Charles Smith has hired lots of excellent people in his 20 years as an executive in a mid-sized service-sector company. His interviewing practices are a bit unusual, and yet they have allowed him to hire an extraordinary number of excellent people. He usually interviews two or three candidates for a position and then chooses one fairly quickly. In almost every case, that person turns out to be an above average contributor. His ability is widely known within his company, and yet neither he nor anyone else can explain how he knows when a person is potentially going to be a successful performer. After spending a few days with Charles, it became clear to me that he was unconsciously applying a number of techniques to the process that helped ensure his success. These are techniques that are often taught to new recruiters, or appear in the literature on selection. But Charles was able to put a twist on them that made them particularly effective. He also applied them consistently, virtually without fail, to every candidate. While not everyone can (or even should) use all of these techniques, they offer a glimpse into how effective selection can work. The hallmarks of Charles’s technique are consistency, impartiality, self confidence, and swiftness in decision making. Here are the six basic techniques he practiced, techniques that added together make up a powerful process for hiring good people consistently. 1. He understood the job thoroughly. Charles was an expert at performing the jobs he was recruiting for. He deeply understood what he expected as an output from each job. This gave him the ability to ask precise questions about how a person would perform a task or would approach a situation. In listening to him, I could hear him probe thoroughly into areas where he thought the candidate was weak or strong. He used many of the practices taught in behavioral interviewing, asking for examples and descriptions of how candidates did a task. He would probe into what might go wrong or how they had fixed an issue. He told me he always listened carefully for how they made decisions. No candidate could “bull” her way through one of his initial interviews. Every candidate I spoke with after the interview had respect for his knowledge and obvious awareness of what skills the position required. This set the stage for candidates to self-select out of the interview process. It also gave qualified candidates the feeling that they would be working for an appreciative boss. 2. He liked to conduct all initial interviews by phone. Only twice did I see him conduct an initial interview face to face. When I asked him why he chose to handle most interviews by phone, he at first said it was because he didn’t want to waste time on unqualified candidates. But when we discussed this more thoroughly, it was obvious that he used the telephone as a way to keep himself impartial. He said he didn’t want to be swayed by appearance or other external factors that might influence his thinking. He focused on skills and experience, and gave cultural fit and personality a very small weight in his decisions. He felt that most recruiters overemphasize the cultural fit aspects of hiring. He felt very strongly that a diverse employee base was good for the company and would actually enhance or strengthen any culture they might have. I should also note that Charles is not an engineer or technical person. In fact, he has a general management background and has worked in a wide variety of positions in several companies. His approach may be a partial reason why this company has hired an above average number of minorities and handicapped and has an outstanding reputation for hiring under-represented people. 3. He knew which two to three skills were critical to getting a particular job done well. He was a student of human behavior, even though he would never have admitted it. He observed people on the job carefully and noted what they did and what skills they used and needed. His list of required skills for a position was very short ó usually not more than two or three absolutely required skills. He felt every skill beyond those was at best a plus ó but perhaps even a negative, as people with too many skills were hard to keep happy. He was focused on performance. His goal for every hire was to have them productive and useful within the first month, and he knew which skills and experiences would make that almost certain to occur. He did not take chances on good people who lacked skills, which some may see as a negative in the long term. His rationale for this is understandable and was simply that he needed people to accomplish things today. 4. He focused his questions and screening on areas that directly affected the job. His interviews were clinical in precision. He didn’t ask candidates about their lives or go into lengthy chats about previous jobs and experiences. His average interview lasted about 35 minutes and was focused on probing to see whether a candidate had the skills he was seeking and at the level of expertise he needed. He didn’t talk much about the position or the company until the second and final meeting when he also usually extended the offer. Most positions were filled after talking to three candidates, conducting one interview with each, and a second with one to whom he made an offer. This is about the best track record I have ever seen. Of course, he had an excellent team of recruiters who understood what his basic requirements were and who did the preliminary screening. He was also a very supportive and positive interviewer. No candidate that I spoke with saw him as intimidating. He was formal and precise, but also friendly. 5. He did not oversell the position or the company. He was notable in not spending much time talking about the company or the position. In fact, he tended to overstate the job requirements and understate the organization’s strengths. He knew that the recruiting team and the recruiting website had already provided candidates with information about the company. The positions, to him, were straightforward and needed little explanation to a qualified candidate. 6. He did not ask for lots of other opinions and did not hire by majority vote. While recruiters interviewed candidates, as did other managers on occasion, he never expected decisions to be made by a vote. He made the decision, quickly and based on objective data, as he saw it. Once in a while, he would ask recruiters or fellow manager why they did not think a candidate was right for the position, but I never saw him change his mind. This self confidence was refreshing, although I think it could become an issue if he were not so successful. All in all, Charles has developed a process that works well. He knows what he wants and has honed a set of procedures that deliver the results he seeks. Helping him to see more explicitly what he is doing has also led him to slightly modify some of his practices. For example, he now spends a bit more time consulting with the recruiters about a candidate’s background and he spends a little more time with each candidate selling the position and the company. He is also helping other managers in the firm learn to practice the same skills. If you know of other managers who are particularly successful at selecting good people, I would love to hear about them.
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