Hiring the Best is a Team Sport Without Rules

Imagine you’re playing a sport that has a ball. Now imagine someone on your team purposely screwing up, like running the wrong way, giving the ball to the other team, or tackling your own player. This isn’t even excusable if someone doesn’t know the rules, but I’ll contend that this happens every day when an unprepared or weak interviewer interviews a good candidate.

When this happens, the good candidate will think less of you, your company, and your job. Even worse, the unprepared or weak interviewer might vote “no” since this is the safer decision. Unfortunately, a “no” vote in interviewing can offset two yeses.

I guess if you’re hiring average candidates you don’t need any rules, since one mistake is as good as another. If you want to hire strong people, however, you need to follow six basic rules. As you review them, consider how many good candidates you lost because you, or someone on the hiring team, didn’t follow them.

The Official Rules for Hiring Top Talent

  1. Clarify expectations. Top candidates don’t take jobs to gain more experience, they take jobs to grow faster, make an impact, learn something, gain visibility, do something important, work for a great company, work for a potential mentor, or take on a new challenge. Do your posted job descriptions clarify the real challenges and opportunities inherent in the job? If you’re still posting traditional qualifications-based job descriptions you’re not even playing the right game.
  2. Make sure everyone on the hiring team plays by the same rules. Every person who interviews a top candidate needs to agree on real job needs and conduct an in-depth objective evaluation interview. One way to do this is dig deep into a candidate’s relevant accomplishments (spend 10 to 15 minutes on two to three of them) and then compare these to the performance objectives defined in the performance profile. Interviewing a top person isn’t a popularity content or an exercise to determine fit. Top candidates evaluate your company by the depth of the professionalism shown by each interviewer, including senior execs. Done properly, an objective interview can accurately assess motivation and job fit. Unfortunately, most interviewers play by their own rules and assessment techniques. This is comparable to letting every one of your employees use their own accounting system.
  3. Don’t give any interviewer a full yes or no vote. Stop the idea of adding up a bunch of poorly considered yes/no assessments as a reasonable means to hiring a top person. This is not a valid business process or very accurate. It favors the unprepared and naysayers. Instead, collect the evidence gathered during the interview and use a 10-factor scorecard to assess candidates across all job needs. Some of these include technical competency, motivation to do the work, cultural fit, team skills, and potential. Here’s a sample of the official scorecard you should start using. Recruiters should lead this debriefing session acting as referees and scorekeepers.
  4. Don’t sell, buy. You can’t convince a top person that your job is the best among competing offers if interviewers and recruiters oversell and under-listen. The key to recruiting top people is to over-buy and under-talk. This means you need to get candidates to talk more by asking in-depth, tough, and challenging questions. Describe the challenges involved in your job, and then ask the candidate to describe any relevant accomplishments. Suggest that the candidate might be light in certain areas like scope of assignment and span of influence, and then ask the candidate to again describe his most comparable accomplishments. Of course, don’t overdo it. Make sure you’ve conducted a thorough work-history before assuming the candidate might be a bit light in certain areas. Done properly, these types of questions force the candidate to sell you, rather than you having to sell the candidate.
  5. Close on opportunity, not compensation. You’ll never have enough money in the budget to close all of the top people you want to hire, so stop making compensation an issue. To offset this, you’ll need to close on a bigger job, a faster growth rate, more visibility, a better quality of life, a Google-like culture, and a manager who’s a true mentor. Getting to this point requires a clear understanding of real job needs in combination with an in-depth, performance-based objective interview. That’s why the first four rules above are not optional. Candidates need to convince themselves and their personal advisors (friends and family, too) that the job you’re offering is far better in terms of future and strategic career value than slightly less current compensation.
  6. Don’t make any offers until the candidate says yes. Count on a top person getting a counter-offer or a number of competitive offers. The only way you can be the last offer standing is to not make it formal until the candidate gives you a 100% commitment that she’ll take it. You get to this point by testing offers using trial closing techniques. For example, after the first interview simply ask the candidate how serious she is about accepting a fair offer from your company in comparison to everything else she’s considering. While there are a bunch of other steps in between, before you formalize the offer, send the candidate a unsigned offer letter describing all of the terms and ask her if she’ll formally accept it and sign it upon receipt of a formal offer. Anything other than a “yes” is not allowed under The Official Rules. In this case, don’t make the offer.

Of course, no one plays by these rules, so you’ll need to play the game of finding and placing top performers despite the free-form nature of the game. To get good at this, read Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick immediately. Of course, the book has nothing to do directly with recruiting. It has to do with influencing others and why some approaches work better than others.

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Following are just a few of the many points that seem directly relevant to getting others to play by The Official Rules for Hiring Top Talent.

  1. Find the core intent of the job. Every job has a few aspects that make it stand out. These core aspects of the job should be so clear that without knowing anything else, every member of the hiring team will be able to determine whether the candidate possesses the ability and motivation to successfully handle the job. One of the core elements of the job should also be so compelling that a top person could justify taking the job regardless of compensation. For example, for a product manager, the core from the company side could be to lead the launch of a $300 million product line. From the candidate’s perspective, the core might be to lead the company’s most visible and important new product line.
  2. Use stories, examples, and detailed facts to defend your candidate from subjective or emotional assessments. I remember 20 years ago fighting for my cost accounting manager candidate, and my fee, to a tough CFO who was ready to eliminate a great person because he got nervous in the interview. To overcome the CFO’s disbelief, I described in specific detail how the candidate led the launch of one of the first activity-based costing systems on a McCormick and Dodge platform for one of the major automotive OEMs. In fact, I named the plant where the cost manager worked, and the 17.3% impact he made on improving product-line costing. I subsequently made over 10 placements with the CFO over the next two years.
  3. Do the unexpected. When one of the interviewers is ready to dismiss your candidate for dumb reasons, say something crazy like “not hiring Kathy for that reason is equivalent to us not pursuing the Titan project because the CEO didn’t like the size of buttons on the power switch.” As long as your example is somewhat relevant, the shock will get the person to re-think his position. Then provide some specific details (point 2) to overwhelm the person’s superficial assessment.

Reacting to adverse situations is never as effective as some plan to minimize their occurrence. That’s why you need to implement The Official Rules for Hiring Top Talent before your next assignment. After-the-fact rules aren’t nearly as good, since arguments always ensue and the most powerful person usually wins, but they’re better than nothing.

In this case, make sure you read Made to Stick, which provides enough insight to ensure your made-up rules sound credible. You’ll probably make a few extra placements as a result.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).

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