Let the Right One In
Hiring. Everyone says it’s the most important thing you need to get right in your company. And yet it’s the thing managers are mostly likely to half-ass. Remember the last time you had to hire? You probably googled around for some examples of job descriptions, found one that looked kinda close, and edited it a little and had it posted wherever HR posts those things.
Then you got some resumes, and one or two had some company names you recognized, or maybe it just looked ok enough. And you called them up for a phone screen. And if they didn't sound like a psycho, you brought them in for an interview. And if everyone liked them ok, well, you hire them, because you hate hiring and want to get back to the real work.
Oh, honey. Hiring is the real work. Companies are made of people. The wrong people make bad companies. Note I didn’t say bad people… there are rarely bad people, but there is often a bad fit. Your job — as a manager, recruiter, or member of a team who is vetting an interviewee — is to determine fit.
Interviewing is often done as haphazardly as writing a job description, thus bro-cos hire more bros, suits hire suits and hipsters fill the room with hipsters. They seem ok to me, the interviewer says! They seem just like me, he thinks. It’s time to try something different.
Rethink The Process
Instead of thinking about hiring for a job description, thinking of hiring as the first step of a Role Lifecycle. An individual inhabiting a role has three parts of the lifecycle
- Set the Role: the hire or promotion moment. The individual accepts the job’s responsibility and works to fulfill the job requirements, from acquiring/perfecting skills to accomplishing goals.
- Check Performance and Support Growth: via feedback and learning, two things happen. The employee and/or the job changes. The employee can improve or perform at a steady state. Or the job can evolve to reflect the company's needs and the employee’s competencies.
- Evaluate and Correct: At regular intervals, it’s important to see if the employee is over or under performing (or has reaching a Goldilocks state of just right.) Traditionally, this is the annual review, though I recommend it be done as many companies now do, quarterly. This allows it it fit into a rhythm with OKRs (and norms, a subject of upcoming articles. For now, see Design the Team You Need to Succeed)
Defining the Role
In order to hire effectively (internally or externally) for a role, you need to understand the role first. Every role has two parts: goals and responsibilities. Responsibilities are the steady-state activities any job has; e.g. people manager has to create and manage budgets, coach direct reports, keep upper management apprised. A role also has goals it hopes to achieve, hopefully aligned to company OKRs. Since goals change as companies do, you won’t know the forever goal. But you should have a sense of what the goals are at least for now. Grow a new team? New efficiencies? Develop innovation strategy? Don’t make me jargon again.
When hiring, you want to know two more things as well: market knowledge and role skills. Market knowledge is how well they know the space your company operates in: commence, health care, education. Skills are the hard and soft skills it takes to accomplish the job, from Python to Collaboration. I recommend freelisting the skills, stack-ranking then, and then drawing a line between must have and nice to have. Now you have lists to build a Role Profile (and job description) from. I’m going to call the thing we post a job description, and the living document we’re going to use through the role lifecycle a role profile, in the hope of reducing confusion.
Designing a Role Profile is harder if you have a different background from the person you are trying to hire. If this is an existing role, hopefully you can get the person who is already doing it to fill this out (assuming you are promoting them.) If you are firing them, or if they quit, you can try getting a jump start from another person who holds the same role in another team, an adviser or — if desperate — you could do a content audit of other job descriptions and look for patterns. Just make sure you understand what all those terms mean.
In a big company, an adviser can be another manager who has held or managed the role. In a start-up, an adviser is that person collecting shares who you never call. Call them. If that adviser doesn’t have the expertise, ask for an intro. Hiring a designer when you are an engineer is hard, hiring an engineer when you are a business person is hard… ask for help, or pay the consequences.
Before you interview, look over your role profile and ask yourself “How would I know?” How would I know if they had this skill? How would I know they could accomplish this goal? How do I know if they can fulfill this responsibility?
The answer is usually, Tell me a story…
Sure you could ask people, “are you good at dealing with conflict?” They might say “no” if they are honest, but they are more likely to say “yes” since it is a job interview.
Instead try asking, “tell me about a time when you and your team were experiencing conflict.” This avoids speculation, and gives you something to reference check as well.
You can also ask, “Have you ever built a team? How did that go?” or “Have you done something similar? What were your greatest challenges?”
The important thing is to go over your Role Profile and write up questions that will get you experience-based answers, not wish fulfillment.
Hard skills can be dealt with a number of ways, from tests to portfolios. Everyone has their own tricks, and I’m not going to get into the weeds with whether the design challenge is ethical or writing code on a whiteboard is moronic or not. Find someone who knows their business (a senior designer, engineer, what have you) and have them vet the individual. Again: ask for help. Your job is to determine if the person can do the job or not. You don’t have to do it alone.
Be sure to share the questions across the members fo the interviewing team. Asking the same questions over and over bores the interviewee and reduces your information.
Consider rating each person 1–5 on the key attributes you’ve outlined in Goals, Responsibilities, Knowledge and Skills. Compare the ratings across the interviewing team, to look for biases or for anything you might have missed.
A hire is the beginning, not the end, of the Role Profile’s usefulness! A good manager has regular one-on-ones with their direct reports. Before the 1:1, review the Role Profile. Are they making progress toward the Goal? Are they fulfilling their Responsibilities? Do they have the needed knowledge and skills to do their job? Now pick the most important topic to discuss. I’ve written about Working the Weekly One-on-One, so I’ll keep it to this.
Be sure to update the Role Profile as you go along. You may find some aspects are less important than you thought, and some were missing. You’ll want this document when you hire again.
Evaluate and Correct
Finally, at the end of the quarter, go over the Role Profile and grade each key skills. If you do annual reviews, you can save these so you don’t forget what happened way back in Q1 last year. If you do quarterly, this is a chance to ask yourself, is this person over performing in the job, or under performing? Is is because the person is great, or the job was badly defined? Should you promote? Should you put the person on a PIP? Should you evolve the Role Profile?
I’ve known a couple of companies that made employees do a (short) write up of their quarterly accomplishments. This may seem like a pain in the rear, but if you have good weekly status emails it’s not so bad. It’s also a powerful reflection tool, which increases organizational learning.
If the Role Profile has changed a lot, you may wish to ask if the person is actually starting to have a new role. I’ve worked at many companies where the motto is, “if you want to get promoted, start doing the job and the raise will follow.” Role can drift because a new role is needed, or because the person just doesn’t really enjoy fulfilling the responsibilities they were hired for. At least with a Role Profile you check often, you can spot the drift and decide how you feel about it.
A company isn’t a play. There aren’t any obvious three acts that lead to a stirring conclusion. Instead months become quarters and quarters become years and problems will be solved tomorrow. A cadence of check-ins is vital to making sure problems don’t just hang out forever while virtue goes unrewarded.
Use the Role Profile to Set,Check and Correct each quarter to make sure your direct reports get the structure and support they need. Nothing determines a company's success as much as they people who make up the company. It’s time we hire and grow them with the same care and attention we pay to our products and markets. In fact, they deserve more.
Use the goal slot to make sure each person knows how they contribute to company success, and provide meaning to work.
Use responsibility to show you trust and depend on each person.
Use knowledge and skills as a chance to invest in employees. Get them classes, conferences books or whatever they need to become the person the company needs and who they dream of being.
Be the boss you wish you had.
You may wish to read Let the Wrong One Go next.