[Management 101 Podcast] How to hire great talent
[Transcript from original podcast episode edited for clarity]
Welcome back to Management 101 with me, your host, Max Wenneker. Before we get into today’s episode, I first wanted to apologize to my tens of listeners for the extended hiatus over the holiday period. I can imagine that many, if not all of you, were refreshing your podcast list daily expecting another episode. I am sorry that I did not deliver. That being said, I am very excited to get back to helping people become better managers in the new year of 2023.
Today’s topic is about hiring. We’ll talk about why hiring is an important skill for a manager. We’ll talk about why most managers suck at it. And we’ll also talk about the basics of a good hiring philosophy so you can be armed with the tools you need to be great at it.
Why hiring matters
Hiring is a big part of any manager’s job. Big companies, small companies, tourism companies, food service companies, railroads, sales companies, all of them hire people. Some hiring is done to replace people who leave or get promoted. Other hiring is done to grow a team. Regardless of the reason, hiring matters a lot. In fact, many leaders will say that hiring is the single most important thing that they do. I agree with those leaders.
Why does hiring matter?
We’ve talked in earlier episodes about how bad hires can lead to all sorts of problems for a company
While some of a company’s success is determined by factors completely outside of its control, the part that is in its control is determined in large part by 1) the quality of the talent in the organization and 2) how well they work together. Hiring well can make both of those things happen. Hiring poorly can make neither of them happen.
In case you don’t believe me, ask Steve Jobs. He said “The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world.”
The problems that normally lead to bad hiring
You’ve now been convinced that hiring matters. Great. This is not a particularly controversial opinion. I’ve never met a leader who told me that they thought hiring wasn’t important. But every company I’ve ever worked with, and I imagine every company ever, has hired badly. I guess there is one exception I’m aware of, and that is Max Wenneker Consulting LLC. But to be fair, we’re a company of one, and I give my own performance reviews, so there might be some bias in there.
If leaders think hiring is so important, then why does it go so poorly? A hiring process is completely within a company’s control, right? To answer my own rhetorical question, yes. A company has full control over its hiring process. But there are a few things that managers do that make them bad at hiring:
The first reason is that many managers make hiring what I call a “side of desk activity”
A “side of desk activity” is one that only gets focused on when there is extra time. Kind of like a hobby.
Managers often face tremendous pressure, either placed on themselves or from their superiors, to deliver results quickly. I think managers know that hiring is not something that will deliver any results quickly. If something needs to get done today, or this week, or even this quarter, only the people already at the company can really help make that happen. Hiring falls by the wayside because it just doesn’t produce any value right now.
When hiring becomes a side of desk activity, it gets done poorly. Pressure will build on a manager to hire people because their team will fall behind, or they’ll lose headcount in a future version of the budget. So they’ll rush to fill spots on the team. Maybe a manager will be less thorough with resume review, or with interviewing. Maybe they’ll skip some interview steps altogether. Maybe they’ll just subconsciously lower their bar because they want someone in the door.
I have had many conversations with leaders who have been debating between hiring an okay candidate now or waiting for a great one later. In the moment, with the pressures of the business, it can be really easy to just hire the okay candidate.
The next reason that hiring is done badly is that good hiring is a team effort and some managers choose to go it alone
Every manager, myself included, has unconscious bias.
This might be something as simple as the candidate going to the same college that they did and therefore the manager gets more excited about that candidate even if they don’t mean to.
There might also be bias in terms of desired skill set.
Maybe a manager tends to focus on a candidate’s analytical skills and not be great at filtering for stakeholder management skills, when both are equally important to a candidate’s success
Without involving a diverse set of people in the hiring process, managers will fall prey to their unconscious biases and hire suboptimal candidates
There are many other reasons why hiring is done poorly, but I’ll just list one more here that I think is really important. Some managers just suck at interviewing.
To be fair, this is something that very few companies give proper training on. Nor is it typically taught in school. Add to this the fact that it’s not a very natural thing to do well, and it’s hard to tell if you’re doing it well, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Here are some of the ways that managers suck at interviewing without realizing it:
They end up biasing towards the people who they most enjoyed speaking with, rather than those who actually demonstrate the competencies for the role
I’ve made plenty of bad hires. I once hired someone who I felt like I connected really well with. Turns out, while they ended up becoming a good friend, they were definitely not the best employee.
