When Hiring, Focus First on Talent That Stands Out

Published in UT San Diego, September 29, 2014

Hiring. This subject fascinates me.

In a study of chief executives, 68 percent rate hiring as the No. 1 focus and the No. 1 area of weakness. In other words, it ain’t easy.

There are myriad ways and tools — the infamous Google brain teasers, the trick question about your father’s deepest fears when you were born, the what did you learn from your summer job, the Rorschach test, the algorithm that selects the right hire with no human intervention required, and a hundred books on culture and gut instinct, as well as the usual hire by basic desperation. Just throw a body at the problem.

But whatever recipe you use, if you get it wrong, the results can be devastating.

I have a few stories. Recently, one of my companies claimed to need a vice president of sales — at least that is what they thought they needed. The final candidate had five interviews with various members of the team, and the vote was mixed. When I met with him (I got the final interview), I was able to adjust our expectation (not his). What the company really needed was a director of sales process — in other words a geek, not a cheerleader/closer. He was perfectly qualified for that role, and we hired him.

In our interview process, it had been difficult for him to reveal his true talent. The take-away here is that the company had misdefined what it needed and was interviewing for the wrong thing. Beware of easy job titles.

Giles Raymond, an organizational psychologist, who specializes in the hiring process, says there are two key issues a company needs to define — the competencies required for the job, and then doing “competency-based interviewing” where you look for examples of prior performance that might predict future behavior.

Great talent. I know it when I see it. When this happens, do not let the person escape even if you have no job for them at the time. Eight months ago, I sold a company and the whole team went with the acquirer. But one team member (not locked up) was an awesome talent, and I lured him back a couple of months later even though I did not have exactly a perfect fit. I paid him to wait. But within a very short time, someone left and he stepped in immediately. Now we can’t live without him. The take-away — do not let the great ones get away.

A few weeks ago, we started a company. It was on a fast track, and we needed a program manager — a very key, critical hire for a mobile application. We had no time for a normal interview process. We took one referral from one of our employees, and the guy turned out to be brilliant. We got lucky. The best people often come from your existing network.

But while we were fortunate, it is also true that this person was “unique” in many ways, and we adjusted our behavior to make it work. In other words, the CEO modified his style in order to accommodate the employee. It is what great coaches of great teams do within reason. If Bobby wants to work at 3 a.m., but his coding is off the chart, then buy a refrigerator and a bed and let him work where and when he wants.

Seems obvious, but it isn’t. The reason you can hire/steal great talent is that their former employer did not figure it out. One of my rules is that every CEO should have at least two years of psychotherapy. Getting the best out of your team often means listening better, and being aware of your own neurotic behaviors. The era of General Patton as CEO is long gone. I am not advocating unrestrained touchy/feely, but I can tell you that hiring, which is the single most important job a CEO can do, is more than the résumé or the traditional process. Great management is about finding the greatness in others, and then allowing it to flourish.

Rule No. 372

Notwithstanding all the books and techniques, hiring well still remains mostly a mystery. Where’s Sherlock Holmes when you need him?

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