iPods and the Weakest Link in the Hiring Chain

I’ve been advocating the use of the iPod as a metaphor for better hiring practices. If you have an iPod, you know that it’s much more than a music player. It’s a complete, integrated music system. You can quickly download music and podcasts, burn CDs, and plug it into your car, home music system or Bose speaker set. You don’t even have to read the instructions to do any of this stuff and get great music anytime, anywhere. By comparison, most hiring processes resemble a group of independent activities that no one even thought about integrating. IT provides minimal support to the candidate tracking system, which only loosely ties to the HRIS. Managers, recruiters, and other interviewers assess candidates using different criteria, and many aren’t very good at it anyway. In many companies, the selection process is less intense than the expense reimbursement policy. Competencies and behavior models are often in conflict, and they don’t tie to the real performance requirements of the job anyway. To make matters worse, candidates are treated as commodities, not potential future employees. This is apparent with poorly written advertising, difficulty in finding and applying for jobs, and a minimalist approach to candidate customer service when they do finally get involved. So if you’re not finding enough top candidates, collectively this is probably the reason. No wonder third-party recruiters are having a field day. If you were to prioritize every single hiring issue you have, and develop a project plan that would result in a completely integrated system in the next 12 months, where would you start first? My vote is with hiring managers. They are the weakest link in the chain. We just completed our Recruiting and Hiring Challenges 2005 Survey (http://www.zoomerang.com/survey.zgi?p=WEB224DP4PX42X) to gain a sense of this. [Note: The survey is still ongoing and you can still take it yourself. I’ll be hosting a free online conference to discuss the results on Thursday, August 4, 2005 at 11:00 a.m. PT. Email info@adlerconcepts.com or call 888-878-1388 to sign up.] Bottom line: Everyone found fault with their hiring manager clients. As a result, they suffered from moving job spec syndrome, had to redo searches over again, and had to find more candidates than necessary to complete their assignments. From my perspective, some of this complaining is unwarranted ó but much of it has merit. Over the past few weeks, I’ve conducted interview training programs for hiring managers in a variety of industries and positions. These ranged from auto dealers, financial advisors for investment products, electronic design engineers, bank tellers, jet pilots, and even students who give away free samples of Red Bull. My estimate is that only about 25% of the managers involved were good at interviewing. The bigger problem: over 75% thought they were. One senior executive even came up to me and said he had a great sense for talent, but wasn’t seeing enough top people. His belief was that the problem was sourcing, not interviewing. This is not an uncommon belief among the hiring manager community, and in its own way is the reason why companies work much too hard solving the wrong problem. Even if the recruiting department is perfect at sourcing, recruiting and assessment, overall the company can only be as good as its hiring managers. Surprisingly, even those who used competency models or behavioral interviewing fared no better than those who used gut feelings. When I asked these managers to rank their teams on an ABC scale, most indicated they had plenty of Cs and that they spent most of their time pushing them to become Bs. So on a big-picture viewpoint, why spend more time strengthening a stronger link in the chain (the recruiting department), when you have a link (hiring manager and other interviewers) that’s already broken? I’d like to use the iPod system analogy as a way to demonstrate how to do this. Let’s focus first on the music itself. Imagine an orchestra or band with each musician playing a different piece of music. Collectively, it’s going to sound pretty bad, even if you have the finest musicians in the world. In the world of hiring, the job description represents the sheet music. When I asked these hiring managers I was training what the person taking the same job had to do, everyone had a different idea. For sales, sometimes the answer was prospect, sometimes it was create a great customer experience, sometimes it was make quota, sometimes it was make 15 presentations a week. For engineering design, sometimes it was creative problem-solving, sometimes it was preparing design specs with marketing, sometimes it was designing. Regardless of the position, very few people agreed on the details, although 100% said they knew the job. This corresponded to our survey. Some 75% of respondents believed they knew the real job needs. Believing you know the real job is the real problem. The real job depends on what the person needs to do every day. This depends on the culture, the resources, the circumstances, the manager, the rest of the team, the territory, the stage of the project, the budget, the plan, the restraints, and so on. Starting to look for people to fill the real job when you don’t know the real job is like designing a product when you have incomplete specs ó or having everyone in the band playing different music. Having a different measurement standard is the reason why everyone can have a different perspective on the same candidate. If you want to make hiring a system, everybody must first start playing from the same sheet music, and it’s not the traditional job description. I’d suggest a performance profile as a way to communicate the real job to everyone involved. A performance profile lists the six to eight performance objectives of the job in priority order. For a sales rep, typical performance objectives are things like preparing a territory plan, identifying 10 potential customers per week, making five formal presentations per week, and closing three orders per month. For a software developer, some typical performance objectives are developing the GUI for the online application using Flash, completing a design plan for formal review in three weeks, coordinating the product specs with marketing, and completing and launching the interface within 120 days. With this list of things a person taking the actual job needs to do, it must be reviewed and agreed upon by everyone involved in the hiring process. Now everyone is reading from the same sheet music, leaving little room for ambiguity. Now each person on the hiring team (hiring manager, other interviewers, recruiter) must all be capable of playing the music. For hiring, this means conducting a formal assessment of the candidate’s competency and motivation to do the work. Read my one-question interview article (http://www.erexchange.com/articles/db/652B83B36BAC11D582F900105A12D660.asp) if you’d like more on this, but the essence is to ask the candidate to describe his or her most significant accomplishments in great depth. Spending 10 or so minutes each on three to four major accomplishments allows the interviewer to then compare the candidate’s accomplishments to actual job needs. During the fact-finding and peeling-the-onion process, behaviors, competencies and skills are quickly and naturally observed. Strong candidates like this interview method, since they have a chance to brag about themselves. Weaker candidates with few accomplishments find this approach uncomfortable, since in the past they’ve been able to get by on presentation and personality. A formal deliberative assessment needs to be part of the selection process. All interviewers must be required to justify their rankings, good or bad, based on facts, not feelings or emotions. Most companies don’t formally close this loop, leaving the necessity for conducting an accurate assessment up to the whim of the hiring manager rather than a higher authority. I’d even suggest that managers pass a competency test before they’re allowed to interview candidates. Now you need to get the audience to attend the concert. In this case, the audience is the top people you want to attract. If you’re not seeing enough good people, it’s probably because you’re advertising to the wrong audience with bad music. As an example, read your online advertising. Most of it is boring, describing what the company wants in terms of skills and experiences, not what a top person wants ó a better job! So if you want to hire better people, you need to offer better jobs, and if you want to hire great people you need to offer great jobs. This is what having an integrated system means. As part of this, better candidates also want to work for better managers. So if you have average managers, you’re probably hiring average people. Better managers and better jobs are the one-two punch in hiring better people, which is why this is where most of your focus should be. It starts by requiring managers to write better job descriptions emphasizing opportunities over requirements, describing a compelling employee value proposition, and highlighting what the person will be doing. Put the minimum list of skills and requirements at the bottom, barely visible. Then make sure you make these jobs easy to find. Reverse engineer your process and figure out how most good people look for work ó they probably use Google, a few key words, and a location. Do your jobs appear? Are they compelling? So to make hiring more iPod-like, start at the source: hiring managers. Get them to describe the compelling nature of the job. Teach them how to conduct a performance-based interview. Then start advertising to the right audience. Before you know it, you’ll have more than enough top candidates and you’ll be able to begin working on another weak link in the hiring chain.

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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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