On Hiring

Published: Fri 18 September 2015

In Blog.

For some time now, I've had a sort of a mid-life-crisis-induced fascination with all things entrepenurial and consequently now spend an appreciable amount of driving time listening to podcasts in that vein. One of them is the excellent Get Altitude podcast by Eben Pagan. Eben is clearly a wickedly smart marketer, and has chosen a controversial emblem by-which to identify his podcast, notably the Eye of Providence.

Now a common theme that comes to the fore when distilling the experience of successful entrepeneurs is the inevitable dichotomy of “do it yourself” versus “get outside help”. Typical entrepeneurial spirits, at least in their early phases of growth, tend to want to do everything themselves. The advice from the sage is to quickly understand that this sort of outlook is counter-productive to the objective of an effective “do, learn, correct” cycle commonly associated with hyper-growth. This ties into the broader pattern of successful entrepeneurship which is to break through “fear barriers” – in this case, it's the fear of relinquishing control and trusting somebody else to do the job.

In his interview with Brad Smart, The cutting edge in hiring practice is explored. Let's distill the discussion:

  1. It doesn't seem to make sense — pretty much everything in the business world is measured except quality of hire;
  2. Only 25% of people hired turn out to be high performers (that is, using traditional hiring techniques). Brad regards a “high performer” as someone in the top 10% of the market for what you're willing to pay (I suppose that isn't a very precise definition, but I'm not sure being overly precise is going to gain us anything);
  3. In his studies of organisations' hiring methods, Brad was most interested in answering the question: "What is working?" (as anyone would be interested in doing) — ... and the outcomes:
    1. Real value in interviewing is achieved by asking certain specific questions about every previous job. The answers to these carefully selected questions, asked of each previous job, start to reveal valuable patterns around incumbents’ behaviours and attitudes. Brad: “that should be a tee-shirt” — Ask a lot of Questions about a lot of Jobs;
    2. The principle of the above point can't be over-emphasized; that said, the questions themselves are pretty straightforward;
    3. This one is fairly obvious: hire people who you’ve worked with in the past who you know are great.
  4. Hiring mistakes:
    1. Type-A personalities tend to arrive at conclusions way too prematurely; they tend to revert to a “gut feel” — this is dangerous;
    2. A common mistake: not nailing down what the job is. This is particularly difficult for high growth companies where what will be required in a years time may be quite different from what is required now.
    3. Hiring people “in your own image”, that is, people who like you and/or people you like.
  5. Tips:
    1. Reference checks are tricky ... there’s a way to get valuable reference interviews. Sharp people want you to talk to their former bosses, so just ask for them to arrange an interview with a former boss. When presented with this request, the C players stay away ... because, of course, they don't want you talking to a former boss. The opposite is true of an A player.
    2. Some useful questions to ask of the candidate in the interview (remember: ask these per previous job):
      1. According to Brad, this is a superb question to ask: "What will [a previous boss] say are your strengths, your weaknesses and your overall performance when I do a reference interview with him/her?"
      2. "What were your bosses strengths and weaknesses from your point of view?"

A Players versus C Players

It’s all good talking about A players and C players, but what sort of questions seperates the wheat from the chaffe, as it were?

Q: What were your expectations in taking job X?

A players tend to respond in a way that suggests that they're looking forward to new opportunities or challenges. C players really are only interested in just getting another job.

Q: What did you conclude after you were on the job?

A players demonstrate resourcefulness in their responses despite challenges that were encountered in the job. C players, on the other hand, will respond in a way that focuses on the negative — there'll be a laundry list of problems encountered with little to no mention of the triumphs (since there were unlikely to be any).

Q: What were your major accomplishments, and how did you achieve them?

A players will focus on the immense successes that they achieved. C players, on the other hand, will indicate that the demands placed on them were unrealistically high, and they didn't quite meet the stretch goals with-which they were presented.

Q: What were your failures?

A players will admit mistakes and demonstrate honesty; C players, on the other hand, will establish a pattern of excuses. Also, A players will be very willing to talk about what they learned from in terms of their mistakes, and will also demonstrate how they modified their behavior based on those mistakes (this will be revealed in questions around subsequent jobs).

Q: What was boss X like to work for?

A players tend to like to work for A players; C players tend to like to work for “easy bosses”.

Q: What would boss X say were your strengths, weaknesses and overall performance?

The A players would focus on the strengths, but would be candid about the weaknesses. C players would say things that don’t seem to ring true — one would get a sense of phonyness. C players would suggest that their boss was tough.

Q: Why did you leave the job?

A players would demonstrate new opportunities as being the reason for moving on, whereas C players wouldn't be able answer the question honestly since it's likely they were “pushed out”.

So, an interesting sound bite that I got out of this interview was a comment by Eben about how A players like to “hang out” with A players and C players with C players. It's interesting because it reflects precisely what Steve Jobs was known to have said:

“... I realized that A players like to work with A players, they just didn’t like working with C players.”

The Cost of Mis-hires

Brad’s research reveals a surprisingly large number when it comes to the cost to a business of mis-hiring — in the region of 10 times average salary. So that's an order of magnitude, right there. Hiring process and policy is just that important.

I’m super chuffed with this podcast “golden find” — the value of the material in these interviews cannot be overstated; Pagan really believes in the philosophy of providing value at no cost as a way of building a devoted following.

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