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January 30, 2006

The Art of Recruiting

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The art of recruiting is the purest form of evangelism because you're not simply asking people to try your product, buy your product, or partner with you. Instead, you are asking them to bet their lives on your organization. Can it get any scarier for them, and tougher for you, than this?

  1. Hire better than yourself. In the Macintosh Division, we had a saying, “A player hire A players; B players hire C players”--meaning that great people hire great people. On the other hand, mediocre people hire candidates who are not as good as they are, so they can feel superior to them. (If you start down this slippery slope, you'll soon end up with Z players; this is called The Bozo Explosion. It is followed by The Layoff.) I have come to believe that we were wrong--A players hire A+ players, not merely A players. It takes self-confidence and self-awarness, but it's the only way to build a great team.
  2. Hire infected people. Classically, organizations look for the “right” educational and professional backgrounds. I would add a third quality: Is the candidate infected with a love of your product? Because all the education and work experience in the world doesn't matter if the candidate doesn't “get it” and love it. On the other hand, an ex-jewelry schlepper like me can make it in technology if you're infected with a love of the product.
  3. Ignore the irrelevant. This is somewhat redundant with the prior point, but it merits repetition. Often a candidate's educational and work experience is relevant on paper but irrelevant in the real world. Would a senior vice-president from Microsoft with a PhD in computer science be an ideal employee of a startup? Not necessarily--this poor guy has been working for a company with $60 billion in cash and 95% market share, and he woke up every day not worried about the competition or customers but the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. The flip side is also true: the candidate--using a jewelry analogy-- without the “perfect” background could be the diamond in the rough.
  4. Double check your intuition. Everyone has stories about the candidate that they “knew” would work out who turned out to be a nightmare employee. Or the employee they “knew” wouldn't work out despite a lack of qualifications who turned out to be the employee of the decade. The problem with intuition is that people only remember when their intuition was right--truth be told, their intuition was probably wrong as often as right. My recommendation is that you ask every candidate the same questions and take extensive notes. You might even conduct the first interview by telephone so you cannot judge the candidates by their appearance. In particular, startup founders believe they have a good “gut feel” for candidates, so they conduct unstructured interviews that are way too subjective, and they end up with lousy hires.
  5. Check independent references. How many of us have limited reference checking to only those provided by the candidate? I know I have. Can we be more stupid than this? This often happens because we don't double check our intuition: we like the gal, so we only call the references she's provided because we don't want to hear that we like a bozo. Do as I say, not as I did: check independent references--preferably at least one person that she worked for and one person that worked for her.
  6. Apply the Shopping Center Test. As the last step in the recruiting process, apply the Shopping Center Test. It works like this: Suppose you're at a shopping center, and you see the candidate. He is fifty feet away and has not seen you. You have three choices: (1) beeline it over to him and say hello; (2) say to yourself, “This shopping center isn't that big; if I bump into him, then I'll say hello, if not, that's okay too;” (3) get in your car and go to another shopping center. My contention is that unless the candidate elicits the first response, you shouldn't hire him.
  7. Use all your weapons. Once you've found the perfect candidate, use all the weapons at your disposal to land her--not just salary and options. More important--and more telling--is the attractiveness of your vision for how you'll change the world and the other employees (who doesn't like to work with smart people who are kicking butt?). To this armory, add your board of directors and advisors who should use their sway to sign her up. And finally, throw in the resume-building potential of working for a great organization like yours (let's not be naive, here). Once you decide you want a person, pull out all stops and go with shock and awe to land her.
  8. Sell all the decision makers. A candidate seldom makes a decision all by herself. There can be several other people contributing to the decision. The obvious ones are spouses and significant others, but it can also be kids, colleagues, and friends. With Asian Americans, it can even be parents because Asian Americans are perpetually trying to make their parents happy. In the interviews, simply ask, “Who is helping you make this decision?” And then see if you can make them happy too.
  9. Wait to compensate. A common mistake that many organizations make is using an offer letter as the starting point for negotiation. This is very risky because you don't know what reaction this first data point is going to have. If the candidate is Asian American, for example, she might show it to her mother; her mother might be offended by your lowball offer and then tell the candidate to forget your organization because it's dishonored your family. A offer letter confirms what everyone has agreed upon. It is the last step in negotiations, not the first one.
  10. Don't assume you're done. Garage once recruited an investment banker (mea culpa #1) from a large (mea culpa #2) firm. After weeks of wooing and several offers and counter offers, he accepted a position with us. He even worked for us for a few days, and then he called in sick. Late the next night, he sent me an email saying that he had accepted an offer from a former client of his old investment bank. I learned a valuable lesson: never assume that your recruiting is done. Frankly, you should recruit every employee every day because when they go home at night, you might never see them again if you don't keep the lovin' going.

