Hiring great people is one of the most important things you do as a leader/manager. It is impossible to spend too much time on this. I am personally interested in this issue because, in a service organization like a business school, the quality of people the organization attracts contributes in a very significant way to overall organizational performance.
Despite the importance of this task, the hiring process can get short-changed by managers grappling with more pressing daily tasks.
Sometimes this is because the absence of a person in the role is felt so keenly that managers rush to fill the open position with anyone who looks as if they might work out. Other times it is because hiring managers—especially during lean economic times–are simply stretched too thin to do the quality of work necessary for great hiring. More dangerously, sometimes hiring managers believe that this work is beneath them, and more efficiently handled by HR staff.
But the stakes of good hiring in general are high, and are higher still at more senior levels of the organization. That is because strong performers often outperform weak performers many times over and often require much less oversight and intervention. Effective hiring is magnified within organizations because strong performers at the managerial level hire other strong performers.
In addition, weak performers hire other weak performers because weak performers are threatened by people stronger than they are, and because strong performers are reluctant to work for a weaker boss. I have seen both of these dynamics operate in my professional career. To provide a positive example, I am fortunate to have been at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School long enough to see high quality people hire other high quality people who in turn bring in even more high quality people over several years. This is how organizations get stronger (or weaker) over time.
What can you do to increase the chances of making very strong hires?
- Be very clear on the skills that are required for the position. This sounds obvious, but is not taken seriously in many organizations because some managers believe that they have an intuitive ability to spot the right person for the job. What really matters for success in this position? Identify what soft and hard skills the ideal candidate must have and those that would be nice for a candidate to bring to the organization, but are not as critical. This can be done by getting the supervisor of the role being filled to think seriously about what he/she expects from the position, and/or asking others in the organization who will rely on the person hired what they need. I once led a selection process in which we worked very hard to identify the key skills needed for the position, and several of the hiring committee members said they had never done this before. This was a bit frightening.
- Design the selection process to assess whether the person really has the skills you need at the level you need them. Most of the time in interviews—especially initial interviews—should be focused on this. Questions that assess whether an applicant has specific knowledge—“tell me how CRM systems work”–are useful. Behavioral questions—“tell me about a time when you addressed a situation like this”—are also helpful. Every Sunday different leaders are featured in the New York Times business section. They talk about their favorite interview questions, e.g. “what are you passionate about?”, which often have nothing to do with the job they are hiring for. There is no evidence whatsoever that questions like these help to hire the right people.
- Managers should recognize that the best person for the job may look different or come from a different background from the previous incumbent. If you undervalue a group of people (women, an ethnic group) for any reason, you are at a competitive disadvantage when hiring. That is because candidates will be discouraged from applying to your company and go work for more enlightened firms. Years ago when young Japanese women were kept away from positions of significant responsibility, I used to wonder if the young woman serving tea should have been leading a sales team.
- Take reference checking seriously. This works especially well if you can find someone you know to do the referral. This is worth spending time on. When I have given references to a representative of a professional search firm, they find creative ways to get a balanced picture of the person being considered. For example, they will sometimes ask, “If you were supervising this individual, which skills would you ask them to work on as part of their development plan?” This is a great question because you simply can’t say they have nothing whatsoever to work on.