[Tips for Leaders: 4 Steps to Hiring Brilliantly] Step 1 – Be Clear About What You’re Seeking

Almost every exec and manager hires people – even in the flat organizations common today. Yet few do it well, and many put it down low on their list of favorite things to do.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and there are four simple steps you can take to make the hiring process easier, go smoother, and make better hires. This post is the first of the four steps to take: good process usually brings good results. This series is about getting a process that produces great hires. Some of the technical stuff of how to interview a candidate is covered in greater depth here and here and there’s also tons of material – some of it quite good – on the internet about the ins and out of questions and legal issues associated with interviewing.

So here’s the first thing to do:

Step 1 – Be Clear About What You’re Seeking

This step sounds incredibly easy but it’s one of two items that are typically bungled. Most often you see it when a search starts by looking for one type of candidate, takes a long time, and you end up hiring someone with a different background then what you started out with in the first place. I’ve seen this happen from CEO selection all the way to receptionist hiring – people fail to be clear about what they are seeking. And slip this one, and one other step I’ll mention later, and any candidate search is likely to get derailed and end up taking more time (your’s remember), and more effort than it should.

From the beginning it helps to be working with someone else – besides yourself – to figure out what you’re seeking. People with recruiting staffs or exec headhunters should be using them for help – it’s what they get paid for. If you don’t have those resources, use someone you work with or someone you know who will do you the favor.

Usually this type of help is called a sounding board. Why? Because without this outside help you’re flying a little blind – things that should get surfaced often don’t, and stuff that sticks in your unconscious – the type of nagging feeling that you’re missing something –  stays there and slows down your ability to commit to hiring someone.

While recruiters or headhunters will start with a something like a position description or a job specification, that document is not the end all. It’s a beginning point: many are long, laundry lists – helpful if you’re doing the wash but not so helpful if you’re trying to assess a candidate while you’re in a real interview. What you want is a laser-like focus on the key criteria you’re seeking in a candidate.

While wonks may disagree, I think there are three large buckets of criteria that you’re hiring for:

  • Technical, or domain background and skills.
  • Cultural fit to the greater firm or organization
  • Interpersonal fit between you and your hire and any set of peers.

Cultural fit and interpersonal fit can blur together so here’s an example: cultural fit may be that the folks that hired are your firm who do well are bright, smart and collegial (think Barclays Global Investors if you know BGI) but interpersonal fit may be the style that works best with you and your team. Slow, methodical, and not a roll-up your sleeves type? Not such a good hire as an example for you or your group.

For each criteria bucket identify at most 3-5 (OK – maybe 5-7 for certain jobs) must have qualities: things that people you see in the firm who do well all have. Everything thing else is a “nice to have.” Why? Remember the purpose of a candidate search is to hire someone – not to screen everyone out. These 3-5 things will be the 80% or more of what you need – anything else will mostly likely be gravy. And if you’re stumped for thoughts, Marc Andressen has a few criteria here that I think may be spot-on for getting your thoughts formed if the role is in an earlier stage firm.

Now take this sets of criteria and talk them through with your outside help/sounding board:

  • Does this list map to people who have been successful in the job?
  • Are there people who have succeeded in the role (or something like it) that had backgrounds and skills that were different than this list? What’s the difference?
  • If you have the luxury of online resume banks, or prior applicant resumes, look at them. Are there qualities that jump out at you that you hadn’t accounted for?
  • Are there qualities that you’ve included that are givens (sort of the equivalent of “breathing” or “not incarcerated”) that you can drop off to focus on items that are essential that you might otherwise miss.

The next to the last part of this process is to figure out how those background, skills and abilities get evidenced: this is the “I know it when I see it because…” part. Figuring out how you expect to see candidates demonstrate proficiency to your criteria is the thing that will enable you to know when someone has the chops to pass muster, and it’s the same type of thing that will enable you to best communicate to anyone else involved (to be covered in Step 2 later) to hone in and assess the criteria you want evaluated. If you have a choice, for every one of those 3-5 (see why it’s better than 5-7?) criteria will have 2-4 examples of how that quality or attribute you’re looking to hire is evidenced and expressed.

The other choice? Do what frequently happens: have a long list of criteria that sometimes changes, be murky about how those criteria get evidenced, avoid reality checking to see if strong performers really map to the qualities you’ve identified, and because you’ve shifted criteria you have managed to confuse both other interviewers and the employment market. Not such a pretty sight – and not a process that heightens the change of success.

On that other hand, you can get very clear about what you’re seeking. This first step done well drives what and how interviewers assess candidates, any job posting material or advertisements, what any recruiters will screen for, and what the job market will “hear” in terms of what your firm is seeking. You’ve taken a path that’s optimized for greater success: you’ve gotten clarity about what you’re seeking, have shopped the criteria against people who do well in the job (and it works), and you’ve got a good idea on how those qualities get evidenced and you can assess them.

In the land of good starts, taking this step means you’ve started off well.

Next post to follow? Getting other interviewers on board.

I’ve been in the people (and teams) coaching business for over 25 years , both as a coach to managers and teams and also as someone directly responsible for hiring thousands of people through roles running large staffing / recruiting operations. From that experience I have a pretty good sense of how and why people get hired. Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.