One Simple Idea to Remove the Lid on Hire Quality

© Nyul | - Don't Put a Lid on Quality of Hire by Rethinking the Job

Over the past few months I’ve asked hundreds of recruiters and hiring managers to tweet some of their biggest hiring challenges. Here’s a short list that covers 90% of the problems they described.

  • Not seeing enough good candidates
  • The best candidates want too much money
  • Hiring managers misjudge candidates
  • Too many interviewers focus on presentation skills rather than ability
  • Too many technical people focus only on technical ability
  • Hiring managers can’t recruit the best talent
  • Recruiters spend too much time screening resumes
  • Recruiters can’t recruit the best talent
  • Recruiters can’t screen candidates properly
  • Candidates take counteroffers
  • Candidates shop our offers around to get better offers
  • Our reputation isn’t good
  • We don’t have a great employer brand
  • We can’t attract passive candidates
  • Our job descriptions are boring
  • We don’t pay enough
  • Our location is not desirable
  • There’s too much competition

A few years ago I prepared the video below with LinkedIn proving beyond any doubt that the root cause of all of these problems is simply using the wrong strategy to hire the right people. The issue is summarized in this concept:

You can’t use a surplus of talent strategy of weeding out the weak, when a surplus of top talent doesn’t exist. In this case you need to use a process designed to attract the best.

This idea is graphically presented below:

Most hiring processes are designed with a left to right “weed out the weak” focus. This starts with a job description listing a bunch of skills and experiences a candidate must have in order to meet some arbitrary threshold of ability. These are then matched to a candidate’s resume listing his/her skills and experiences. If the person passes this filter some recruiter calls and discusses the job based on what the person gets on the day he/she starts. If both agree that the title, location, compensation and company are a reasonable fit a formal interview is arranged. However, rarely do the people hired have a great understanding of what they’ll be doing or could become if successful. That’s why employee dissatisfaction has hovered around 70% according to the Gallup group for 20+ years.

This left to right process puts a lid on quality of hire since anyone who can do the work who has a different mix of skills and experiences is automatically excluded from consideration. More important, few of the best of these diverse and high potential candidates would even dream of applying since the job at best is a lateral transfer. And since it’s a lateral transfer the only reason for applying would be more money and a more convenient location.

By thinking right to left using an “attract the best” mindset all of the traditional hiring problems listed above magically disappear.

But it does take a different strategy and a different process. In this case the idea is to first define what a person needs to do and what he/she could become if successful. This then needs to be converted into a marketing campaign that invites people to engage in a discovery process to see if the position offers a true career move.

For example, we’re now helping a small company in the Portland area hire a marketing manager. Here’s the full job posting for the spot and below is the opening invitation. As you read the full post you’ll notice the complete absence of the traditional laundry list of skills, experiences and responsibilities. Despite this omission what the person needs to do to be successful is abundantly clear.

Of course, as soon as recruiters start talking with people for this role there’s a natural tendency for the candidate to ask about the compensation and the recruiter to box check skills. I suggest that neither should be done.

Instead change to a right to left perspective and focus on the career opportunity inherent in what the person will be doing, who he/she will be doing it with, the culture of the company and what the person could become. This is not easy when it violates years of conventional wisdom so I suggest to those involved in these types of conversations to adopt this advice:

Don’t negotiate the terms of an offer (compensation, title, location) before the offer is understood. I suggest that when candidates ask about the money, recruiters should say, “Let’s be frank, if the job doesn’t represent a career move, what we pay you won’t matter. So let’s first see if the job is a career move. And if it is we can then determine if the compensation fits.”

Of course, a savvy candidate will then ask the recruiter for the definition of a career move. I suggest recruiters respond with, “A career move as a minimum must offer a 30% non-monetary increase consisting of the sum of job stretch (a bigger job), faster job growth, more job satisfaction and more impact.” The idea is that rather than selling the job, sell the next step – an exploratory discussion to see if the job represents a career move.

These conversations are akin to the discovery process used in solution selling. It starts by fully understanding the buyer’s needs and then offering a custom solution. What’s important is that when done properly and a true career move exists all of the “Day 1, Get” factors are negotiable. That’s why you can’t negotiate the terms of a job offer before the person knows what the job offers.

When recruiters who haven’t read this post ask a candidate about compensation in the first few minutes of the first call I tell candidates to say, “It doesn’t really matter what you pay, I won’t be interested if the job doesn’t represent a career move. So let’s discuss this first and then we’ll see if the pay fits.”

While the logic of attracting people by using a right to left hiring process is commonsensical, in practice it’s hard to implement since it violates years of bad practices. The problem begins to go away when the company adopts a strategy to improve quality of hire and increase ROI rather than reduce cost and improve efficiency. In my mind, getting faster at doing the wrong things makes no sense even if you feel good doing it.

