Over the past 40 years I’ve interviewed thousands of candidates for staff level jobs to senior executives and tracked the performance of hundreds of them.
After a few years it quickly became apparent that a 30-45 minute work history review revealed four great predictors of on-the-job success. As long as the following four conditions were present I was comfortable recommending the candidate for further interviewing. Of course, further evaluation was essential but it turned out as long as the four factors were present the likelihood of the candidate being a finalist was extremely high.
Determine Job Fit Based on Comparable Accomplishments
Obviously going through the person’s resume reveals a lot about whether the person is a basic fit for the job. But of critical importance is the person’s most significant accomplishments. During the work history review I dig into the one that best compares to what the person will be doing in the new position.
The focus of this is on the scope of the project, span of control, size of the budget, reporting relationships, complexity of the work and the results achieved. For example, for a Director of Accounting at a major corporation I recommended a manager at a Big 4 accounting firm since she had implemented robust reporting systems at Fortune 200 companies leading teams of 10-20 people. This was the primary objective of the job, so the fit was perfect.
Potential is Revealed through the Achiever Pattern
The Achiever Pattern indicates the candidate is in the top 25% of their peer group. The idea is that people in the top 25% at different companies and at different jobs are likely to continue to be in the top 25% in the new job. Since these are the people who continue to take on more challenging projects and get promoted more quickly, the Achiever Pattern is a good indicator of potential.
Each position has different criteria to meet the top 25% standard but they all have some. For example, for sales positions look for people who have a track record of always making quota. The best staff level people in all functions are assigned more challenging projects soon after starting a new job. The best managers seek out and are given more challenging management assignments. The best team players are assigned to more important multi-functional teams.
While this is only a short list, the idea is to use the work history review to find out where the candidate has been recognized for doing superior work, whether it’s an award, a promotion, special bonus or an important assignment.
Career Motivation Can be Determined Based on How Job Changes were Decided
Why people change jobs is an important clue to how motivated the person is career wise. Always ask candidates why they moved from one company to another and if the move accomplished its purpose. For the best people these moves are typically part of a bigger career plan and are not made superficially. While they don’t often work out as planned, most times they do. Look for people who are concerned about making an impact, developing their skills and finding more satisfying work.
For example, I challenged one candidate who made a decision to accept a job that was closer to home, had a slightly better title, and offered a bit more money, but was in a decaying industry. When I pointed this out to him he rejected this job and accepted the other better long-term offer. He called a year later thanking me for the advice after he got a huge promotion.
The Size of the Opportunity Gap Predicts Engagement and Performance
A good career move requires a 30% non-monetary increase. This is the opportunity gap. It’s the sum of the increases in job stretch (bigger job), job growth (faster rate of increase) and job satisfaction (doing more satisfying work). If the stretch part of the gap is too great, the chance of failure increases, but if the gap is non-existent, dissatisfaction and underperformance is likely. The opportunity gap is determined by what the person has accomplished compared to what the new position offers.
Most recruiters and hiring managers can’t even figure out the size of the opportunity gap since the job is ill-defined. In this case money becomes the primary criteria to accept an offer or not. This is a great predictor that the person will underperform.
Take the Time to Find These Four Predictors
When the person is a good fit for the job, possesses the Achiever Pattern, has a track record of making good career decisions and the job offers a true career move, it’s likely the person will be a serious candidate for your job. What’s surprising is that much of this can be figured out in a 30-45 minute work history review. What’s more surprising is that most interviewers won’t take the time to do it.
While finding and accurately assessing candidates has always been important, doing it quickly will take on extra urgency as the economy recovers. Interestingly, if your candidates are high achievers, most managers will meet them even if they’re a bit off experience-wise. This is one way to ensure 100% of your candidates are seen. It will also reduce the amount of work involved in putting together a slate of candidates for any search assignment.
You can spot achievers in about 15-20 minutes by looking for clues high achievers leave in their wake. This is the forensic connection. But first, let’s define an achiever.
An achiever is a person who:
- Is highly motivated to do the work required
- Consistently delivers high quality results on time and on budget
- Is personally driven to become better
- Takes great pride in doing high quality work
- Works well with a broad and diverse group of people
- Will commit and deliver high-quality results despite the challenges
- Doesn’t make excuses; just gets it done somehow
- Volunteers for tough tasks or takes them on despite personal inconvenience
Let me start the forensic interviewing approach with a bit of reminiscing. I vaguely remember a high school physics experiment where the teacher demonstrated how to determine if a primary activity was present by looking at its secondary impact on other things. I suspect this is comparable to determining if a planet that isn’t visible is present by examining the gravitational shift it has on other planetary objects. Forensics is a form of this by looking at the clues left at the crime scene to determine what actually occurred (think CSI). From an interviewing standpoint it means looking for clues that an achiever pattern is present rather than looking directly for achiever-related behaviors or competencies.
