Executive Director's Blog: Building a Great Team, Part One

Finding the Best Talent

This is the first in a series of posts on how to build a great team.

In my previous role, I was given the opportunity to build my first team.  I inherited a team of three and, as our team’s services became more popular, I grew the team to 22.  This meant that, in a relatively short period of time, I wrote about 20 job descriptions, reviewed about 1,000 résumés, conducted about 200 interviews, hired about 30 people, and then observed the results.  I’ll tell you upfront that not all of my hires worked out, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.  I learned some valuable lessons, which I’ve attempted to summarize below in the form of hiring Do’s and Don’ts.

How to Hire

DO revisit the job description.  If you are backfilling an existing position, treat it as a blank canvas.  We are all creatures of habit, so it is tempting to dust off the departing employee’s job description and post it.  Don’t do this.  Organizations are living, evolving entities.  The competencies you hired for five years ago reflected the needs of an organization that no longer exists.  What do you need now?  What do you think you’ll need five years into the future?  Write a job description that encompasses the organization as it exists today and as you want it to evolve.

DO use behavioral interview questions.  I use them almost exclusively.  To construct one, start with the end in mind.  Let’s say the role you’re hiring for will require a high stress tolerance.  How do you find out, in an interview setting, whether or not the candidate can handle the type of stress you envision them encountering on the job?  Ask them to describe their most stressful work day.  Then ask them what made it stressful.  How did they respond?  What difficult decisions did they make?  What worked?  What didn’t work?  What would they do differently?  If the candidate answers all of those questions with some specificity, you will have a good sense of (a) their stress tolerance, (b) their ability to think on their feet, (c) how they make decisions and (d) their ability to reflect on and learn from their mistakes.  Not bad for one line of questioning.

DO be persistent.  As the interviewer, you are looking for specific, believable responses.  If the candidate glosses over something, ask him or her to go back and tell you more about it.  Be persistent.  I’ve asked candidates the same question five times.  It can feel awkward.  If the candidate can’t be more specific, or the specifics he/she provides sound contrived, they probably are.  A made-up answer is much worse than no answer.  Respect the candidate who says she can’t think of a past experience that matches your question, but who offers an experience that is somewhat similar.  Disqualify the candidate who provides an obviously made-up answer and count yourself lucky; you were able to discover that the candidate is deceitful during the interview process, rather than after you hired him.

DO remember that everyone sees the candidate from his or her unique vantage point.  One interviewer will be assessing the candidate as a potential direct report.  Another interviewer will be considering the candidate as a peer.  Still other interviewers will be thinking about the candidate as their potential new boss.  And if you have included more senior-level interviewers on your team, they may be evaluating the candidate as a potential successor to you.  As much as we might try to focus only on the candidate vis-à-vis the competencies called for in the job description, it’s impossible to avoid projecting what your own working relationship with the candidate would be like.  So if, for example, you love a candidate who would become your second-in-charge because of her track record of getting things done no matter the challenges, but your team wants nothing to do with her, it might be because the candidate tramples over peers and subordinates in order to achieve her goals.  As the boss, you care most about her ability to get things done; those she would manage care most about not becoming roadkill.  If you find wildly differing assessments of a candidate across your interview team, try to understand the “why” behind their assessments.  It’s probably about perspective.

DO stay disciplined.  After carefully constructing a job description that reflects the organization’s needs, selecting candidates to interview based on how closely they match the job description, and spending the bulk of the interview time determining, through behavioral questions, the candidates’ demonstrable possession of those competencies, I am amazed how often interview teams get together to share their observations and resort to judging candidates based on “likability” factors.  “Candidate A was really easy to talk to.”  “Candidate B really seemed to care about what we do.”  Unless “easy to talk to” is a competency in the job description, put it aside.  Similarly, seeming to care is easy to fake and impossible to validate.  Don’t lose your discipline at this final, and most critical, phase of the hiring process.  To avoid this pitfall, write the competencies from the job description on a whiteboard and have the interview team rate the candidates specifically and only on their aptitude in these competencies as demonstrated during their interview.  If someone’s rating seems anomalous to the group, facilitate a discussion to understand the justification for the rating.  Did it come from some specific response or behavior in the interview, or is the interviewer projecting? 

DO focus, most of all, on culture.  Every team has a culture.  If your team’s culture is wonderful, hire people that fit into it.  If you are trying to change your team’s culture, hire people that have the culture you aspire to and support them so they don’t get frustrated and leave or, worse, adopt the existing culture and stay.

DO avoid the “rebound” candidate.  Most interviewers only cursorily ask why a candidate is interested in the role.  It’s often an introductory question to get everyone warmed up and the candidate’s answer is not critically assessed.  I once made a hiring mistake that could have been avoided had I paid more attention to a candidate’s answer to this question.  This (internal) candidate talked about wanting to remain in the organization because she believed in its mission.  She claimed to be interested in the work my team did and said she looked forward to working directly with customers.  All of this sounded fine, but I should have probed further to see if the candidate could demonstrate this with examples from her past.  As it turned out, the candidate was not running toward my job, but away from her current job, where she was in a feud with a co-worker and extremely unhappy.  For a short time she performed well, happy to be in a healthier environment, but she soon grew unhappy when she realized she didn’t really want to do the type of work my team was responsible for; it merely seemed attractive because she so desperately wanted to escape.  This is the main value of taking the “why are interested in this job” question seriously:  To determine if the candidate really wants to be on your team in your role, or if they are merely desperate to get away from their current role.