How to Hire for Thinking Skills

This post is part four in a continuing series on how to hire extraordinary people using the performance-based hiring and interviewing process I advocate. Following is the version of the program and a quick summary of the process.

A Quick Summary of Performance-based Interviewing

  1. Prepare a performance-based job description. Eliminate the use of skills-laden job descriptions by defining the work as a series of time-phased performance objectives.
  2. Conduct a detailed work history. Spend at least 30 minutes reviewing the candidate’s work history looking for progression, impact and recognition. Find out why the person changed jobs and if the purpose for changing was achieved.
  3. Ask the most significant job accomplishment question. For each performance objective ask the candidate to describe a related accomplishment to determine if the candidate is both competent AND motivated to do the actual work required.
  4. Ask the most significant team accomplishment question. This is the most important of all of the interview questions since it confirms all of the individual accomplishments.
  5. Determine culture fit. A great hire is someone who is competent to do the actual work AND motivated to do the actual work AND fits the culture.
  6. Ask the problem-solving question to assess thinking skills. Ask the person to solve a realistic job-related problem to determine thinking skills.

Asking about a Major Job-related Problem is My Favorite Interview Question

While all of the questions are important, the problem-solving question is my favorite. It reveals job-specific problem-solving, insight, intelligence, potential, vision, and leadership. The question is:

"One of the biggest challenges in our job is (provide 30 second description). If you were to get the job, how would you go about solving it?”

For example, if you're hiring a sales manager, the form of the question might be, "How would you go about ensuring the team met quota every month?" For an engineer, it might be, "How would you design and test this product to ensure it's in production by next March?"

I asked something similar for a Senior Director of Tax search I just completed. "Given the changing U.S. tax rules how would you modify or develop the company’s global tax strategy?” I then spent 20 minutes in a give-and-take discussion making sure the candidate understood the problem and had a logical approach for developing a solution.

The best candidates out of thousands I've met in my 35 years in executive search not only have the ability to understand the needs of the job before starting it, they also ask the right types of questions to figure out the underlying problem. The quality of these questions provides the interviewer another dimension to assess the candidate's understanding and competency.

During this segment of the interview shift to a more natural give-and-take discussion about real job needs. When you focus more on the person's process of figuring out a solution rather than a specific answer this approach reveals the following five dimensions of thinking.

The Five Dimensions of Thinking and Problem-solving

  1. Depth. Determine if the reasoning is complex, advanced or superficial. The best candidates demonstrate a good understanding of the cause and effect of a problem and can determine how to find the root cause. Superficial reasoning is evidenced by a bunch of seemingly unrelated ideas.
  2. Focus. Is the focus technical, tactical, or strategic? Candidates with a pure technical focus get into process details. Those with a tactical bent address the results of the process more. A strategic focus is represented by a longer time horizon with consideration of the implications and the unintended consequences.
  3. Team or individual emphasis. Understand if the candidate's ideas and approaches involve others or if the ideas are more individual or self-focused. This is an important consideration if the person will be managing others or involved in a number of team projects.
  4. Functional or multifunctional perspective. The best candidates understand the implications of their job on other people and other functions. Listen for this as the candidate plans out a task and asks questions.
  5. Breadth and potential. As you make the problem more complex note where the candidate’s problem-solving insight shifts from specific to general to vague. This represents the person’s current ability to take on a bigger role.

While this approach reveals strong problem-solving and thinking skills, it's not enough. You also need to ensure the person can deliver the required results. To determine this, ask the candidate to describe something he/she has accomplished that’s most related to the problem under discussion. This two-question combination is called the Anchor and Visualize approach. A track record of comparable past performance and the ability to visualize the future is a great predictor of future performance. When combined with a clear understanding of real job needs using a performance-based job description, the problem-solving question might soon become your favorite question, too.

How to Hire for Cultural Fit

In a recent post – How to Hire for Motivation – and as part of this "How to Hire" series I suggested interviewers need to break through the veneer of presentation skills to accurately assess both competency AND motivation. It’s important to recognize that motivation to get a job and social assertiveness is not motivation to do the job.

Uncovering the source of the candidate’s intrinsic motivation is essential for increasing interviewing accuracy. Most often this is something about the work itself in combination with the team involved, the person’s manager, and the mission of the company or its culture. So before hiring someone you need to understand not only what’s driving the person to excel but also the circumstances involved. Once this is done you then need to assess cultural fit. This technique is covered in Lynda's Performance-based Hiring training program summarized in the video.

Here are the factors involved in determining a company’s true culture. As you'll see it's a bit different than the one described on their website.

