Friday, June 13, 2008

Hiring Great People - Do Your Homework

I'm often surprised to see how little time some people and some companies spend on actually preparing for their interviews and hiring decisions. A lot of time there seems to be a gap between the rhetoric of "hire the best" and the actual willingness to invest in some structure and thought in the hiring process. The one place where I saw hiring done really well was at Epinions. At Epinions, each interviewer was designated with a specific area of focus (generally either intelligence, background, or culture fit) and would spend the entire interview process honing down on that one aspect of the interviewee's background. The result was that each interview was very targeted and efficient, the interview process was challenging but fair, and the people we hired were motivated, smart, and great at execution. (having a tough interview process can predispose new hires to think more positively about your company - topic for a different post - but read Influence for the case study)

My version of what I saw work at Epinions involves a little more alliteration, but in general falls into a similar vein. Its all about making the interview process as efficient and streamlined as possible while identifying and bringing in high quality talent. The trick, however, is adapting your filters to fit the roles. It is simply not possible to fill your company with Rock Stars that score 10 every single time across Aptitude, Attitude, and Ability and for many roles its usually overkill. Spend some time thinking about what your real requirements are and what aspects of the candidates you are not willing to compromise on (for example, you are not going to compromise on attitude for a customer-facing role).

Here's how it works for me:

Everyone has a mix of Aptitude, Attitude, and Ability and every position has a different mix of requirements around Aptitude, Attitude, and Ability. A greeter at a restaurant needs to have great Attitude, and a natural Aptitude for being a “people-person”, with limited technical Ability requirements.


Aptitude: Aptitude is natural ability - back in the Epinions days it was just "Intelligence", in practice it should depend on the job. In sports it’s the natural ability to run faster, jump higher, or be taller. In modeling it is your natural looks. In the workforce, its your ability to process information. Aptitude cannot be taught – you either have it or you don’t.

Attitude: This could also be called "Culture Fit". In a nutshell, is the individual pleasant to work with? A person doesn’t have to be agreeable all the time, but they do need to approach work with some drive and eagerness. Not everyone has this, but folks that maintain a positive attitude attract a lot of goodwill and are often able to get difficult tasks done more quickly simply based on strength of personality.

Ability: Skills and Experience. Ability is learned skills and the application of those skills. In sports it might be the follow-through of your jumpshot or your footwork in tennis. These are the skills a person has acquired over time either through experience or education. In the workplace, these might manifest themselves in the ability to apply different strategic models to a problem, or produce an Excel worksheet that is functional and easy to modify.

For each position that I am looking to hire I'll jot down my thoughts on what I need from each of these areas. Different roles will need these qualities to varying degrees.

Say I’m trying to hire an analyst, I’ll think about what my ideal candidate might look like:

Aptitude: High-curiousity quotient. Has a natural desire to dig into things and figure things out. This is the no compromise area for me and where I would focus the majority of my time. An Analyst will usually be younger and I need to be certain that they can learn quickly.

Attitude: Positive, can-do attitude. I don't need someone perky for this role, just someone who has that competitive streak where I know they won't settle for being second-best.

Ability: Needs basic excel skills and good problem solving skills. Math and/or statistical training. This would be least important in my mind. Smart folks can be trained to learn how to use analytical tools, folks that know how to use tools can't be trained to be smart.

This is all just common sense but in a number of cases I've been surprised to find that I am the only person that breaks down hiring in this manner. Spending the time in advance to think through the position lets me be that much more prepared to look for the right qualities in candidates. I can apply some structure around the interview process as well as what to look for in resumes.

On the Aptitude side, I’ll be looking for prior historic examples of deep curiousity – books read, discovery channel shows watched, experiments conducted, patents filed, etc… Similarly, on the Ability side I can focus on typical resume items around the skills the candidates have learned over the years. Having invested the time to think about specific proof points gives me a more efficient filter for resumes and interviews. With these notes and my "Gut", I have gotten much better at identifying good people.

One last thing is as a hiring manager I think its important to spend some time to think about a potential career path for people as well. The one thing about hiring great people, is that great people expect to be rewarded for their work, so making sure that a sensible career path exist for people is key. This means that when you create the initial Aptitude, Attitude, and Ability list for a position, you may want to do the same thing for the position’s next logical step up. This is because as subordinates move higher and higher in the food chain sometimes the mix of skills they need to succeed can change radically (sometimes referred to as the “Peter Principle”). Essentially, the combination of Aptitude, Attitude, and Ability that might make someone a good analyst, might also make them a terrible Managing Director. It makes sense to spend the time to make sure your filters are tuned for both the current position and the near-term career path so that when you hire your good person they remain for some time.