Here’s how this works during the phone screen. A phone screen should consist of these four core sections:
- First, the introduction and engagement
- Second, the resume and work history review, looking for general fit and the achiever pattern
- Third, determining if the person is a strong fit for the actual opening and if the position offers the person a career move
- Fourth, either recruit the person for the open position, put the person in the talent pool for future positions, and/or get referrals
During the phone screen, the work history review should last at least 15-20 minutes, and longer for senior-level positions. For the uninitiated, a work history review is a comprehensive evaluation of the candidate’s resume, job by job. Done properly, the achiever patter will quickly emerge. Here’s how to conduct this type of forensic assessment:
- Find out the actual dates of each major job, including months and years. Many people hide non-positive information in their resumes, so it’s important to first ferret this out.
- Get an explanation of any gaps in employment. If there are gaps, look for areas of personal development or special training the person initiated on his or her own. Achievers are constantly improving themselves, so look for this throughout the interview.
- Determine why the person changed jobs and why each new job was selected. Achievers tend to carefully select jobs based on some major overriding career goal. I’m not fond of asking candidates first what their long-term goals are, since this is often fanciful. Instead, I ask them about major career goals they’ve already achieved. If they have a pattern of achieving these goals, I then ask them about their long-term goals. Make sure the jobs selected logically support the major goal.
- Determine if the job change achieved the desired result. Non-achievers tend to move from job to job based on circumstances out of their control, or convenience, with a focus on tactical issues like compensation, location, security, and basic job content. Achievers tend to focus more on the strategic aspects of the job, including the potential for learning, impact, and growth.
- Within each company ask about major projects, accomplishments, and results achieved. Achievers demonstrate a pattern of increasing impact and consistent results. Quantify this with specific details, and look for trends and improving performance over time. Also find out how the person proactively expanded his or her role and influence. This is what achievers do, so look for it.
- Get comparisons of performance to the person’s peers. Compare the person’s specific performance to others in the group by asking about rankings, standings, differences between the top and average, and what the person would need to have done to be at the top level. Achievers are competitive and self-motivated to improve.
- Ask about any type of recognition received. Achievers receive lots of recognition, so look for this and be concerned if you don’t find much. Recognition can be any number of things like raises, bonuses, awards won, promotions, patents awarded, assignments to bigger projects, presentations at industry conferences, published whitepapers, huge blog followers, commendations of any type, scholarships, honorary societies, and leadership awards. The amount of recognition received, when it when was received, and what it was for are the best confirming evidence of this achiever pattern.
- Prepare a graphical work chart for each major position. Rather than use personality traits and personal affability to assess team skills, just track the growth of the teams the person has been assigned to over the past 5-10 years. If this has increased significantly to include expanded functional responsibility, broader cross-functional involvement, and more exposure to senior management inside and outside the company, you can be assured the person has strong team skills.
Achievers leave lots of evidence in their wakes, and if the wake is big enough, you can rest assured there’s an achiever out in front. Of course, you then need to determine if the person is a good fit for your current job opening and if the position provides the candidate a strong career move. You need both to ensure you can recruit and close the candidate on favorable terms, and beat back the competition. In my book, Hire With Your Head, I demonstrate in detail how to do this. Once you get the person on board, don’t be surprised that those with the achiever pattern also possess all of the traits described in your company’s competency model. As an old high school teacher demonstrated many years ago, you can often find something without looking for it.
This article originally was published in the Electronic Recruiters Exchange (www.ere.net). Check out ERE for more great recruiting information.
Here’s a big problem with interviewing. If you like someone, you maximize their positives and minimize their negatives. If you don’t like someone, you maximize their weaknesses, and minimize their positives.
Now consider how many great candidates didn’t get the jobs they deserved because someone on the hiring team used perception of ability vs. actual ability to make the yes/no decision. In the last 30 years I’ve been involved in over 750 different separate hiring decisions. After the first 50 or so, I realized I had to personally intervene to prevent flawed hiring decisions based on emotions, perceptions, and biases to ensure the best person got hired. I did this for many reasons. The big two: I didn’t like doing searches over again, and I didn’t like good people not getting the jobs they deserved for some dumb reason.
The solution to the problem starts with making sure that everyone on the hiring team had a clear understanding of the real job requirements. When an interviewer doesn’t know what it takes to be successful in the job, they substitute their own superficial, subjective, intuitive, or biased criteria. For proof, consider managers that like to hire people who went to the “right” schools, have the “right” experience, are too brilliant for the job, and are just like them in how they look, talk, and act. Not knowing what they’re looking for also delays the decision making, as managers wait for the perfect candidate to show up who meets the unspoken and collective criteria of each hiring team member.