Addendum:

Here's a great article called “25 words that hurt your resume.” I found it because this site had a trackback to this blog entry.

Written at: Benihanas, Cupertino, California

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Comments

I was attracted by the title of your blog - How to Change the World - since I'm one of those who has faith that we can change the world - and the wisdom and techniques here are awesome!
Thanks!

Ocean
http://www.OceanMusic.com

Apart from finding Guy’s article on The Art of Recruiting very refreshing I found it to be very accurate in regards to recruitment of employees. For myself I have always believed in recruiting better than yourself, I believe it is sound advice. What still surprises me is how companies still recruit badly, so if you follow Guy’s rule of 10 it will I am sure help you recruit more safely and successfully.

The only other point I would particularly like to emphasis is the taking of references, on two occasions I let my personal belief cloud my decision. If only I had checked their references, I would have saved myself so much heart ache and money. At some later stage I ought to spend some time on this issue of recruitment from the clients point of view, as I think as recruitment consultants we forget that some of these clients do not recruit that often.

http://www.recruitment-views.com

Sorry for posting so long after the initial blog but I have just discovered this site from a referral.

1. Hire better than yourself - I would have to say that Macintosh was correct. The principle is to have the A player doing the hiring. The B person has difficulty identifying the A or A+ person.
2. Hire infected people - Infected should also relate to being intelligent. If they see the value in your product then they think like you. The degree much more often relates to following through on tasks than just the education. I hired my best programmers out of a line cook job, a machine presser, and an auto mechanic. They all got their degrees while working full time. I personally know how much commitment it takes to do both tasks at once. An intelligent person will be easily sold on your vision and company in step 7 and 8 because you know you have the best company in the world.
3. Ignore the irrelevant - I totally agree when this is placed correctly in the hiring world of today. Don’t forget that large corporations remove valuable people for financial and strategic reasons only. This can provide the opportunity to obtain valuable and wise employees that may otherwise be unavailable. The last receptionist I hired has a recent degree in Psychology. Can you think of a better person to greet people?
4. Double check your intuition - The double check works best with your mentor or a peer you highly respect. Two minds always work better than one.
5. Check independent references - Once more I totally agree. Networking is the key for checking independent references. Most HR departments have people who know many recruiters who can tell you more about your candidates than you would ever learn from the listed references.
6. Apply the Shopping Center Test - I like this test as long as you double check your intuition.
7. Use all your weapons - I have landed so many employees using this technique. You have to love where you work and then convey this to the candidate.
8. Sell all the decision makers - I love that you made this point. Dragging a person across the country or even across town affects the entire family. I feel it may be too intrusive to push for the decision makers. For me it works better to have the candidate consider who these people are and what questions they may have. Let the candidate be your advocate to the decision makers while you are the source of information.
9. Wait to compensate - I made this mistake in my early hiring. I have learned that an offer should never be made unless it will be accepted. Some cultures demand negotiation and this is served faster in open discussions rather than in letters and emails. As you negotiate with the candidate, they are still looking for other offers. Remember that you can hire the right person in 3 days or less if you don’t waste time.
10. Don't assume you're done - I contact every hire at least once a week. Ask how they are, are they still happy, are they facing any issues? This needs to be every day for their first few weeks because you are their best contact in the company.

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I have a hard time with the first item - "Hire better than yourself". Better in what respects? It's only logical that when hiring for task-oriented positions (coder, QA, handyman) you want them to be better at it then you are. But isn't it illogical to think you're going to hire someone that is "better" than you overall?

Good to touch with you... look forward to getting good information in Venture Capital Opporutnities.

Best regards, Chae

Pretty good list. I loved point 10, recruit every day, and disagree strongly with point 6 (the shopping cart test) : because if you're A level and want A or A+, you already know that exceptional people, by definition, come in various shapes, sizes, and personalities. Liking people whom you are going to hire in that intuitive/body-language/within-50-millisecs prejudices sounds like a bad idea (unless you tell me that you've had great success at converting speed dates into productive employees!! :)).

Good.

Superb tips, Guy, as always. If I may, I'd like to emphasize the importance of conducting rigorous interviews with candidates. Too often I find managers just schmooze with candidates instead of really probing. I go into detail on this for one example--enterprise software sales reps at http://www.pacifica-group.com/2005/05/guide_to_hiring_1.php

I credit the many years at HP where we did "behavioral interviewing" to get at the truth.

Thanks for your very informative & fun blog,
Sridhar

Personally, I think the jewel is the last sentence in #10. Most companies take their employees for granted even to the point of feeling like providing a job is doing the employee a favor.

I would add that keeping the decision makers happy or at least key decision makers happy is equally important. If my wife starts to feel that I'm spending too much time at work, I'm going to deal with that one way or another.

