The data are clear: it’s easier to win in Vegas than hire the right person. Hiring managers waste an obscene amount of time interviewing the wrong candidates because 1) they don’t know what they need (and not because there’s a dearth of talent) and 2) being human, they succumb to confirmation bias. CEOs everywhere are deeply concerned about wasted money and missed opportunities. What’s worse, most don’t know what to do about it, leaving millions of people disengaged and unproductive at work.
These are complex problems, the roots of which are failed management and incoherent cultures. Strategic solutions exist, but for now I’d like to offer some tactical advice to hiring managers—the business leaders who are uniquely positioned to put a dent in this problem. If you want to save precious time and improve the odds of finding the right person for your team—one who will feel at home and in flow—please hear me out.
According to Laszlo Bock, senior VP of people operations at Google:
“Most interviews are a waste of time because 99.4% of the time is spent trying to confirm whatever impression the interviewer formed in the first 10 seconds.”
I believe that’s both true and intolerable. If you’re an interviewer, you’re guilty of it too. The good news is that there are ways to guardrail human nature and improve the odds of making the better hiring decisions. That’s better for you, the organization, job-seekers, and society writ large.
It all starts with creating a great job specification (yes, specification, not merely a description), which will help you to 1) visualize effectively what you need in the job, and 2) avoid confirmation bias as you interview candidates. (Skip down to the bolded section below if you want to get straight to the recommendations.)
Here’s what typically happens: In response to problems or a perceived opportunity, hiring managers write glowing job descriptions that praise the organization and depict 1) a stylized catalog of responsibilities and 2) a superhuman archetype. They send it out to a job board, platform, or headhunter and cross their fingers.
After piles of unqualified resumes are reviewed, calendars get commandeered by interviews meant to assess skills, abilities, and “fit.” Behavioral questions get hurled and heuristic biases take hold. Candidates are rewarded for both their charm and asking safe questions about market dynamics and above-the-fray behavioral expectations. Interviews rarely cover how individual behavior has led to success or failure, or why the candidate’s individuality can or can’t help. It’s just too soon—diagnostic conversations are often uncomfortable for new acquaintances.
Inevitably one of two things happens: 1) the bar gets lowered, which infuses the process with disappointment and confusion, or 2) one of the candidates simply “feels right,” i.e. confirms your biases or is like you—search over. Which is to say that he or she is not necessarily the right person for the job.
Sound familiar? That might’ve worked when jobs could be standardized and automated, and when individualism and interpersonal dynamics weren’t such critical differentiators. But as my colleagues have written, we don’t live in that world anymore. So how should hiring managers attract and assess candidates in this new and increasingly dynamic workplace reality?
(Again, there are solutions to the more intractable leadership and managerial challenges. My focus here is on what hiring managers can do today to improve their hiring ROI.)
The following advice will help you to 1) nail your job specifications, 2) have more meaningful interviews, and 3) improve your hiring decisions.
You, the hiring manager, need to own and manage the process end to end, although it’s fine to get leverage from HR or Talent Acquisition. Finding (and developing) a candidate who will be at home and ‘in flow’ is one of the most important things you do for your organization. Don’t phone it in or hold it as someone else’s responsibility. This is a common mistake that dooms hiring decisions and wastes an unconscionable amount of time and money.
Remember, your value proposition needs to be heard in an increasingly noisy and attention-deficient world. As such, employer branding and job specifications are critically important. In addition to being a candidate’s first and lasting impression of the culture and requirements of the job, a disciplined approach can unlock much needed clarity for the hiring manager about a variety of important things. This includes the culture, the purpose of the organization, and the problems and opportunities the job is meant to address. While this may be obvious—it has certainly been touted in the business press—hiring managers typically don’t take it seriously or know how to manage it. They assume the brand, product, or role speak for themselves, particularly ones that are well established or commoditized. Employer branding pros like TheMuse, TMP, or Universum can help with packaging and reach, but they can’t define the job specification or set the performance context (or, for that matter, integrate and manage new employees). Relying on them to crystallize and communicate your value proposition correctly is a fool’s errand. Adopting talentism is the best form of employer branding.
Write a candid description of your organization’s purpose and culture. Explain why it resonates with you in the way you’d expect it to resonate with the ideal candidate. If that’s already been done, great. If you’re struggling to write something compelling because you don’t have great things to say about the purpose and culture, you shouldn’t be the hiring manager. In fact, you should find another opportunity that better aligns with your talent and purpose.
Write a detailed summary of the perceived problems and opportunities that led to the job opening. This shouldn’t be written in a conventional job description format. Reflect on how this role will help the organization win by owning and crushing things that stand in the way of great outcomes. Avoid stodginess and business-speak.