Managers also might not ask the right questions.
We’ll get into this more later, so I’ll just gloss over it here. Asking experiential questions (tell me about a time when) vs theoretical questions (how would you approach X situation) can yield very different results.
Managers also might be asking the right questions but not looking for the right answers
I’ve heard a manager say something like “this candidate seemed very nervous when giving this answer”. Does that really matter? Will their job be answering your interview questions for a living? It usually makes more sense to judge the actual content of the answer, rather than the candidate’s approach to answering it.
I’ve also heard managers review a candidate’s interview and say that they answered all of the questions in great detail. But when we look at what the candidate actually said, we both agree that the candidate was thorough, but their actual answer was not how we’d want a person approaching the same problem in the job.
What are some keys to good hiring?
We’ve reviewed the ways in which managers do hiring poorly. Now let’s talk about some keys to making good hiring happen. I’ll split this into a few different parts.
I think managers often draw the wrong conclusions from resumes, usually based on incorrect preconceived notions about what makes someone a good fit for a role. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this because the way companies manage their hiring processes tends to really frustrate me.
The first interaction you have with a candidate is looking at their resume. So this is the first opportunity to filter candidates correctly or filter them poorly. Start with a good batch and you’re much more likely to hire a good person. Plus you’ll spend a lot less time trying to find them. But to understand what we should look for in a resume, I think it’s better to start with the final outcome and work backward. Who are the best hires you’ve ever made? Who are the worst hires you’ve ever made? Doesn’t even have to be people you hired, can just be people you worked with. For me, only one common theme stood out: they tended to have a variety of experiences. This wasn’t something I’d previously thought about as being all that important. If anything, I had originally thought of it as frowned upon. Staying in one company or one industry for an entire career has been very much encouraged by society. Many of my own managers have asked me to stay away from people who have “bounced around” too much. They’ve asked for someone with a ton of industry knowledge, sometimes called “gray hair”. But I look at some of the best hires I’ve made, and almost all of them had tried a bunch of different things in their careers. Why was this the case?
People with multiple types of experience are learning multiple team or company cultures - they have a broader list of good and bad team and company dynamics to emulate or avoid
They also have seen more types of problems. The book “Range” talks about how being able to see a problem from many different angles allows an individual to be much more creative in solving it. Someone who’s worked in multiple industries or in multiple functions has the opportunity to get more perspectives and more ways of dealing with problems.
Finally, they probably like or at least open to learning. That’s just a really important trait to have in an employee.
Now here were some things that were not common themes in the highest performers’s backgrounds:
Some of the best talent I’ve worked with went to community college. In many startups I’ve worked with, leaders want brand-name undergraduate degrees and MBAs. When I worked at Capital One, the company hired from just a few relatively elite schools. Most of my coworkers were very competent. When I went to Uber, most of my peers had gone to schools I’d never heard of. And most of them were very competent too. I believe very strongly that there is a treasure trove of talent coming from lesser-known schools that most companies are simply ignoring, and in a competitive labor marketplace a startup should take advantage of any opportunity it can to get an edge in its talent base.
GPA and standardized test scores
Along the same lines, many of the best people I’ve worked with were not at the top of their class nor performed particularly well on things like the SATs. Intelligence comes in many forms, and indexing for people who happen to be good test-takers means you’re missing out on great talent.
Experience in the same industry as my company
There are some roles where some level of industry knowledge is important. It’d be very hard for me to manage a large industrial warehouse without having at least worked in one before or without significant training. But in roles where a specific set of hard skills is not required, what you’re really hiring someone to do is solve problems. And the ability to solve problems is, if anything, enhanced by having a diverse set of experiences. Bringing in someone who comes from the same industry could easily result in that person taking a plug-and-play approach at your company instead of thinking critically about what needed to get done.
So when you’re looking at a resume, I think it’s really important to ignore the time-worn tropes about what makes a good vs a bad candidate. Boil down the resume review to just “what is going to set someone up for success in this role?” Filter for diversity of experiences and necessary hard skills, like Six Sigma training or SQL fluency, and let the interview process take it from there.
As you’re reviewing resumes, you’ll of course need to actually reach out to the candidate if you’re interested in interviewing them. Here is where many managers get tripped up. I’ve seen lots of hiring managers set aside a couple hours maybe every few weeks, or less often, to do a resume review. They’ll sift through applications, and then they’ll send a mass email to the candidates inviting them to interview.