The Factors Defining a Company's Real Culture

  • The pace of the organization and its position on the corporate growth curve. Fast-growing start-ups are different from their more mature and slow moving adults.
  • The depth and quality of the resources available. Doing everything yourself or with a small team is different than having a support staff that expects you to leverage its ability.
  • The quality and leadership style of the hiring manager. For purposes of determining managerial fit, this factor relates to the manager’s approach to managing the new hire in comparison to how the new hire wants and needs to be managed and developed.
  • The quality of the people the person works with on a daily basis. The best people want to work with the best people and don’t do well when they don’t. And vice versa.
  • The company’s financial performance, its competition and its industry. Underperforming companies (and departments) have a lot more stress than those hitting their targets.
  • The company’s mission, value system and ethics. Whether set on high or at the local level having them is less important than how their implemented.
  • Clarity of the individual and team expectations. If a person isn’t clear about his/her expectations, the company culture won’t matter much.

For accurately determining job and culture fit I suggest the use of a performance-based interviewing process. This involves painting a detailed word picture of the candidate’s major accomplishments and then comparing them to the actual work the person needs to do to be successful. The process starts by describing a major objective (e.g., lead a project team to redesign and build the dashboard for customer satisfaction by product line) and asking the candidate to describe something he/she has done that’s most similar.

The first phase of the fact-finding involves understanding the person’s accomplishments from a scope, scale and impact basis. Getting at motivation involves finding out where the person went the extra mile. If there’s a reasonable fit on these factors the fact-finding shifts to determining cultural fit.

Here are some fact-finding probes you can use as part of understanding the same accomplishment from a cultural fit standpoint:

  1. How fast was your company growing? Did you like that pace? Why or what would you have preferred?
  2. How were decisions made? Were you comfortable with this process? Give me an example of a decision you made using this approach. How would you have rather made that decision?
  3. What was your manager like? What did you like most about your manager? Least? How do you like to be managed? How does this approach impact your performance?
  4. Who was on your project team? How did you get assigned to the team? How did you impact the team? Who did you prefer to work with and why? Who didn’t you like to work with and why? Who did you influence the most? Who influenced you the most? Did you coach anyone? Did anyone coach you?
  5. Were you aligned with the company’s mission and values? What was most important to you and least important? Did you have any mismatches here that caused problems? What would you change if you could?

You can’t measure cultural fit in a vacuum. Past performance doing comparable work matters the most. Even if the person can do the work but is not intrinsically motivated to do it, the person will likely become bored quickly. However, if the person is competent and motivated to do the work required AND fits the culture you should of course hire the person. All three factors are essential. Any one factor without the other two will result in the person underperforming, yet that’s exactly why so many good people wind up getting hired for the wrong job.

How to Hire for Motivation

Early in my recruiting experience I placed a highly motivated and experienced candidate for a logistics position. He made a great first impression and was confident, affable and articulate. He had all the boxes checked, too. Unfortunately, he turned out to be the worst placement I ever made – he was more confident than competent. He started changing things before he knew what to change. He was fired a week after starting and I lost a big fee. However, I learned a number of lessons from this situation that I never repeated:

  • Interviewing personality has nothing to do with motivation.
  • Box-checking skills has nothing to do with competency or motivation.
  • Never hire anyone who is more motivated than competent. These are the people who change the wrong things too fast

Yet every competency model in the world starts with driven to excel, results-driven or highly motivated. And every hiring manager wants to hire motivated people. These are people who don’t need a lot of direction and get things done, on time and on budget.

Interviewers assume a prepared, affable, assertive and extroverted person is highly motivated, and those who aren’t, aren’t. However, they’re wrong.

Ten years after the incident described above I placed a VP Finance at a well-known fast food restaurant chain on the west coast. The CEO wanted a highly motivated person who wouldn’t change things for at least six months. The person hired was low key. For six months he built relationships and learned everything he could about the company. Then in the course of one year he led the rebuilding of the company’s entire accounting and financial reporting systems setting the stage for the company to grow at a rate of 30-50% over the next five years.

Interestingly, the person hired had no industry experience although he was a CPA and had been the number one financial person at a similarly-sized multi-unit company. Unless you dug into the person’s past performance you never would have discovered the person was driven to excel, results-driven and highly motivated. During my 90-minute interview I asked how he implemented financial reporting systems at his then current and prior company. When he described this work you could observe his drive, energy, organizational skills and motivation emerge. I also asked how he hired and developed his staff and he named names and how he helped each person become a better person. In fact, he was referred to me by someone who wanted to work for him again. Yet, none of this was apparent in the first 30 minutes of the interview.

About the same time I was trying to place a senior cost manager with a well-known medical products company in southern California. After a 15-minute interview the CFO concluded my candidate was too low key and not technical enough to lead the implementation of a global manufacturing cost system. But I fought back and described how my candidate successfully led a state-of-the-art cost system implementation at a Fortune 100 manufacturer. Due to the evidence I presented, the CFO agreed to meet him again and dig into the project in detail. He was hired that afternoon. We placed five other senior executives at the company over the next two years using the same process. All were promoted within 18 months after starting.

