Recognizing exceptional applicants

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What is a culture of honest inquiry, and how do you create one?

Here’s one place to start: Don’t let anyone hide from logic whose results they don’t like.

Including yourself.

Last week’s column proposed that in our current extraordinary circumstances you consider replacing several employees who “meet expectations” with one exceptional new hire.

It started out as a very different column, all about valuing and preserving the people you have. I hated the column’s conclusions.

But the logic kept dragging me to the unavoidable, thoroughly unlovely result — that since:

  • Great employees out-produce average ones by a factor of ten or more,
  • Get paid no more than twice as much,
  • Are often unappreciated by mediocre managers, who consider them troublemakers for persistently proposing new and different ways of doing things,
  • And, given the recent flood of massive layoffs, are looking for employment right now in higher than usual numbers,
  • As a result, right now you can probably find outstanding new hires who will produce more for less … just what you need to continue to support the business as your budget gets slashed.

Much to my surprise I received no outright hate mail, and quite a few compliments (thanks!). I did get challenges, most of which fell into three categories:

(1) Why limit the tactic to non-management employees? Answer: Don’t limit it to non-management employees. You’ll need different tactics for sorting managers, though. We’ll cover that topic next week.

(2) Superstars aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They can, in fact, be prima donnas who impede healthy team dynamics. Answer: That’s just one reason I avoided the word “superstar” and didn’t suggest you hire any. I recommended hiring exceptional employees, however you define exceptional.

(3) Great theory, but recognizing exceptional new hires is easier said than done. Replacing employees whose performance is known for new ones whose performance is uncertain isn’t a sure thing. It entails risk.

Answer: I couldn’t agree more.

Nobody has a certain formula for gauging the quality of a job applicant. And yet, the single most important skill any business leader can develop and perfect is the ability to recognize, select, retain and develop top talent.

The best achieve this reliably. Some executives do an excellent job of it, which you know because you work with their teams. Other executives of your acquaintance do a lousy job of it, which you know because you work with their teams too.

Random chance is an unlikely explanation.

Here are some techniques that have worked for me, to get the conversation started:

Screen resumes: Well, of course, but not by skill-to-task matching. Resumes are to job applicants as brochures are to software companies, so don’t take them too seriously. You’re looking for two characteristics:

  • The habit of success: An applicant who fails to include solid accomplishments probably lacks this habit, and it’s crucial. Employees who know what success feels like enjoy the experience and will generally figure out ways to experience it again.
  • Stretch, or else pinball: Applicants who are fully qualified for the position … who have done the job before … are often coasting instead of driving. Be wary.Don’t automatically reject fully qualified applicants, though, because some might be “pinball wizards” — people who love the game and play well enough to get to play it again. Pinball wizards can be phenomenal employees.

Do the job in the interview: I’ve mentioned this principle before, and have remembered to thank Nick Corcodilos of AskTheHeadhunter.com fame every time for introducing me to it. It’s simple: Instead of asking the same old interview questions and getting the same old answers, give the applicant some work to do … a coding assignment, a broken server to troubleshoot, a sluggish database to optimize … and let them have at it.

If you can’t do this, describe a specific challenge and ask the applicant the best way to handle it. You’ll either get a lot of accurate detail, or a lot of vague hand-waving. It’s easy to tell the difference.

Include peer interviews in the process: Whole-team interviews are only useful if the whole team is strong. Since your goal is to replace merely adequate employees with exceptional ones, have one or two of your exceptional employees interview the applicants.

They’ll know within ten minutes if they’re dealing with a peer, or with someone they’ll have to help carry.

Use these three techniques and you’ll make great hires every time, without fail.

Not really. They’ll sure improve the odds, though.

Have other techniques that work? Share them … leave a Comment. You can never have too many good techniques for recognizing top-notch talent.

Comments (8)

  • Agree 100%. We use Topgrading for guidance on interviewing itself. Coupling that with scenario-based testing helps increase your chances of finding real talent.

    Notice I said “increase your chances”; it doesn’t mean you will always find talent every time. You could still end up with someone who isn’t a fit.

    So, the important “third step” is be prepared to terminate quickly.

  • Bob, thanks for addressing my comment on last week’s column regarding the risk associated with potentially misjudging exceptional employee hires. The techniques provided are excellent suggestions and we’ve employed the latter two with reasonable success in the past. Resume screening is certainly helpful, but crafty authors can sometimes slip thru even the best screening processes. Even with all precautions though, as you said nothing is gaurenteed, but these techniques (along with a little luck) should certainly help !

  • It’s funny that most job ads mention a huge laundry list of technical skills. What I find most useful has nothing to do with the technical skills the person already has (although that’s always a bonus). What’s most useful in a new hire are things like: (a) ability to learn new technology, (b) top notch problem solving skills, (c) ability to work with other people (whether in a team of peers, or with “customers”), (d) good interpersonal skills. I strongly agree with the interview technique of having the candidate meet with existing exceptional employees. They can spot the attributes I’ve listed, and they can also tell what parts of the candidates listed technical skills are fabrications. As is usually the case, Bob, your column is spot on!

  • One other tip for hiring. Look for hunger and don’t be afraid to exchange solid people/team skills for technical skills. This goes to Bob’s point on coasting, finding someone with a strong drive to learn and grow can top someone who has all of the technical skills.

  • The peer review idea is great if you can get it past HR. We’ve done those here but it’s useless. The same exact questions have to be asked, so the employees are assigned a question to ask. Usually they are routine questions, so we end up judging the applicate on performance. If we could kick HR (and timid supervisors) out of the picture (or concerns that this is the only way to be fair) and to ask real questions, that would be awesome.

    We have to do those explain a situation questions (“think of a time you had to do X and tell how you handled it”). It would be better to ask the specific questions if we could.

  • And just when I thought that I had developed the best possible candidate screening process (which incorporated all three of Bob’s techniques), I hired someone who revealed herself to be a rage-aholic in her very first staff meeting. Guess I need to add a psych screening…
    OK, maybe not–but I’ve never answered for myself how to do it better (so as to avoid any repeat of that episode).
    Ideas, anyone?

  • Personally, I don’t trust psych screenings and don’t like the message they send to applicants.

    And, there’s no way I know of to fully protect yourself from people who are good applicants but bad employees.

    The trick is to avoid living with your mistakes. If you make a bad hire, get rid of the bad employee quickly and try again.

    – Bob

  • Yeah, I never felt that comfortable with them either (and I’m not even sure how much they’d help, in any case, based on my experience with taking such tests as part of my masters degree program).

    Wouldn’t you know it in the case I gave, I wasn’t allowed to fire the employee in question–she was transferred to another department in the company, where she continued to cause problems. I lost track of the situation when I was laid off about eight months later, then the company went into bankruptcy six months after that. Perhaps all of those things were somehow related…

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