There are two problem with this approach:
You’re probably not the only company that candidate is applying to. If you’re waiting multiple weeks to review resumes, a better-organized manager has already reached out to that candidate and they’re well into that other interview process. The longer you wait to review resumes, the less likely the best talent will still be available.
The only experience the candidate has with your company is through the interview process. Waiting weeks to reach out to someone is not a great first impression.
I recommend setting aside a small amount of time every day to reviewing resumes and keeping up with candidate communication. This way you’re not falling behind on great talent, and you’re also leaving them with a positive first impression.
Next topic in candidate communication: keeping candidates updated!
Beyond the first interaction, keeping candidates updated is really important to ensuring the best talent wants to work with you. If you leave someone hanging for multiple weeks between interview steps, that reflects poorly on you and the organization. Make sure to be responding to candidates within 24 hours of their outreach, and also to be updating them at least every 3-4 days if they’re on hold between steps. Bottom line: the interaction the candidate has with your company is the only impression they have. If you want to hire great people, treat them well in the interview process.
Now let’s discuss what makes a good interview process.
There is a difference between speed and thoroughness
I believe interview processes should be done fast but in great detail. The process of hiring someone, onboarding them, and training them is incredibly time-consuming and costly to the company. Don’t do all of that for a poorly-vetted candidate. I’d rather spend 3 or 4 extra hours interviewing someone than have them spend months or years being a suboptimal hire. If you’re worried that they’re not willing to go through a rigorous interview process with you, they’re not the right candidate.
But that doesn’t mean go slowly. One of the best managers I ever hired we made an offer to within 2 weeks of our first interaction. He had 7 different interactions with the team during that period. The longer an interview process lasts, the more competition you’ll end up with for the candidate. Plus, candidates love fast processes because it makes them feel cared about.
What are the right steps in a process?
I like to think of an interview process as a funnel. Start wide at the top, and slowly winnow down to a small pool by the end. Thus, I think it’s best to go general to specific in interview steps. Here’s a typical interview process that I lay out:
Interview 1: Informal chat with me or with an established manager on the team.
This is 30 minutes, and is very casual.
The goal of this interview is to establish a relationship with the candidate, get them excited about the role, and make sure they could be a fit for it.
Try to understand what they’re looking for
Help them understand the role, the team, and the company
Are there universally-required skills in your team that you can check on? Ask about them here:
For me, every single person I hire needs to be 1) exceptionally open to feedback and 2) not an asshole.
I ask questions to get at those two things here (we’ll talk more about interview questions in the next section)
After the first step, and after every other step, decide whether the candidate performed well enough to move forward to the next one. Some sort of basic scorecard that interviewers fill out, with a 1-5 rating and some basic notes, could be really helpful when reviewing the candidates side by side later.
Interview 2: Have another team member check your work
Another 30 minute interview by someone else on the team, also very casual
Same goals as the first interview, but you can spend less time on the role and the company this time around, so you can spend more time on the candidate’s potential fit
Keep plugging away at your team’s universally-required skills with more questions
If both interviewers agree that this candidate was great, now it might be time to do longer, more in-depth interviews
Interviews 3+: Deep dive
The next step should have multiple interviews each with a different team member. This is a great time to also include key stakeholders or other people from outside the team.
They should be longer interviews since you’re going deeper, maybe 45 minutes or an hour.
Each of these interviews should have a specific topic that is being focused on related to the skills needed in the role:
Maybe one is focused on stakeholder management and people management
Maybe another is focused on analytical skills and ability to pivot
Maybe another is focused on problem-solving techniques and business strategy
The goal coming out of these interviews is to be very certain that this candidate has the necessary hard and soft skills to be effective in the role.
Now comes the part where you get together as an interview group to discuss the candidate. You at this point should have had at least 4 people who spoke with this candidate, and they all asked different questions and discussed different topics. As hiring manager, your job is to host this debrief and determine whether everyone believes this candidate is a great fit for the organization. If not, why don’t they think so? Do other interviewers have a perspective on that aspect of this individual’s candidacy? This debrief should bring clarity to everyone on all aspects of the person’s candidacy, and you should be able to make an informed decisions as a hiring manager.
