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Building the A-Team

Recruiting hints and suggestions

Levels of Hiring Accuracy The holy grail of hiring decisions is placing a person in a role when they are clearly:

  • An A-PLAYER: They’ve got a consistent track record of high achievement in multiple areas (which usually means they have plenty of talent, ambition, and soft and hard skills);
  • A ROLE FIT: They’ve delivered outstanding performance in a very similar role, or roles that require substantially similar attributes to succeed. Their strengths will be key to success; their weaknesses won’t derail performance;
  • SCALABLE: They will grow into the future needs of the role / business.


You need to be a talent magnet. The speed at which you can recruit top talent places a ceiling on the speed at which you can grow, so if top talent comes looking for you, you literally accelerate growth and create an amazing source of competitive advantage. So, just like you need to attract customers, you need to attract the best talent. Don’t be daunted. You don’t need all of them; probably 1% of any given talent pool is enough for you. It’s totally doable and there are countless Scale Ups proving it every day. But you do need to invest in a remarkable Employee Value Proposition (EVP, or ‘Talent Promise’) – one that’s as great as your promise to customers. Scaling talent is just as much a market place activity as scaling sales. You need to market to great talent, win them, and then deliver on your promises. So what’s your promise to top talent? The Big 3 drivers of an amazing EVP that helps Scale Ups win the war for talent against giants are: 1) PURPOSE: Have an inspiring mission; 2) AUTONOMY, PERFORMANCE & FUN: Create a culture where standards are high and high performers thrive and have fun, and therefore love coming to work every day. The key to getting this right is to hire nice, brilliant people, especially at a management level. Avoid compromising on this and the rest will take care of itself. 3) GROWTH: Create roles in which people experience amazing personal growth, mostly through stretch assignments.


If you receive a resume from a candidate that has worked with people you know, phone them first to get a view on the calibre of the person. It’s amazing how often a 5-minute call can save you a few hours of interviews. Okay, but those hacks are obvious and you’re all doing them already.


Your new date is much less likely to inflate their achievements and hide their dark side if they know you’re good friends with their ex. That knowledge acts a bit like a truth serum, which hopefully saves you from falling for a loser with charm. So tell candidates repeatedly that, before making a hiring decision, they will need to arrange reference calls with all their former bosses so that you can ask them about the candidates’ performance and strengths and weaknesses. This “Truth Serum’ lets C-players know they need not apply and lets everyone else know they will have to present their strengths and weaknesses honestly.


When hiring from a pool of strangers, you need to think: cast net wide, filter fast, short-list ruthlessly. That way you are most likely to get quality candidates from a low quality process. But you can only cast the net wide if you have a smart way of filtering fast. Skip the resume. Get a career history form that tabulates performance on the job and bonuses for all jobs. If that’s what you look at first you can screen most candidates out in 30 seconds. This sounds ruthless because it is. But remember, in Scale Ups ‘good enough’ is not good enough. You need awesomeness, and awesomeness stands out.


Don’t go shopping when you’re hungry. If you want to avoid wasting money, eat first and take a list that you stick to. Likewise, when hiring, have a shopping list you stick to or your brain is more likely to trick you into recruiting people who make a good first impression, have the gift of the gab, are a lot like you, and may suck at the job. So the first hack to dramatically enhance performance when recruiting strangers is a role scorecard. What results must candidates deliver in the first 12 months on the job to be rated an A-performer? Using that as a basis to evaluate candidates in interviews will go part of the way to protect you from a myriad of cognitive biases that sabotage your selection.


Make a rule to never hire people that don’t strongly demonstrate ‘the achiever pattern’. Role fit mistakes can be fixed for achievement oriented people who bring passion and like to perform. That’s why people say ‘hire for potential, train for skill’. That’s simplistic, but there’s truth to it. High potentials are gems that can be moulded. Mediocre talent makes their inability to perform in a role your problem. So use interviews to look for the ‘Achiever DNA’. Achievers talk differently. If you’re listening for it, you can hear it. Achievers talk about stretch goals that put them out of their comfort zone and force them to learn and grow. They’re naturally aware of setbacks and obstacles, pivots and setbacks to overcome them, breakthroughs, failings and learnings along the way. Achievers have medals (like major project successes, boss reviews, awards etc) and you can hear when there’s just that clear ring of achiever DNA in their language.Don’t be fooled by the politically savvy ‘fake it well enough and you’ll make it without actually having to make it’ sorts. That’s why you use hacks #9, 10, and 13-16 to vet the interviews.


But there is still a gaping chasm between hearing from a person and seeing them do the job. You still want to create mechanisms to observe the speed and quality of work they actually do on the kinds of tasks critical to their job performance. So design work sample interviews specific to the roll. Don’t be afraid to require a half day or a full day of assignment-based work, at your offices, and then grill interview them on the output. Consultants and investment bankers do case study interviews to test problem solving ability and communication skills. If you’re hiring a coder, the best way to decide if they’re great at coding is to see them coding. For a general management role, set a range of small assignments common to the role and see how they prioritise, make judgment calls, communicate, and how much of a dent they make in a big pile of stuff. If possible, kill 2 birds with 1 stone and use an assignment that you need to get done anyway.


The top 2 predictive processes for interviewing strangers are structured interviews and psychometric tests. Use both, together. In particular, do chronological career review interviews where you unpack their role, achievements, failings, and boss ratings for each role. Build a complete picture of the person and push and probe for a balanced view of strengths and weaknesses. And don’t forget the truth serum: ‘So when I speak to your boss, what do you think he’ll say about your performance, strengths and weaknesses?’


It sounds expensive, but really! The cost of doing recruiting well vs. a hiring mistake is on the level of 1 : 1000. Just suck it up and make sure that for at least 2 of the interviews, you have a colleague with experience hiring and firing as your wingman in the interview. It’s remarkable how having 2 people actively engaging the candidate reduces the flow of hubris.


Not just to underpin ‘the Truth Serum’. What would online shopping be without customer reviews? Do you even believe product marketing anymore when you don’t get to read customer reviews? Likewise, you need to counter-balance candidates’ self-portrayal with the perspective of those who’ve sampled the goods. Human beings typically have inflated self-perceptions (really. Its been empirically proven): C-players don’t know they are, and B-players think they’re A-players. Plus interviews are designed to extract ‘promotional material’. It’s a double whammy. Notwithstanding use of the Truth Serum, you still need to hear from those who’ve had to live with candidates, warts and all, before making a final hiring offer.


Most new managers have not had the opportunity to learn from hiring mistakes. Most experienced hiring managers have not learned how to avoid them! Institutionalise world class hiring practices at every level, and don’t let it slip. You’ll need to do 4 things to achieve that.

  1. Put it in scorecards – sounds odd; but hiring performance is as important as P&L performance. Measure success rates; reward it.
  2. Make it a core management competency – Institutionalise 2 ‘non-negotiable’ reads on hiring so they get up the learning curve fast. ‘Topgrading’ (Brad Smart), and ‘Who’ (Geoff Smart);
  3. Boot camp them – its amazing how having the whole team in a boot camp with independent experts for a day shifts mindsets and makes this a cultural priority;
  4. Coach – build coaching into your recruiting process. Get experienced hiring managers who do all the right things to go through the process with younger hiring managers.