How to Deal With Technical Managers and Other (Too) Bright People

Engineers and software development managers are the toughest hiring managers in the world to deal with. But that’s only if you exclude sales managers, marketing managers, company executives, operations people, customer service managers, functional VPs, and of course, financial people at all levels. But techies are a breed unto themselves, and I learned a few new ideas this past week I thought I’d share with you. If you’ve ever had any difficulty getting techie managers to give better or more insightful information on one of their open requisitions, this article is for you. I tried these ideas out with three different groups of engineering and software development managers this week, and they seemed to work perfectly. Start by suggesting that the hiring process is very similar to the procurement process in any engineering or manufacturing business, where, simply put, design requirements are given to procurement and then inspected upon arrival. In this case, the job description is the design spec, procurement is the recruiting department, and incoming inspection is the interviewing process. For a true six Sigma process (are you aware that recruiting is backing off the Six Sigma buzz of last year while metrics are back in the news?) very little inspection would be required or needed and the materials would arrive within a few hours of need. Now compare this simple ideal model to your actual hiring process. Materials (candidates) never arrive on time, and inspection is a chaotic mess, with all of the inspectors using their own inspection tools and their own personal measurement criteria. On top of that, though most of the inspectors have not been trained to inspect, they are given the authority and responsibility to do it anyway. Surprisingly, no one gets too aggravated when the parts don’t perform as specified after they’re purchased. In an engineering/manufacturing world, people would get fired for making comparable purchasing mistakes. But people accept hiring errors like this routinely. This doesn’t make any sense to me. Regardless, now let’s look at this simple procurement model from a slightly different perspective ó determining if it works at all and determining the end-to-end process yield, and then see if we can find the cause of the problem, and possibly a solution. This stuff gets techie managers excited, so make sure you use the jargon. Most managers would say they need to see at least five or six candidates before they would be comfortable making a hiring decision. Sometimes it’s more than ten, and every now and then a manager will decide after seeing just two or three candidates. Recruiters need to review the backgrounds of about six to eight reasonably qualified people before they find one who is both qualified for the job and interested in it too. Under this scenario, about 30 to 40 candidates need to be screened in some depth before one is hired (6:1 for the recruiter, and 6:1 for the hiring manager) or about a 3% overall yield. The percent doesn’t really matter. What does matter, though, is when you explain this process to your hiring manager client and then ask the big question, “What would we have to do to increase the yield 3X, or to about 10%?” Now you’ve got the person hooked. Your hiring manager client will now help you improve the process, figuring out what’s not working and what needs to be done to get it to work. This is how you convert a hiring problem into an engineering solution. Three big potential problems areas will quickly be identified when the question is asked as described above:

  1. The design spec is obviously wrong.
  2. The assessment tools are inadequate.
  3. The assessors need more assessment training or they’re not measuring the same stuff.

The manager will probably also say the sourcing is bad, but we’ll leave that for a later discussion. Just say that getting these three problems fixed first will allow you to concentrate on getting stronger candidates later on. Then go on to say that even if stronger candidates were presented, the hiring manager and interviewing team might not even be able to tell them apart. Now ask the following questions to get hiring managers to first recognize that the traditional skills- and experience-based job descriptions could be the major source of the yield problem:

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  1. Is every candidate that meets the spec hirable and a top performer? They’ll say no, because they need to determine soft skills, see whether the person fits within the culture, see how technically strong the person, see whether the person can really do the work, and so on and so forth. As a result of this discussion, the hiring manager will quickly conclude that the spec is not sufficient to address all hiring needs.
  2. Are there any top candidates who can do the job but who might not meet all the requirements on the spec? There will be a delay in the hiring manager’s response to this question, but the answer will be a qualified yes. From this you can then both conclude that the job description not only is insufficient, but also could exclude good people from consideration. These are the people who have slightly less skills and experience, but a lot more potential.
  3. Is the job spec complete enough by itself to convince a highly talented person that the job is even worthy of evaluating? If the job description isn’t exciting, then the best people (who are almost always already employed) won’t consider it, won’t fill in the application, or won’t come in for an interview. Since all managers say they want to hire more passive candidates, they’ll quickly see the need to write job descriptions that are more compelling to passive candidates.

These three question will allow the recruiter and hiring manager to both agree that the job description needs to be rewritten to meet the needs of the recruiters who have to find these people, the top people who need to see a compelling job before they’ll apply, and the hiring managers who want to hire more top performers. The traditional job description fails on all three counts. This is the reason why the end-to-end process yield is so low. Now here are a few questions you can ask to get the hiring manager to make the job description more complete, more compelling, and more useful for assessing candidate competency and motivation.

  • What are the big things a person in this job needs to do? Have the manager start with action verbs, like build, improve, change, analyze, increase, reduce, design, sell, call, complete, assess, develop, organize, plan, follow-up, write about, prepare, present, persuade, or hire. Then get a few key tasks described. You’ll come up with performance objectives like “increase the end-to-end yield of the hiring process by 300%,” “analyze the performance of a design,” “increase sales by 10%,” “make 30 cold calls per day,” “assess and rebuild the team,” and “put together a competitive matrix.”
  • Once you’ve figured the big things a person does in the job, ask what the best people do differently than average people. You’ll find out that the best salespeople consistently make quota within three months, the best developers write efficient code that works as specified with minimal debugging, the best customer service reps complete 30 orders per day with 100% accuracy, and the best team players go out of their way to help others on the team learn how to write code, make cold calls, evaluate design alternatives, etc.
  • Now ask how these performance objectives can be made more meaningful or more compelling to a very talented, and passive, person who has multiple offers and is currently fully employed. One way is to tie them to a major company program. For example, a software developer being part of a high-powered team to design a part of the company’s next generation products is far more attractive than “must have 5 years of C++.” Job branding is the process of making a job bigger than itself by describing its importance to the company’s strategy or vision. In addition to employer branding, it’s been shown to be a critical reason why top people consider other jobs.

[Note: Here’s an article you can read if you want more information about how to prepare these performance-based job descriptions.] While there’s a bit more to the process of preparing these performance objectives, you can quickly see how this type of list of challenging and meaningful tasks can be used to improve the overall yield in the hiring process. For one thing, all recruiters need to do is find candidates who are both competent and motivated to do the work required. Hiring managers and other members of the hiring team can evaluate a candidate’s ability and motivation to do this work by getting a number of examples of related accomplishments. From a sourcing standpoint top people are more likely to respond to an offer to evaluate a new opportunity if it’s compelling. Collectively the process as described will increase end-to-end yield by about 300%. It all starts by asking a few questions. Here’s one for you: when are you going to start asking them?

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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