Seeking Out Unicorns: Making the Perfect Hire

Published in UT San Diego, July 21, 2014

I am a unicorn hunter.

Now, let me clarify. The fact that I have never seen a unicorn does not mean that they do not exist. They are rare, and they are only spotted at very special times under very special circumstances. Catching a unicorn is a blind act of faith because if you can catch one, it morphs into a concrete, full-life breathing form. Then it is no longer a unicorn. It is something else.

For many startups, the unicorns are the people you need to hire. They are the fantasy embodiment of all your unmet needs, desires and weaknesses. So, rather than send you to a shrink, I am going to arm you with a laser-focused, night-vision, semi-automatic unicorn gun — how to hire better.

To that end, I will turn once again to my favorite source, the school that would not even accept my application — Harvard. A recent article in its business review magazine profiled a San Francisco-based company called Automattic, which is the parent for the publishing program WordPress, and how they sort through resumes and ultimately hire people.

Automattic uses tryouts. Yup, just like an audition for a Broadway show, they ask you to dance and sing before they give you the job. They used to read resumes, do interviews, do 360s and even 720s, but they found that the prospective hire often could do a great interview, but once hired, was rather lackluster in terms of output. In other words, they got fooled a lot by talented and charming people.

So they decided that the only way to measure your real skill was according to output — as in what you actually produce in a given time period. And the only way to do that effectively is to put you “to work” — in effect, to hire you for a period of time in what one might call a paid audition. They hire you to work alongside someone else in the trenches. CEO Matt Mullenweg does not focus on where you went to school (he dropped out of the University of Houston), but rather on whether you fit in and can produce.

The prospective employees get hired for between three and eight weeks. They work at night or on weekends, usually 10 to 20 hours per week. They do not have to quit or leave their job and they are paid for their work, at the rate of $25 per hour — whether they are auditioning for CFO or receptionist. How simple and elegant.

Mullenweg says, “The tryout may feel like an extraordinary obligation, but that makes it a filter.” For the company, integrating a tryout to be effective actually takes more effort and time from the existing team, and at Automattic it takes a higher priority than doing your regular job.

This system allows the company and the prospective hire to see “if it is going to work out.” It increases the likelihood of a successful hire and works both ways. It also prevents someone from quitting a job and then being fired soon after.

I love the idea because a couple of times I have been fooled by the great arm-waver, the charismatic hail fellow well met. And it has always ended badly with guilt, disappointment, severance and the look in the mirror later that says, how could I have missed every signal that in retrospect was staring me in the face.

This model will not work for every company. You must have a flexible work philosophy, your outputs need to be bite-sized and allow for some amount of independent, self-directed work, where not everyone needs to be in the office at the same time. I find this concept compelling. Just like the NFL combine, you want to see the real deal in real time, not past college game films.

Rule No. 354

“5,6,7,8” — The start of the dance auditions from “A Chorus Line.”

Note: As an addendum to our recent columns on the prisoners in the Miramar brig and their keen interest in entrepreneurship and business education, I can report that our readers had sent in 121 books. You can send the books (no money) to Michelle V. Davis, Re-entry Coordinator, Offender Workforce Development Specialist, Naval Consolidated Brig Miramar, 46141 Miramar Way, San Diego, CA 92145.

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