Some of you may know that I’m a real basketball fan – if it shoots hoops, I’ll watch it. So when I heard Doc Rivers, the coach of the Orlando Magic, give some hiring tips the other day, I just had to spread the word. Okay, they weren’t exactly hiring tips – but they certainly could have been. Doc was discussing the recent NBA draft on ESPN Radio, and how young players are evaluated. He raised the point that too often coaches and analysts start out talking about negatives first, so that within five to ten minutes everybody is so poisoned with all the bad stuff that the player is never given a proper evaluation. A few negatives can always outweigh a lot of positives. To counter this natural tendency, he’s changed his approach, and makes his advisory team talk first about a player’s strengths. Only when these points are completely discussed are weaknesses permitted to be mentioned.
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There’s a lot to be learned from this approach. It might be equally good advice when assessing candidates. I’ve been an active headhunter since 1978, and I’ve listened to or sat in on hundreds of debriefing sessions and evaluation meetings. Although I hadn’t thought about it before, what Doc Rivers describes holds true in the corporate world as well. As the recruiter representing the candidate, the worst thing that can happen is for one or two interviewers to start off with negative comments. Everyone then chimes in with supporting data to prove their point. Once the fence-sitters see which way the tide is going, they’ll jump onboard the negativity train – that way they look like they know how to make good decisions. The ones that don’t agree are often silent, or muted in their praise – they think maybe they missed something. Even if the hiring manager liked the candidate originally, she’ll probably bow to the wishes of her team members and advisors. Momentum is quickly built-up to thwart any chance that a promising candidate with a few manageable weaknesses gets a fair shot. As a recruiter, this is devastating. Your heart just sinks, knowing you have a strong candidate, no way to recover – and dozens of hours of work down the drain. If this was one of your leading candidates, the prospect of starting over is decidedly unpleasant. The exact opposite holds true when a few assessments start out extremely positive. These grow to a crescendo as others throw in their glowing statements to support the original contentions. The nay-sayers are surprisingly quiet, not wanting to sound out of touch. (They think that maybe they missed something.) This is music to the ears of the recruiter. A search assignment is entering its final phases, and you’ve done your job well. I learned on my first day on the job as a recruiter that if I could manage my client’s assessment process, my billings would be twice what they’d be if I couldn’t. During my first year, I reaffirmed this to be true. Here are some things I learned along the way, steps that can help you lead the assessment process. I’ve added the Doc Rivers positive twist. Even if you don’t have a chance to lead a full assessment review, you can still use these points during your phone conversations when debriefing clients.
- Take charge. Facilitate the meeting. If you just sit there as an observer, you set yourself up for a possible negatives-first approach. This probably happens naturally at least 50% of the time.
- Review the job description, but use the performance objectives as the criteria to judge competency, not the list of skills and experiences. Ask, “What does the person need to do to be successful in this job?” If you can get everyone to agree on this, you’ve established a realistic benchmark to determine competency, not one based on emotions and perceptions.
- Establish some ground rules. Cite the Doc Rivers story. Refer to the fact that it’s normal to minimize strengths if you start the discussion with weaknesses, but add that in our quest for perfection, this approach precludes any chance of success.
- Mention that you’ll allow for a balanced review of all of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, but that first you’ll start out with the strengths.
- Require that strengths and weaknesses be substantiated with a specific example of some accomplishment proving or disproving the characteristic. Relate these to the performance objectives. This way the assessments won’t be based on stereotypes or biases.
- Rank the candidate across the following ten factors we’ve discovered to be most relevant to job success – self-motivation, growth trend and potential, comparability of past accomplishments to current needs, team leadership, education/experience, technical competence, problem solving, management, character, and cultural fit. This all gets at the candidate’s ability to deliver the desired results in a very balanced fashion.
- Summarize the results of all the people and agree to next steps.
Whether you’re an internal recruiter on salary or a third-party recruiter working on commission, this is the degree of competence and professionalism you need to bring to the job. It’s unfair to a qualified candidate to not be given a fair hearing – and it’s your responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen. Fight hard for candidates you believe in. Of course it takes more than just accentuating the positives to get a qualified candidate through the hurdles of the interviewing process. But ignoring Doc Rivers’s words of wisdom can cost you time, money, and many fine candidates. Just imagine what might have happened if everyone believed that Allen Iverson was too short to play in the NBA – or that a big guy named Shaq could never be fast enough…