HR
May 7, 2012

Who do you hire?

Who
Geoff Smart and Randy Street
Ballantine, 188 pages, $28.00

In the past decade, leaders have been repeatedly told to improve their strategy and decision-making if they want to succeed. But on an everyday basis, as they struggle to implement strategy, success seems innately tied to the people problems they are immersed in.

Which, therefore, comes first: Strategy or people?

In Good To Great, researcher Jim Collins told businesses that they must focus first on who they get on the bus for their journey ahead – as well as where to place those people, and who to kick off the bus – before addressing where that bus will head and what they will do as a group. He repeated that advice in his monograph Good To Great And The Social Sectors, aimed at government, the MUSH sector, and social agencies.

In a sleeper book that came out earlier this year, Who, consultants Geoff Smart and Randy Street echo that thinking – and, better yet, show you how to do a better job of hiring the right people. “Who is your number-one problem. Not what,” they open the book, explaining that what refers to what strategy and processes and programs to follow while who is the people you put in place to make the what decisions.

Getting the right people starts with establishing a scorecard of what you need from the ultimate hires, based on developing a short mission statement of the role, specific expected outcomes, and the skills required to achieve those outcomes. They caution against hiring generalists, saying you want to define the role clearly and then search for narrow but deep competence.

Among the competencies you must search for are cultural fit. One of the biggest reasons for hiring mistakes is that the individuals selected don’t fit in. “Don’t be afraid to write down what might seem blindingly evident. In the heat of a hiring crisis, the clearest things sometimes get overlooked. By translating your culture and values into a series of competencies that matter for every job, you can avoid making the mistake of not evaluating candidates for the cultural fits that are absolutely critical to your enterprise,” they write.    

But the highlight of the book is the questions they provide for the four-step interviewing process.  That starts with the screening interview, a brief phone conversation designed to weed out the “B” and “C” candidates so you can focus on the potential “A” orchids you want to nourish. The idea is to save time by quickly eliminating people who are not appropriate for the job. The screening interview has just four questions:

  • What are your career goals? This allows you to hear about a candidate’s goals and passions before you taint the conversation with your own remarks. “If he or she lacks goals or sounds like an echo of your own website, screen the person out,” the authors stress. “Talented people know what they want to do and are not afraid to tell you about it.”
  • What are you really good at professionally? Don’t let the individual merely give you a few attributes, but use this to initiate a dialogue. Aim for eight to 12 positives, so you can build a more complete picture of the individual’s professional aptitude.
  • What are you not good at or not interested in doing professionally? The candidate will often respond with supposed flaws that are really meant to display strengths, such as “I work too hard.” Deflect that by saying “it sounds like a strength to me,” and keep parrying until you find five to eight areas where the candidate falls short, lacks interest, or doesn’t want to operate. Be wary if a candidate holds back and doesn’t offer much – take them out of your process because they are probably not being honest with you or themselves. Similarly, if a candidate indicates a weakness or lack of interest in something vital to your scorecard, eliminate them from consideration.  
  • Who are your last five bosses, and how will they each rate your performance on a 1 – 10 scale when we talk to them? That’s a stiff warning to the candidate to be honest because you will follow up. You are looking for a lot of eights, nines, and tens. Consider a six as bad, since the authors insist it invariably is an inflated two.

That’s it! Four very direct questions, which you can follow up by asking prospects for more details. But don’t get led astray and lapse into a lengthy discussion of the alma mater the two of you share or the candidate’s skydiving exploits, seeking chemistry. Stick closely to information that helps you evaluate their fit with the scorecard you have developed.

The authors avoid those offbeat questions many organizations – following the lead of Microsoft – are asking these days, such as what the candidate’s favourite animal is or whether the candidate would rather be at the library or a cocktail party on Saturday night. The authors consider those queries “voodoo hiring” practices that don’t correlate with success.

The next stage is called the “topgrading interview,” which probes the best candidates you have found in the screening to understand their strengths and weaknesses better – and the likelihood that the individual will improve on a strength or minimize weaker points. Again it rolls out of a limited number of basic questions, in this case five that are asked about every job the individual has held since joining the workforce:

  • What were you hired to do?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What were some low points during the job?
  • Who were the people you worked with? Specifically what was your boss’s name, and how do you spell that (another reminder that you will be checking)? What was working with him like? What will he tell me were your biggest strengths and areas for improvement? For managers, you also want to ask: How would you rate the team you inherited? Then probe what they did to improve that team.  
  • Why did you leave the job?

That’s a lot of detail – more than we are accustomed to seeking. It will take three hours on average to conduct. But the topgrading interview gives the candidate time to tell you the narrative of their career. And the authors insist that for every hour you spend in these interviews you will save hundreds of hours by not hiring C players. “The return on your time is staggeringly high,” they insist.

Also, don’t delegate the interview. If you will be the individual’s boss, you own the hire and will suffer the consequence of a mistake. But invite a colleague – from human resources, or your team – to join you. That allows you to work in tandem, one person perhaps taking notes while the other asks the questions.

Be prepared to interrupt the candidate as he expounds on his career. Otherwise he might talk for hours on things not relevant to your scorecard. Indeed, the authors warn: “You will have to interrupt the candidate at least once every three or four minutes, so get ready.” They suggest smiling broadly, matching the candidate’s enthusiasm level, and using reflective listening to get the person to stop talking without demoralizing him or her. For example: “Wow! It sounds like that pig farm next to your office smelled horrible!” Then when the candidate agrees, you smoothly link back to where you want to head.

The next round, called focused interviews, takes would-be hires through specific areas of their background, and might involve other members of your team with similar expertise. But it follows a similar pattern of rigorously extracting details relevant to your scorecard. The final round are reference interviews where in checking them out you n

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