Overcoming this critical but common problem starts by defining the job based on what the new hire needs to accomplish in order to be successful, rather than what the person must have in terms of skills, experience, looks, intelligence, background, and communication skills. For the past twenty years, I’ve been calling these achievement-oriented job descriptions “performance profiles.” A performance profile defines the actual work in terms of performance objectives (e.g., build a team of accountants, design a circuit, make quota in six months, etc.). Most jobs have 5-6 tasks like this that represent the bulk of the job. The interviewer then needs to determine if the person can accomplish the tasks. If so, it’s then obvious the person has the appropriate amount of skills and experiences.
However, preparing a performance profile is not enough to eliminate perceptions, biases, and emotions from affecting the hiring decision. Here are some other things that can help increase objectivity and reduce hiring mistakes…
Some Things You Can Do to Minimize Perception-driven Hiring Mistakes
- Wait 30 minutes. Listen to the judge. Hear all of the evidence, pro and con, before making any decision. In the case of interviewing, wait for at least 30 minutes after the interview starts before concluding if the person is a possible hire or not. This forced delay will minimize the impact of first impressions. After 30 minutes you’ll discover the good aren’t as good as you thought, and the bad aren’t as bad.
- Don’t give anyone on the hiring team a full yes or no vote. I use a talent scorecard listing all of the competencies and factors driving on-the-job success to make the assessment. (Contact me if you’d like to view a sample.) There are about 10 factors on the form including things like technical ability, leadership, motivation, problem-solving, and cultural fit. Instead of assigning each interviewer all of the factors to assess, I suggest that each interviewer be given only 2-3 to “own.” During a formal debriefing session each interviewer is then required to substantiate his/her 1-5 ranking with facts and evidence. This “divide and conquer” technique forces each person to be more factual, and gives the group, not one individual responsibility to make the assessment.
- Ask people you like tougher questions. When you like a candidate you naturally go into sales mode, ask softball questions, and ignore or minimize negatives. To overcome this natural tendency, force yourself to ask tougher questions, digging deep into the person’s accomplishments.
- Treat people you don’t like as consultants. When a candidate makes a weak first impression we typically tune out, ask hardball questions, cut the person off, and ignore or minimize any positive information. Sometimes candidates are nervous, sometimes they’re different in appearance or personality, and sometimes they talk with accents you don’t like. And sometimes, these are great people. To find the truth assume they’re great, and treat them as expert consultants. Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume what they’ve done is remarkable. By treating them as consultants, rather than potential coworkers, you’ll naturally focus on their achievements, not their personality and fit. After 30 minutes you might discover they’re not so bad after all.
- Ignore fact-less decisions. During the debriefing session, ignore assessments that include these terms: feel, think, like, dislike, bad fit, too soft, too aggressive, anything about personality good or bad, or the term “soft skills.” Also, ignore anything similar that smacks of bias, emotions, prejudices, or hasty judgments. These are all clues that the candidate was interviewed through the wrong filter. Unless the interviewer can attach concrete evidence to the assessment, it has minimum predictive value. Saying the person wouldn’t fit because the last five decisions she made used flawed data, and then providing specifics to support the claim, is certainly valid evidence not to move forward. Saying, “While the person is a little quiet, he has been assigned to manage important cross-functional teams in his last two jobs,” is equally appropriate for moving the candidate to the next step.
- Don’t conduct short interviews. If you want to make the wrong hiring decision have 5-6 people each spend 30-40 minutes with the candidate, then add up their yes/no votes. If it takes 3-6 months after the person is hired to determine true performance, how is it possible to predict this in a short 30 minute get-together? Instead, follow all of the rules in this list and either have each interviewer spend at least an hour with the candidate one-on-one, or conduct a panel interview with 2-3 people for about 60-75 minutes.
- Conduct phone interviews first. Conduct a 30-minute exploratory phone interview before meeting the in person. Review the candidate’s work-history looking for the Achiever Pattern and ask about a major accomplishment most comparable to the performance profile. Not only will this indicate the person is a strong match for the job, but it will naturally minimize the impact of first impressions when the interviewer actually meets the person.
Interviewers typically seek out evidence supporting their initial reaction to a candidate, filtering out conflicting information. This is how perceptions become reality. However, by forcing a delay into the hiring decision, and demanding that interviewers justify they’re assessments with evidence, you’ll overcome the insidious impact of human nature. Changing perceptions starts by recognizing how they change you.