Hiring. It’s Your Edge… and You’re Doing It Wrong

Scott Johnsen
Mar 18, 2018 · 10 min read

This week I had the honor of speaking at a fantastic conference — Hiring Success 2018— a conference geared toward employers, recruiters, and those of us who are people managers and hire as a part of our jobs.

There are so many things I like about how SmartRecruiters is innovating the hiring space, and this is in addition to their recruiting software, which is innovating the actual practice of hiring. Their annual conference is a shining example of what it looks like to bring together thought leaders from around the industry and share ideas that will shape the way candidates interact with your company and more importantly, your brand.

For my part, I was fortunate to be able to present my ideas in a breakout session called, “Innovation: Unbiased Hiring,” where I discussed a compartmentalized hiring framework that has helped me build powerful, high-performing teams, in conjunction with Robert Merrill, Head of Global Recruiting at Ephesoft, who jointly shared his framework for powering recruiting in rapid growth companies. Here’s a little recap from my portion of that presentation.

First, a Word on Teams

A high-performing team is the sum of its individual parts — the people. And I have found this notion to remain remarkably consistent as a Firefighter turned Design Manager.

Two industries — Firefighting and Design — on opposite ends of the professional spectrum with regard to technical skillsets, and yet both share the same traits needed for developing great teams; conversely, also sharing the same traits when teams perform dysfunctionally.

The DNA of healthy team starts with the right person.

I won’t deep-dive into these traits now, but I really want to hit home this thought — at the core of each of these team attributes is the person who embodies them, who empowers them. So, it is critically important when hiring, we identify and hire the right person, not just the right skill set.

So…Hiring. You’re Doing It Wrong…

Here’s the thing, hiring is important, but so many of us hiring managers get it wrong. We focus on the wrong attributes at the wrong times. We often make subjective decisions based on a gut feeling. For instance, my gut tells me that relying on your gut for hiring decisions nets positive outcomes 50% of the time. Ok, that’s clearly a joke, but c’mon, seriously hiring managers? You’re telling me you are so good at this low-volume activity, which you probably don’t do every day, and probably weren’t ever trained to do, that you are confident enough to rely on a feeling in your stomach? What if you’re just hungry? What if that’s last night’s tacos talking? Truly though, how do you qualify a critically important hiring decision that is at high-risk of subjective bias? (P.S. The hunger joke kills with recruiters). :-)

This idea of subjective bias is where Robert and I anchored our presentations, presenting two different frameworks for hiring success — one for hiring in a rapid-growth mode to build strong teams, and the other for identifying the best-fit candidate needed to create a high-performing team.

Below is my perspective regarding how we can make the hiring process less risky by removing this subjectivity, while also adding structure that streamlines the process for all involved.


Building a Team? Hire the Person, Not the Skill

As mentioned previously, I spent a decade as a firefighter before leaving the fire service to pursue my passion for all things creative. Now, as a Design Manager who has worked with, managed, and otherwise built high performing teams across two completely different industries, I believe strongly that teams are only as good as the collection of people within them. As an employer, recruiter, or hiring manager, it’s imperative to identify the core skill set, certainly, but your hiring decision should be based on the actual person and their ability to collaborate.

Within the Design community, we have a strong point of view regarding how best to design and build the products of tomorrow as a team, which is called Design Thinking. Design Thinking is a set of principles premised upon two key functions of ‘team’ to achieve success. First, is the ability to think big and build off of each individual’s ideas to arrive at a unique solution that reflects everyone’s input. Second, is the use of empathy to put ourselves in the user’s shoes and deeply understand the problem we are trying to solve for. Both of these ideas require a team’s ability to trust, collaborate, and work together. Hiring solely on candidate skill can be a slippery slope, as bringing in the wrong personality can absolutely stifle collaboration and trust, disabling the key tenants of teamwork. Conversely, bringing aboard the right personality can empower the group to achieve great outcomes.

Risks in ‘Hiring the Skill’ — A Cautionary Tale

By ‘hiring the skill,’ I mean when we base a majority of the hiring decision on what skill(s) this person brings to the table, what their experience is and dare I say it, what their pedigree is. Now, hang on, put down the torches and pitchforks, I’m not suggesting these things aren’t important for evaluation.What I am suggesting is that the hiring team should strive to understand who the candidate is and how the candidate would be able to work with the existing team. Can they collaborate? Are they empathetic? Do they listen? Do they represent a diverse background or perspective? These traits serve as an additive function rather than a distracting one.

Years ago, I worked at an up-and-coming startup that was just entering a meteoric growth phase. It was an exciting time to join as there was a lot of opportunity on the horizon, and we needed to work fast to harness the potential in front of us. As such, the company began bringing in incredibly smart people from very reputable, well-known companies, all of whom had achieved great levels of success in their prior roles. As I watched events unfold, I began to notice what, eventually, became a common theme and ultimately a braking function for the company — stakeholder gridlock. While we hired all exceptionally smart individuals with impeccable resumes, their inability to work together and find common consensus collaboratively, without leadership involvement, was extremely evident. Eventually, growth slowed and organizational changes had to be made, but the lesson was quite apparent, not to mention costly, both in terms of time and money wasted. I attribute these events, events I continued to see repeated as I’ve moved on to other organizations, to something I call — ‘the formula’.

