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  • Writer's pictureMax Wenneker

3 keys to great hiring

Someone once told me that the difference between bad hiring and good hiring is actually pretty small. They said that the best hiring managers hire great talent 70% of the time, whereas the worst hiring managers get it right maybe 50% of the time. In my experience that has absolutely rung true. The best teams aren’t filled with all rockstars. And the worst teams aren’t filled with all duds.

It is a universal experience to hire someone that ends up being a bad fit. Even the best hiring managers don’t hit home runs every at-bat. I have had the opportunity to work with and observe many hiring managers, from first-time managers all the way to seasoned founders. Every single one of them made bad hires. Myself included. Making a bad hire is, simply, a managerial rite of passage.

While it’s not possible to make only great hires, there are some important pieces of the hiring process that mark the difference between bad hiring organizations and good ones.

1. You are biased. Get help.

If ever there were something that perfectly encapsulated our human tendencies and unconscious biases, it’s an interview process. Every hiring manager has blind spots because we naturally bias towards our own set of experiences and approaches, even if we try not to. I’ve heard many hiring managers say “I really liked this person” or “I really enjoyed our conversation” without then being able to point to what about the candidate would actually make them a good fit for the role. If a hiring manager hires a bunch of people they like, they’ll probably end up with a group of people with very similar experiences or mental approaches to their work. The organization will end up with the same blind spots and development areas that manager has, only magnified by a whole team’s worth of them. So the first step towards making great hires is to get help.

Getting help should happen along a few different lines: org level, role type, and interview topic to name a few.

Org level

A candidate should be interviewed by people more senior than them, their potential peers, and people more junior than them in the organization. All of these individuals will bring unique perspective and create a well-rounded view of the candidate.

Role type

I once made a hire who interviewed with pretty much my entire team and who the whole team loved. But when that person joined the company they struggled mightily in working with others outside the team. I had neglected to consider that everyone on my team was performing similar functions, and therefore maybe all had a similar interviewing bias toward how our own function operated. This person ended up being a great team member but an awful employee. When asked to help solve problems even slightly outside of their current focus they were simply incapable of doing so. Lesson learned: I needed interview help from people outside my function.

In my recent projects I’ve found it helpful to involve a couple key stakeholders who have a good hiring track record in my interview processes. In my last full-time role as VP of Operations, that was the Analytics and Customer Success teams. Both of those teams’ leaders were able to provide perspective on what that person would be like as a stakeholder manager that I simply would not have been able to glean myself. They helped me make a couple great hires, and just as importantly helped me avoid some bad ones.

Interview topic

Start with a list of the 5 key skills that you need from a role. Some of these might be hard skills, i.e. analytics capabilities. Others might be soft skills, i.e. stakeholder management. Every interview should cover 1-2 of these skills, and each skill should be covered in at least 2 interviews, such that there are multiple perspectives on all of these key skills.

2. Only certain kinds of questions elicit useful information

The vast majority of interview questions fall into one of two categories: experiential and theoretical. In my experience, only one of these offers consistently useful information: experiential.

Theoretical questions are ones that start like “how would you approach X problem in your new role?” The problem with this type of question is it allows for very superficial answers. Both an inexperienced and a very experienced person could give the 3 steps one would need to take when working on that problem. It might be very hard to tell the difference between their capabilities based on their answers. Theoretical questions are also easier to simply fabricate an answer to. I might be able to tell you what 3 steps I would take without actually knowing how to take them.

Experiential questions, on the other hand, are a lot harder to skirt around. And when they’re skirted around, or answered in a low-quality way, it’s far easier to tell. If you ask someone to tell you about a time when they had to solve X problem in a previous role, and how they went about doing it, they’ll either be able to talk through a situation or they won’t. And they’ll either be able to give you detail about what happened or they won’t. Either way, the quality of the content in their answer will be very obvious: did they approach that problem in a way that you would have wanted them to? Did they learn from what happened? Or did their answer lack detail, or just contain poor decision-making?

3. Test for fixed vs. growth mindset

Unless you’re hiring someone whose job it is to push the same button every day, it is likely that you want to hire people who can adapt, improve, and grow. People capable of those things are more open to feedback and learning, can take on more responsibility faster, and are much better teammates and culture carriers in an organization. Employees who don’t have the desire to learn and respond productively to feedback are destroyers of morale and will ultimately require a disproportionate amount of your time as a manager.

The problem is, while I’ve worked with many people who have not had a growth mindset, I’ve never had a candidate tell me they didn’t have one. When asked whether they’re open to feedback, what candidate wouldn’t say yes?

The key here goes back to the previous point around not just how questions are asked, but also how to effectively interpret answers. One of my favorite things to ask candidates is “tell me about a time when you were given critical feedback that you weren’t expecting.” Paraphrasing one candidate’s answer:

“I was told by my boss that I wasn’t doing a good job of presenting data to stakeholders and they were getting confused. I didn’t think that this was true, because I’ve always been great at presenting data. I went to some stakeholders I knew well and asked them to back me up. Eventually I realized that this boss just had it out for me, so I decided to leave.”

A couple problems with this. First, the candidate at no point acknowledged that they could be wrong or tried to dig into what was happening that caused their boss to bring this up. Instead of trying to understand such that they could then improve, they simply left. They assumed that they were not in control of their success at this company, that they had no role to play in improving the outcome. They just assumed that they were the recipient of other people’s negative intentions. Here’s another paraphrased answer:

“At a previous company my boss told me that I was making other team members uncomfortable with the way I asked them questions in meetings. My boss said that my teammates felt put on the spot and felt like I wasn’t there to support them. Of course I never intended to make anyone feel this way in a meeting, so there was clearly a gap between what I was trying to do and how it was coming across to others. I asked my boss if they could participate in my next meeting such that they could help me identify some examples of where this issue was happening, and I learned from those examples that I wasn’t giving enough credit for the work that had already been done and clearly indicating that the questions I was asking were meant to be thought-provoking so that we could jam together on an even better solution. I started adding context to my questions, and I had one-on-ones with my teammates to check in with them on my progress. Eventually I got to the point where they felt comfortable with my participation, and I’ve learned since then to give a lot more context as to why I ask the questions that I ask in meetings, so that others can understand my intentions.”

A few things I love about this one. First, the candidate readily identified the difference between their own intentions and the perceptions of others. Second, they tried to understand why there was this gap. Finally, now armed with the necessary information, they made a plan to close this gap. This candidate absolutely has a growth mindset.

While there are many keys to great hiring, three have stood out in my experience as being big difference-makers: accounting for bias, asking the right questions, and seeking out candidates with growth mindsets. In my next post I will list out some things that many companies look for in candidates but that, in my experience, have not been relevant to a hire’s success.

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