Describe the performance context. This isn’t just a list of expected outcomes. It’s the catalog of reasons people have failed or succeeded in the past, or why one might be successful working with you, the hiring manager (that congruity is crucial!). This should be a description of causal behaviors and elemental qualities, not just outcomes.
Use the data above to write a compelling job specification that captures the talent and purpose required to be successful in this job. Obviously you want to be judicious about what you publicize, but the framework you’ve created above should guide you throughout the assessment process. For me, the format is less important than the content, but style and flow obviously matter.
Get reliable feedback. Ask three trusted colleagues or friends whether that problem and opportunity-set is objectively compelling as written. Also, I’ve found it helpful to ask 1) someone with creative writing experience to help balance the prose with some poetry, and 2) a marketing or advertising specialist for their impressions. Once the job is live, I see no shame in asking candidates themselves if there’s anything that could be clearer or otherwise improved.
Reflect and revisit the steps above as you learn from feedback. Be disciplined. Often hiring managers, because they’re human, fall back on heuristic biases. As you assess candidates, maintain the discipline to use and continuously stress-test the framework you’ve created. Bake your learning into the framework to ensure the hiring machine constantly evolves.
To summarize: You should be able to describe—even if it’s an informed and organic hypothesis—the behaviors, talent, and thinking qualities required to 1) achieve immediate desired outcomes, and 2) express one’s individuality (talent and purpose) in your culture.
If you can’t do these things well, how can you be confident that you know what’s required to impact your business? How will you know the archetype when you see him/her? How will you know that the archetype can even do the job given the institutional realities? You should assume that the right candidates, ones who are truly looking for a new home, have a sixth sense for authenticity and a heat-seeking curiosity.
I should now add a seemingly contradictory proviso: The behaviors you’ve captured above aren’t the only path to success. They’re your data-supported starting point, but not a binary rulebook. Rather, think of them as a foundation. Why? Because there are other critical conditions for out-performance. Most important are the culture and management machinery that I won’t cover too much here.
We at Talentism believe that competitive advantage is a lagging indicator of how competently organizations capitalize on individual’s Purpose, Talent, and Opportunity (PTO). As such, creating conditions in which individuals can operate in a state of “flow,” which exists at the intersection (PTO), is the path to excellence. So what does this mean practically for hiring managers? In addition to having the right talent for the job, candidates must show evidence that they will outperform in your cultural context. But that’s hard to predict, and as a manager it’s your responsibility to 1) improve the probability that hiring decision is right (which is the purpose of this essay), and 2) run rapid experiments to learn what people are truly like in different contexts (there are solutions that will help).
Assessments & Interviews
Resumes, cover letters, and behavioral interviews—structured and unstructured—are useful and important but insufficient representations of PTO. I’ve also seen comprehensive psychometric testing—potentially helpful but also insufficient. The wrong people still make it through. In a data-rich world made up of complex humans, the most helpful supplement is the candidate’s roadmap for assessing whether they’re the right fit for the job and culture. Self-aggrandizing resumes or answers to conventional HR-conceived interview questions won’t give you the clarity you need. Time wasters like “tell me about a time that you dealt with a problematic co-worker,” or one of its many variants, just don’t cut it. That’s like asking a politician why they’re the best candidate.
You want to be talking about candidates’ talents and elemental congruity with a) the culture and purpose of the organization, and b) the mental model of the hiring manager. You do NOT want to be giving them space to self-promote, and then rating their eloquence.
Candidates need to prove that they understand the job specification and culture or can ask probing questions to understand it. What do they perceive to be both the known and unknown unknowns? What questions must be answered for them to have confidence that the culture will prompt out-performance given their individuality (their talent and purpose)? Which of their behaviors, choices, and qualities demonstrate elemental congruence with this opportunity? Some candidates will seem right and still fail. But I believe the probability of seeing out-performance from the ones who can’t or won’t explore these questions is nil.
The purpose is twofold. First, it gives candidates an opportunity for an authentic exploration of the job, team, company, role, market, and hiring manager. Second, I believe the way in which a candidate approaches this decision is critical. You’ll get a much clearer sense of their PTO.
Some might say this is all an impractical luxury. Headhunters will tell you you’re going to lose candidates to competition. “It’s a talent war. You need to hire quickly to survive.” But that’s emblematic of first-order thinking and self-preservation. There’s a reason 93% of CEOs believe their talent strategy isn’t working, and the employee disengagement data are too overwhelming to ignore. It’s clear that the old methods aren’t working, and the resulting waste of human potential is intolerable. Hiring managers are uniquely positioned to be driving the solution.