The formula is defined as the sum of a person’s experience, decision-making capabilities, and successful prior results achieved, that frames their point of view as to how projects and ideas should move forward. We’ve all heard it before, “…in my experience, I feel we should do this” or “I’ve had great success doing it this way,” or my personal fav, “I was brought in to replicate what I did at my previous company.” Here’s the problem, everyone that has achieved something will have their own unique formula for success, however because no two companies are exactly alike, and no two teams are the same, the formula isn’t a guarantee of strong future performance, nor a valid measure of future success. Eventually, when all of these various formulas for success take a collective seat at the table, they inevitably run in opposition to one other, clash over approach, and create hostile, dysfunctional teams where ideas are stifled, and usually only the loudest, most tenured, and most bullish personality wins. Without true collaboration, gridlock will ensue and progress stymied because ego wins out, the consequences of which are devastating to an organization’s ability to advance.

When employers focus on hiring the right person, as opposed to the right resume, the right pedigree, the right past, or the right notable accomplishments, the risk of gridlock is significantly reduced. For example, what if you hired a person who did have their formula, but they also had the ability to work together, to listen, to flex, and still use pieces of their formula, while combining it with pieces of other members’ formula and create something altogether unique, personalized, and tailored for success in your organization. This is what “people-based hiring” gets you…it’s gets you healthy teams.

People-Based Hiring — All About the Skill, Will, Fit

The people-based hiring framework I use to add structure to the hiring process is based on the same process used for hiring firefighters. In the fire service, there is a lot of pressure to get hiring decisions right. After all, one day, your life may very well be in the candidate’s hands. Firefighters achieve hiring success by taking a compartmentalized approach, creating stages of hiring that the candidate must first successfully pass before moving to the next.

Stages of Hiring Process in the Fire Service

Obviously, some adaptation is necessary for certain organizations, but here’s the beautiful part, once there is consensus on the candidate’s success in a given phase, they advance to the next and hiring teams don’t look back. By the time the candidate is in the final stage of hiring, it is strictly about gauging their personality, their ability to collaborate and work as a team, in essence, their fit. This structure is what is missing across private industry. Think about it…how many times have we sat in post-interview roundtables with the previous days’ interviewers and questions of skill come up? By the time a candidate has come this far in the interview process, we’re trying to decide whether we should extend the offer, so the panel should be solely focused on helping the candidate articulate how they align with company and team culture. Here’s how….

Skill — Will — Fit was a phrase I first heard from BlueMercury CEO Marla Malcolm Beck, where she uses it to quickly arrive at hiring decisions. I use this framework quite a bit differently and much more in line with my experience in the fire service. Each element is a phase where the hiring team agrees on candidate success before advancing them to the next. This is to help prevent questions around skill from creeping back into the final decision meeting.

My experience from fire, related to building teams, has taught me the most important part of the interview process is getting to know and understand the person. This remains my key objective with Skill — Will — Fit. Step one, identify the core skill set of the candidate and obtain consensus across all team members that will be relying on his or her skill — are we confident this person is skilled or has the appropriate skill set? Step two, identify the will of the candidate and ensure that they have the right levels of drive needed to problem-solve, take calculated risks, utilize and solicit feedback, and ultimately the will to get shit done. Finally, step three, identify if the candidate is the right fit for your company, your team, your hiring priorities, your culture. Think about the questions they ask, what’s important to them, what they hope to achieve — their aspirations, how they see working with your team, their preferred management style, etc. In essence, this should be very candidate-centric — a discussion around what are their needs, goals, and ambitions are — what drives them. In short, do these conversational questions and answers align with what you can provide them and do they foster and enable teamwork.

Hiring is a two-way street. When you only focus on skill and past accomplishments, you’ve effectively removed empathy and the human element of hiring, which results in solely relying on personal bias towards their resume, their bullet points, and their past performance when making a hiring decision. In short, you’ve failed to consider them as a person.

The final onsite — I prefer the final onsite to be solely about identifying if the candidate embodies the traits and/or ethos of our team and can they or do they have the potential to evangelize those traits outwardly to other teams. The final onsite represents a large investment in stakeholder time that we need to utilize in the absolute best way possible. I feel much more secure in the results knowing that each interviewer is taking a conversational, trust-building approach in making the candidate comfortable, and working to answer a very fundamental question — can I envision working collaboratively with this person?

At this point in the process, I am very clear in my expectations with the hiring team that we are no longer having the ‘skill’ or ‘will’ conversations, as getting to this stage means skill and will have already been identified in the candidate. The purpose of the larger groups input is solely to identify if this is the right PERSON, based on the desired criteria(e.g. Inclusion, Diversity, Personality).

Final Thoughts

Ok gang, this is where I leave you to ponder these ideas. I had a blast at Hiring Success 2018 and look forward to going back next year. I also hope Robert and I can collaborate and take the stage again — after all, hiring is a kind of a big deal.

I sincerely appreciate hearing from all the folks who reached out to me on LinkedIn after our session at #Hire18, asking to walk through our deck again. So, I figured it was worth sharing out this brief retro on Medium to keep the discussion going. If you’d like to learn more about how I look at hiring and how I build high-performing teams that drive organization success, stick around as I’d love to start share more with this community.

Cheers to hiring the right person, and cheers to Hiring Success!

Scott Johnsen

Written by

Firefighter turned Design Manager writing and speaking about building powerful teams, building brand identities and design systems.

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