How NOT to Hire

DON’T stuff a job description full of “duties.”  Duties render work into its least interesting form - chores.  Also, duties are volatile, or ought to be in a healthy organization, meaning your job description will be out-of-date within a few months.  Instead of duties, write down the role you want this person to play in the organization and talk about the responsibilities he or she will have.  “You will keep it all on track, ensuring that complex projects are delivered on time and under budget.”  “You will be responsible for maintaining our library’s reputation for compelling, interactive children’s literacy programs.”  Playing a role and being responsible are much more inspiring ways to view work than completing a list of chores.

DON’T lose sight of the forest through the trees.  Some interviewers ask every candidate a set of scripted questions.  While being consistent in what you ask candidates is important, and sometimes a legal requirement, don’t forget that the Q&A format of interviews is largely a pretense to see how a candidate carries him or herself.  Do they show signs of extreme nervousness or do they seem to own the room?  Do they hesitate before answering each question or do they always have a response on the tip of their tongue?  Can they answer questions succinctly and logically, or do they talk and talk before (finally) answering your question?  Once you assess these behaviors, project how they would play out in the role this person is applying for.  If they appear to be unconfident, will that hamper them in their role?  If they are deliberate communicators, will that be problematic?  If they go on and on, will their customers grow impatient?  How the candidate presents is just as important as What they present.

DON’T worry about the clock.  I cringe every time I hear a hiring manager say they really need to fill a position by X date.  This sets them up to make a mediocre hire.  In most cases the manager feels pressure because his/her team is stressed with extra work.  While this stress is real and should be addressed (the boss’s responsibility is to decide what work will NOT be done until a replacement is hired), hiring a candidate that is any less than excellent is short-sighted.  If you hire a mediocre candidate, the extra work your team was struggling with will persist because a mediocre candidate will make a mediocre team member.  An excellent candidate, even if it takes a while to find one, will not only pick up the slack, but lighten the load of everyone else.

DON’T overvalue familiarity.  If you’ve worked with someone before, you certainly know them better than other candidates.  However, we tend to judge less critically those we are familiar with, which can tip the scale in favor of the candidate we know best, not the best candidate for the role.  When people I have worked with before express interest in a job on my team, I tell them candidly (a) whether I feel they are a good fit and (b) that the fact I know them will have no impact on whether or not they are chosen for the role; the best candidate for the job gets it.  Period.

DON’T overvalue institutional knowledge.  Generally this manifests itself when an internal candidate is being considered for a more senior role.  Institutional knowledge requires no special aptitude to learn.  Similarly, institutional knowledge can be a negative trait if you, as the leader, want to establish a different organizational culture.  Assuming that you are happy with the current organizational culture and are considering an internal candidate for a more senior role, I recommend you neither give credit for their institutional knowledge, nor hold it against them.  Judge them on their demonstrable competencies just as you would an external candidate.

DON’T overvalue a candidate for the tools he/she knows.  Knowing a particular tool, software or coding language are often a result of circumstance.  The candidate happened to work at an organization where the tool was used and therefore had to learn it.  This implies very little about the candidate.  Much more important is determining if a candidate has the capacity and interest to learn new tools, software or coding languages.  To determine this, probe for behavioral evidence of traits like curiosity, ongoing self-improvement, and a willingness to ask for help.  Remember that you are hiring for the long-run.  Someone who knows your software may make an impact sooner than someone who has to learn it, but their head start will quickly evaporate.  What you’re left with can either be an expert on a particular software, which time will inevitably pass by, or someone who is adept at learning that tool as well as whatever comes next.  When choosing, be sure to hire the person who demonstrates the capacity for long-term success.

DON’T (necessarily) hire the most talented candidate.  This may sound odd, because we all talk about hiring “the best person.”  Sometimes - albeit rarely - the most talented candidate is not the right choice.  Usually this is because the candidate is overqualified.  Imagine that you were hiring an entry-level Cataloger and the ghost of Melvil Dewey applied for the job.  At first you’d feel incredibly lucky:  “Dewey is alive!  Well, sort of.  And he wants to work for us!  Do ghosts need health care benefits?  Who cares.  I can’t wait to Tweet this.”  Clearly Dewey would be bored stiff after a week of this entry-level work and would move on to another position as soon as he found one, leaving you to start again.  Unless you have a clear and rapid succession path for the overqualified candidate to keep him or her engaged, it’s best to choose someone whose expertise more closely aligns with the role.

In Conclusion

Talent assessment will never be an exact science; humans on both sides of the interview table are fallible.  The best you can do as a hiring manager is develop best practices of assessing candidates that increase your odds of finding the strongest talent for your organization.  Talent is by no means the only ingredient in building a great team, but it gives the leader a significant advantage.  Watch this space for more thoughts on building a great team.

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