You aren’t hiring the right people

Every company worries about hiring. And each company believes they have a great formula: We’ve seen a lot of successful hires! Our process will keep giving us people like them. Great! … great?

What characteristics do these great people have? Let me list some of the most productive workers I’ve ever seen, just a few of my favorites.

  • Jessica passes every interview. She’s smart, driven, and interested in technology, with a friendly, bubbly personality. She’s helped so many projects that picking her top strength is difficult. Of course we have to find ways to hire her.
  • Geoff is a gruff programmer who drinks very black coffee. He gets so frustrated with technical problems, he might scream and bang his head against a keyboard, a shelf, even a wall. But he solves the problems: his head is far stronger than the wall. Despite his demeanor, he can work with people. In displaying frustration, he copes with problems that other people would give up on. You want to hire Geoff.
  • Emily doesn’t know any programming harder than Excel macros. Sounds bad in this agile world, doesn’t it? But Emily can understand any domain you throw at her. She’ll talk to every business lead you have, put herself in their place and find ways to work within the system. She’ll tell your development team everything they need to solve the customer’s problem. Every single corner case. Like Anakin Skywalker, she dislikes sand, and has an obsession for microwaveable pot stickers. Despite those shortcomings, you should hire her.
  • Tom is an Urban Outfitters hipster. He will spend three days trying to figure out the right colors for a chart. A week deciding the right fonts for a poster. But he is more than a pretty picture: he designs and programs beautiful, meaningful visualizations that provide insight to very complicated data. So despite wearing bow ties unironically, Tom is a winning hire.
  • Jonathan naps on the job, spends days without getting anything done. And he is a visionary: he’ll figure out what custom product to build, how to get people with big pockets to fund it, and he’ll get users to love it. He’ll help write it, too! It is a mistake if you don’t hire Jonathan.

I could go on; I have worked with wonderful people over the years. What do those people have in common? Just that they are each awesome at something. Can we come up with a standardized interview that will identify these strengths?

Not even half of them.

The more successful hires we have, the more we think we know. We want more like that! We develop a fine strainer, as we seek people with the traits we love. The more we interview, the more red flags we accumulate for disqualifying people. Our selection criteria net people who present the facade we want, people who might fit in, and who happen to fall through our particular technical hoops. As we get more selective, we’re not finding a better technical person. We’re finding a person better at our technical interview.

Evolved for historical reasons, these selection criteria cost us people with surprising strengths. People who would meet needs we didn’t realize we had. It is those unique strengths that solve our big problems, build a better culture, and someday save our company.

Interviews targeted at eliminating anyone who might be wrong are also eliminating the people who are most right.

You aren’t hiring the right people. Nobody is. We can’t get this right — but can we hire better?

First, focus on finding candidate strengths, not on avoiding weaknesses. That’ll still cost us good candidates, especially those who haven’t been told how great their strengths are. Yet we have some hope of getting someone who can transform a team or a department. Give candidates a big say on how they’ll be evaluated; otherwise, we aren’t looking for people, but gingerbread men shaped like our cookie cutter.

Second, once you have more than a dozen employees, hire for teams, not the company. Have multiple teams talk with each candidate. A single team might dismiss a candidate who would contribute exciting things elsewhere. Each team needs different strengths.

Finally: take chances. A high rejection rate does not show that the people working here are the best. If we are attracting unqualified people, that’s a different problem. Instead of rejecting people who make us nervous, set up a system where we can walk away from bad decisions. Deal with failure, instead of fleeing it.

Hiring is not unlike dating. Finding a spouse takes a lot of trying, a lot of failing and getting hurt. Hiring will always be expensive, it will always be failure-prone, and our heart will get broken. Guard carefully against surprises, and we miss the fireworks! Let’s evaluate people differently, more deeply. Let’s make it about them and not about us. Only then we will hire better.

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