So if you want to hire for motivation don’t give some assessment test or trust your intuition. Instead do the following or watch the video for more details.

  1. Define the work you need done before you start interviewing candidates to do the work. The bulk of any job can be summarized in 5-6 performance objectives describing the task, the deliverable, the timeframe and some measure of success.
  2. For each performance objective listed in the performance-based job description ask the candidate The Most Important Interview Question of All Time. By digging into the person’s past performance doing comparable work you’ll find out if the person is both competent and motivated to do the actual work required.
  3. For each accomplishment get 3-4 examples of when the candidate took the initiative to do more than required without being asked. Everyone can come up with one or two examples; few can come up three or more at each job. Look for a pattern of where the person went the extra mile. This represents the type of work the person finds most motivating. Then compare this to what you need done.

This information is all you need to determine both competency and motivation to excel in the job you want done. You won’t figure it out by the quality of the candidate’s presentation skills, how socially assertive the person is or by the person’s affability or appearance or by some assessment test. Taking shortcuts is how you hire the wrong people and miss hiring the right ones.

Exploit Your Weak Connections to Find Better Jobs and Hire Better People

I advocate a less is more approach for finding jobs and candidates to fill these jobs. So whichever side of the hiring desk you’re sitting on, my advice is pretty much the same: Don’t waste your time applying for jobs and stop posting boring jobs. Instead think “less is more," i.e., less high tech and more high touch.

For job seekers this means developing a short target list of companies you want to work at and then work like heck meeting the decision makers. For recruiters it means developing a short list of ideal candidates and then recruit the heck out of them. Exploiting your weak connections is how it’s done.

Fast Company ran an article this past week on the importance of using your Facebook friends for finding a new job. It’s probably better to use your LinkedIn direct connections since with some of the premium accounts you can see the names of your connections’ connections. These are your weak connections.

The Fast Company article referred to another article in the Journal of Labor Economics describing the importance of both strong and weak connections. This one conclusion summarizes their importance:

Weak ties are important collectively because of their quantity, but strong ties are important individually because of their quality.

The point for job seekers is the need to tap into their strongest connections to get leads for open jobs from people they know. For years I’ve contended that networking is not meeting as many people as you can. Too many job seekers fall into this trap. Instead networking is getting referred by people who can vouch for your performance to their connections who have open opportunities. For job candidates I recommend implementing this type of 60/20/20 job hunting program:

  • Don’t spend more than 20% of your effort responding to job postings. More important, rather than applying directly for the jobs you find of most interest, use your weak connections to get introduced to the hiring manager or department head.
  • Spend another 20% making sure your LinkedIn profile can be found and that it’s compelling. Try reverse engineering what recruiters do to find resumes. When it’s found it will be scanned for only a few seconds so you need to make sure the most important stuff stands out and yells, “Call me!”
  • Spend most of your time developing a master list of your weak connections. Most jobs are filled before they’re posted on some job board mostly through referrals and internal promotions. This is where weak connections can be of most value. Here are some guerilla job hunting ideasyou can use to find jobs in this very big pre-public job market.

Recruiters can do the same thing to find great candidates. For recruiters I recommend a 40/40/20 candidate hunting program. Here’s the quick summary:

  • Limit your job postings to no more than 20% of your total effort. But forget the cookie-cutter job descriptions. Instead prepare compelling posts that tell stories, highlight critical job needs and capture the ideal candidate’s intrinsic motivators. Rather than applying, invite people to present their qualifications in some unusual way.
  • Spend 40% of your effort developing a short list of highly qualified prospects. In my opinion sourcing is not finding as many fully skills-qualified active candidates as possible. It’s finding a few (15-20) high potential candidates who need to be recruited. They’re all listed on LinkedIn and you can find them using clever Boolean. Then use a multi-tiered campaign mindset (multiple emails, messaging, calling and connections) to connect and convert 60-70% of these people into potential candidates.
  • Spend the other 40% finding remarkable weak connections. Using LinkedIn Recruiter you can search on your direct connections’ connections finding ideal prospects. Then ask your connections to pre-qualify these people. Since these people will call you back and you know they’re already qualified all you have to do is recruit them by offering a 30% non-monetary increase.

Whether you’re looking for a better job or looking for better people you need to build a big network of weak connections. It starts by finding nodes – these are people who are connected to the right jobs and the right people. For example, vendors and sales reps know customers. Accountants and marketing people know engineers and people in operations. And project managers and consultants know everyone else. So whichever side of the desk you’re on, don’t sell the job or the resume; sell the discussion and build a network of weak connections. Take one step at a time while doing this. It’s ultimately how you’ll get where you really want to go.