Aloha

Guy,

Great blog and a really good post. I'm never usually moved to comment on these things but working in recruitment it's refreshing to see that a lot of people who commented on this post do 'get' the process. If more managers of my clients took heed of your advice everyone (client, candidate and me) would benefit.

I'd add one piece of advice that seems hard for a lot of people high up in organisations to stomach:
if you don't add anything to the process then get the hell out of it.

Yes you're the MD, or HR manager or whatever. But if being involved in the process has no actual benefits for anyone then chances are it will cause some problems (slowing things down while the candidate waits for a slot in your busy diary for example). Forego the need to have a hand in everything and trust in the people who need to be involved to get it right. If you've hired the right A people in the first place then you can relax. If not, welcome to Bozo Town...

Guy, in your article you don't tell us how to select the new employee.

I have 100 resumees on my desk, and can interview them. How do I select a guy?

Guy, one other thing I tend to look for is a "contrarian" personality. It is important, especially in a startup position to have people that have bought the vision, but are not afraid to question parts of the vision. Too often people follow blindly, with the leader "smoking his own dope".

Tim,

I took it in the literal sense of the word "product" :) .

Otherwise you are absolutely right , without passion and desire, its hard to succeed.

- Raza

Fair points ELS.

Not a tactic I would use personally, but definately a good way to see if they've got the confidence to back themselves.

Vincenze.

As always, the comments are as good as the post. Ronny makes a sad but absolutely spot-on observation.

This is a spot-on article. If you do not feel comfortable hiring someone better than you, then you should not be involved in the hiring process.

One thing I do for technical interviews is I try to give the interviewee a problem that is in the company's product space (but is simplified due to the time contstraints of the interview). References are important, past history gives you some sense of where they come from, but a key is to figure out how they think and reason out problems. I also turn it into a collaborative process so I can get a feel for working with the person in a short amount of time. It also gives them a feel for what I am like to work with (which is an important decision point for them - I'm supposed to be selling our company to the interviewee as well, and I hope that I give them a glimpse to what it is like to work at the company).

Remember that just because the person didn't jumped up and down when you said something incorrect doesn't mean she didn't pick up on it.

Whether they picked up on it or not is not the point. The point is, whether they are willing to confront me about it. If they are not willing to, then they are useless to us.


remembering that they are also hiring you and they may just sit back quietly and think 'these guys don't know crap...I don't want to work with people that don't know there own products'.

My team's track record of products spoke for itself. If they felt that then they weren't looking at the market realities that were in front of them.

I do wonder, what is your motivation with the shopping centre question in point 6. I would consider the people that chose to come straight up to you (option A) simply more confident than those who chose B or C. Do all our colleagues and employees need to be super confident people? I'd think a balance would be optimal... maybe I've missed something here???

ELS wrote:

"One thing I always used to do in interviewing for my team was say something blatantly incorrect to see if the interviewee would tell me I was wrong."

ELS, this is an interesting strategy but I would use it with caution, remembering that they are also hiring you and they may just sit back quietly and think 'these guys don't know crap...I don't want to work with people that don't know there own products'. Remember that just because the person didn't jumped up and down when you said something incorrect doesn't mean she didn't pick up on it.

Great post all in all, I especially liked points 2 and 3. Passion is so much more important than experience simply because experience is predominantly a function of time whereas passion is a function of something much more mysterious.

Vincenze.

Most people hire for a ‘job’ not for ‘potential’, and there lies the problem. The incentives for a manager to invest in people for the long run simply don’t exist in most companies.

This is a great article..even at the staff level...as an admin at a VC firm, when we interview admin candidates I tend to gage the reactions to questions and situations that I pose to a candidate because being an admin is not rocket science, but dealing with quick turn around situations on the fly is :-) I've always looked for people (as an assistant) that think things through, are rational, like what they do, and have a chemistry that will work with everyone in the office. Life is too short....

http://www.sandhillslave.com

Rants on Life in VC through the eyes of an Assistant

(Caution silly VC bashing ahead)

Guy, these seem like common sense ideas to me. It's too bad that most companies don't heed them. Not that I can tell anyway.

This is not my own idea, but I fully agree with it: Hire someone who can do the job. Personality and likeability does matter, but the bulk of your interview should be the potential employee showing you that they can (or can't) do what you want them to do.

This requires some effort by the interviewer on setting up some work-like situations that are a facsimile of what will be faced from day to day or, better yet, on critical days/periods.

I think that the most important out of the list, whether a startup or larger company, is a passion for your product or service. These are the type of people that you don't have to worry about being motivated, creative, hard working, etc. If you hire people who do not love to be there and doing whatever your company does, you are going to spend more time managing your employees then driving your company forward.

http://www.brianbalfour.com

I really like a quote by Dee Hook too:

Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last and least, experience. Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; without knowledge, experience is blind. Experience is easy to provide and quickly put to good use by people with all the other qualities.

...

Greetings from Germany.

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