Some things to be cognizant of in the interview process
Make sure to use interviewers from outside your team. Your team has bias, and you need to check that.
Don’t hire someone over the strong objections of one of the interviewers. It’s okay for one interviewer to be on the fence about a candidate. It’s not okay for multiple interviewers to be on the fence. And it’s not okay for any interviewer to have strong objections. You as a hiring manager have bias. Rely on your interview process to filter suboptimal candidates.
Questions for every interview should be listed for the interviewer beforehand and should be consistent across every candidate at the same stage of the process for one role. In order to compare candidates apples to apples, you need to ask them all the same questions. It’s okay to have small talk where topics are slightly different, but the crux of each interview needs to contain the same content so you can accurately assess one candidate vs another. Don’t rely on interviewers to ask good questions, give them to them in advance. Even better, tell them what to look for in the answers.
Last topic, the interview itself
Good interviewers do a few things well:
They’re able to build great rapport with a candidate in a very short amount of time
They ask the right questions and thoughtful follow-up ones as well
They engage in discussion with the candidate about the answers to their questions, turning it into a collaborative process
I don’t think it’s super difficult to train up on any of these things, particularly with practice.
People tend to like talking about themselves. Ask the candidate what they do for work, what they’re passionate about, how they came across your company, what piqued their interest. You could also ask them some softball interview questions like “what was the most interesting project you ever worked on?” This will help the candidate feel comfortable.
Asking the right questions
The bulk of the questions asked in an interview should be written in advance. This helps you as the interviewer not have to think of the right ones in real-time.
I find the best interview questions to be experiential instead of theoretical. A theoretical question is “How do you approach giving feedback?” An experiential question is “can you tell me about a time when you had to give critical feedback to someone who wasn’t expecting it?” Sure, both can technically be bullshitted. That’s a lot easier to do with a theoretical question.
There are two important things to look for in the answer: approach and depth. Approach is “do you agree with the way they handled this situation?” Depth is “did they give the right pieces of information such that you can understand what happened, why it happened, and what the end result was?” I find that sometimes candidates will answer questions in great depth, and I’ll appreciate that as an interviewer, but then I’ll read through my notes and realize the approach was totally wrong.
That leads me to my next point, engaging in discussion with the candidate
If a candidate answers a question with appropriate depth but bad approach, ask them if they would do anything differently next time. Or why they thought this approach was the right one. Or if there were any downsides to the way they handled this situation. If they’re really open to other ways of handling the situation, that’s a good sign because it means they’re open to learning and they’re not rigidly stuck in their ways.
If a candidate answers a question with a good approach but not enough depth, ask for more specifics. I once asked a candidate to tell me about their most recent experience working cross-functionally to achieve a common goal. They said their manager had asked them to work with someone from another team and it went well. Great! That told me literally nothing. But I then asked the candidate to tell me more about the project, and then more about the team members they were assigned to work with, and what made it go so well. These questions made the candidate open up significantly more and I was able to better assess their answer.
Final tips and tricks
We’ve now reviewed some reasons why interviewing is hard. We’ve also gone through a bunch of different parts of the hiring process and how to approach them most effectively. I will leave you with a few tips that I have found really helpful in my most successful hiring processes:
If you’re not in love with a candidate, move on. There’s no point in wasting the company’s time and resources on candidates who aren’t exceptional. It’s better to miss out on a good candidate than to hire a bad one. Don’t settle! You’ll pay the price forever.
The most important thing you can easily assess in an interview process is fixed vs growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that nothing is in their control and that success or failure is determined by everything around them. Someone with a growth mindset believes that they always have the opportunity to learn and improve. If you’re noticing a candidate tends to blame others for problems they discuss, does not have a positive attitude about failure or change, or does not demonstrate a strong desire to learn, move on. A fixed mindset can be a team killer. Hire only growth mindset people.
No hiring manager bats 1.000. Even the best hiring managers hire some duds. You will too. A bad interview process might get it right half the time. A great interview process will get it right 80% of the time. But that still means 1 in every 5 people you hire won’t be amazing. That’s okay! Having 60% more great talent than your competitor who sucks at hiring is a tremendous competitive advantage.
Thanks for listening! As always, please feel free to reach out to me on my website or LinkedIn if with any feedback you have on this episode, or any topics you’d like discussed on future ones.