As soon as you see me in real life, you will have an impression of me. It could be good or bad, it doesn’t matter. For more than 20,000 years, we have been able to judge a situation in mere seconds. It was necessary for us humans to survive in nature. We are still doing this, we can’t help it, we judge immediately. As the interviewer, it is your task to challenge your own first impression. Is it really true what your first impression was? Probably not.

A friend of mine was applying for a job a while ago. The process was a bit (too) long. At one moment in the process, he already had a total of five hours of interviews under his belt. He estimated that he had talked himself for a maximum of 45 minutes till that moment. Guess who talked the other 255 minutes? In this case, my friend just had to nod every once in a while and say yes, true, indeed… The result was that the people from the organization were very positive about him. And they should be, he is great guy. He, however, thought that time management and process wise, improvements were possible in this company.

During the interview, make sure you talk as little as possible. The other pitfall is that you only focus on facts. Asking a thousand things about a Web framework, features in the latest version of a programming language, about a certain IDE or social media tool may make you feel a candidate is knowledgeable but it doesn’t really mean anything. Facts can be found on the Internet anywhere. An interview is not the same as a quiz. It is better to ask what communities the candidates know and use, and how they would solve problems. Better yet, ask them to give examples of problems they solved.

My favorite question always is: “What are you really proud of that you accomplished in the last year? Could you tell me all about it?” You know in one question what the candidate finds difficult, they probably won’t tell you about an easy job. You can start asking clarification questions, like “What did you do…”, “How did you…”, “What made it difficult…” or just “Tell me more…” Big advantage of this question is, you know if the candidate is able to explain a complex situation.

Next, try to ask behavioral questions. Behavioral questions are a tool to find out about real-life cases. A further model you can use is STAR: situation, task, action, result. For example, if you want to know if a marketer can work with social media, a question could be: “Can you give me an example of a social media campaign you had to set up? What was expected from you in this situation? What were the actions you actually did? What were the results?” You can find more examples of behavioral questions here.

Other things you can do during the job interview is to ask a candidate to explain their motivation. You could use Moving Motivators cards for this, or ask the candidate to create her own Personal Map.

The final step of the interview process is to do a workshop. There are still organizations who hire people without a workshop. Serious, it is true! If you would hire an acrobat for your circus, would you not like to see them perform first? You need to give every candidate a workshop, as a sort of practical trial of the job. You should be able to come up with a workshop for every role.  I would go so far that if you cannot decide on a workshop, you do not really know what the job holds that you are recruiting for. You can just ask candidates to make a plan, to do a presentation, to think of a strategy, to write a piece of code, or to break a project down. Nothing compares to real life like seeing a candidate present their work like this.

There are even organizations who invite candidates to work together for three days, an investment from both sides. This kind of workshop works both ways as it’s an opportunity for the candidate to learn about and experience your business and team. It should add value for the organization and candidate. Don’t put the candidate in a small room far far far away. I once had a candidate who went to the shop floor and started asking team members how she had to solve the case. During the review, one of the team members involved in the hiring process said the candidate cheated. I asked why? Because she asked for support. “Er… don’t we expect team members to ask for help.” There is no cheating possible in a workshop, everything in a workshop will learn you more about the candidate and the candidate will learn more about you.

I often hear: “Ralph, we have the XYZ online personality test. We are fully covered”. Er… right. What shall I say… Yes, there is value in a test, but, as with CVs, you don’t hire based on a shades of grey psychological test. Nor should you reject based on a test. You use it as something to discuss with the candidate. Most tests require training to be able to interpret the data. Most organizations only send their HR employees to this training, but they do share the result also with people involved in the hiring process. If you would like to use the results as most effective as possible, make sure everyone attends a (serious) training on how to read and interpret psychological test results.

Recruitment Step #4: Deciding whether to hire.

Hiring right candidates

The last step in the process is just the hiring. A simple step, and only has two possible outcomes: it is a hire or no hire. There is nothing between it, it is binary, a 0 or a 1. To make sure, you understood me correctly here, there are only two outcomes possible: hire or don’t hire. Things “Let’s give it a try”, “Great candidate for team Beta”, “We really need someone so..”, “If we are able to..”, “Given the right coaching…” all synonyms for don’t hire! No matter how urgent a role is, don’t compromise on hiring quality. It’ll backfire.

On the other hand, if someone seems like a good fit for your company, but not for this role, tell them to keep her eyes out for the next opening.

And I understand that this in real life is a bit more grey, but we haven’t talked about the toll on a team that’s absorbing new members. If you compromise you are making another group of people pay for your choice. (OK, probably yet another blog on this one…)

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The last things I want to share with you is that you should make sure that every candidate, and most definitely the candidates you reject, should become an ambassador of your organization. Treat them with respect, be nice to them, be transparent to them. You want them to tell to friends: “They rejected me, I understand why, but I felt it was a great company. You should apply for a job there.”

A lot of information here on recruiting, but did I miss anything? What are your tips to hire team members?

Read on to learn more about the Management 3.0 Module How to Hire Great People.

Photo: Daniel McCullough (Unsplash)

2 thoughts on "How to Hire Great People"

  • Pia-Maria Thoren says:

    Great post Ralph, looking forward to use this module 🙂

  • George says:

    It depends on the role, but for a typical IT project I think the most important is, that the candidate should have the the good skills and open-minded attitude, to work with others. What you should watch is, if the candidate would be jealous for others, but people with many hobbies is also a good point, as they are confident, self-aware. Humor is usually good measurement of intelligence, too. The hardest thing to measure is the reliability vs licking!:)

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