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How to Hire Your Next Key Leader

hiring & selection team clarity team compatibility

This article is heavily based on the excellent book, The Effective Hiring Manager by Mark Horstman. If you haven't read it and you need to make an important hire soon, don't take another step in the process until you do.

Adding people to your team is a nerve-racking thing! It's easily one of the most important things you do as a leader or manager. But, as Mark Horstman calls it in his book, "the Christmas effect," if you only do something every once in a while, you don't get as good at it as you need to be. 

If you're like me, the thought of hiring your next key leader gives you sleepless nights. Questions like "Who can I trust?" and "Will they be an accelerator pedal or a brake pedal to accomplishing our mission?" are constantly on your mind when interviewing potential candidates for this crucial role.

In order to find that perfect fit, there are a few things that managers should be aware of before jumping into the process!

Accurately Understand Your Goal

First, you have to accurately define what the hiring process is. Most of the time when we have an open position, we are so eager to get the position filled that we end up focusing on the wrong goal. Since we are likely in a leadership position because we have been good at accomplishing goals, we usually arrive at the outcome we want. The problem is that the goal of filling the position as fast as possible is the wrong goal.

I love how Mark Horstman describes the goal of hiring as keeping the wrong person out rather than getting the right person in. This may be a poor paraphrase, but it helped me reframe and reimagine the process.

It is a higher priority to avoid the wrong hire than it is to fill your open position as expediently as possible. This reframing can be disorienting when you are midstream in a search, but it is critical if you want to avoid a huge and costly hiring mistake.

The point here is that hiring, training, managing, and retaining great leaders is extremely difficult and extremely expensive. When done poorly, the costs skyrocket and in some cases can be the difference between accomplishing your mission and closing your doors. This is why great recruiters can charge 25-35% of the first-year salary to execute this process for their clients. They know that in most cases, that those high fees more than pay for themselves when they do their jobs well.

You are likely hiring someone because you can clearly see new opportunities and you want to take your team to the next level. Bringing the wrong person on instead of the right person can easily set you back years if not cause you to miss the opportunity entirely.

Once you have the goal of the hiring process defined accurately, you can follow the remaining steps to identify the best person to add to your team. Here they are in summary:

Clearly Define the Role

Most job descriptions are trash. They have been put together by some soul-crushing combination of manager haste, human resources committee, legal compliance, and probably also some cultural mumbo jumbo. Frankly, the whole system needs to be reimagined.

Put yourself in the shoes of the best possible candidate. This is a great opportunity for you to practice your empathy skills. What do you want to matter to someone who you are going to work with every day? What matters to you? Why do you lead the team you lead? Why do you work for the organization you work for? What excites you about waking up and going to work every day? Does the person you will hire next need to feel excited about the same things as you or are you looking for someone who will compliment you?

There are a few steps you can take to do this well and they build off each other. First, start small and be succinct. What is the one, overarching reason you need this person on your team? What does success look like? What does failure look like? Imagine yourself a bit into the future after this person has been onboarded to your team. What is the worst-case scenario after 90 days? Six months? One year? On the other hand, if it goes well and you hire the ideal person, what will you be celebrating together at those intervals?

Once you have defined the single, simple reason this job needs to exist in the first place, it is helpful to add some more flesh to the bones. We typically walk our clients through a process of capturing three to five statements that define the reason the job needs to exist. We call them Key Accountability Statements.

Now you have the building blocks of what your next hire is going to need to understand about the role. With these statements, they can begin to evaluate for themselves if they will want to do it if they can do it, and therefore, if they will apply.

Another important aspect of defining the role you are trying to fill is to have a clear understanding of what the tasks are that need to be done over and over again to be successful at the job. It's one thing, and probably the most important thing, to understand the "why" of the position. The "what" and "how" of the job are also important. It's possible to attract someone who is a good fit for the overarching identity and culture of your team but a bad fit for the specific tasks they will need to complete to be effective.

Time to play make-believe again... Imagine a typical week doing the job you are hiring for. What kinds of tasks do they perform and how much time do they take as a percentage of that week? 

Assuming we are operating on a 40-hour workweek, how many hours are spent interacting with people? Checking email? Working through a to-do list someone else has created?

It will help you to identify the best person to do the work if you have a clear understanding of what the work actually is. Most of us make a lot of assumptions here. Instead, write it all down.

Once you have those high-level summary statements organized into 3-5 categories, it makes sense to go back to that other gobbly-gook job description and copy and paste some of the details over, if they are still relevant and you want or are required to keep them.

Want to include a description of your organization? Mission, vision, values, etc? What about a list of qualifications? Education, background, experience, soft skills, hard skills... Any boilerplate legalize from HR? Now is the time to put it in there if it helps.

But, don't bury the important stuff - why the position exists, how you define success, and what exactly needs to get done every day should be front and center.

Next, we'll talk about knowing what you are looking for...

How to know who you are looking for

Once you have clearly defined the role, you are on your way to begin looking for candidates. In order to begin looking, though, you first need to know what to look for. In marketing, this gets defined both demographically and psychographically. In hiring, asking questions about demographics is a no-no and potentially irrelevant anyway.

You need to know who you are looking for psychographically so you can predict how they will perform at their job, on your team, and with their teammates.

The key accountability statements you defined in the previous step will help you a lot as you define the type of person you are looking for.

There are a few different ways to do this. Lots of managers like the, "go with your gut" approach.

Others prefer to create a hiring committee to get a multitude of perspectives on who would be best.

Some use artificial intelligence or other more data-driven approaches and then just do what the supposedly predictive analytics tell them. 

Resumes are a well-worn, tried, and true tool for this. At the same time, it is almost universally accepted that they are not enough, at best, and completely ineffective, at worst. As David Brooks says in his book, The Road to Character, there are resume virtues and there are eulogy virtues. When you are making a key hire, you may want to be on the lookout for those eulogy virtues. But how do you find them out?

Different people do things differently and are driven by different values. Some aspects of work will be intrinsically rewarding for some but draining for others. People are also good at different things.

We believe that to be effective at hiring you need to take a blended approach.

No computer will ever be able to make a better decision about who to add to your team than you will, but you may want to take some psychometric data into consideration.

Getting the perspectives of other members of your team can be really helpful, but you don't want to conduct panel interviews.

Your instincts are important, but they shouldn't outweigh some other, more objective criteria.

Our methodology is to combine one-third data, one-third input from a team of subject matter experts, and one-third human instinct, wrapped in highly developed behavioral interviewing skills.

Invest in the Process

Already, you're probably noticing that in order to do this well, the time, energy, and money required may be more than you are willing to invest. Finding someone who will add to, not detract from, what you are trying to accomplish isn't easy.

Depending on your team size and your maturity in your growth lifecycle, your main strategy may be to use your personal network. On the other hand, you may not be generating enough candidates that way or you may feel like that pool has dried up. Your other options are online job advertising sites like Indeed, LinkedIn, and ZipRecruiter. If those don't work you can also hire a recruiting firm to conduct the search on your behalf.

You need to attract enough candidates to feel like you are getting to select the best person possible from a pool of excellent candidates. Every manager is different. The process is essentially an upside-down pyramid or a funnel. To get one person out at the bottom, how many applicants do you want to invite to a final round of interviews?

Three is probably the best number for this but in really competitive job markets you may need five final candidates.

In order to get a pool of 3-5 excellent final candidates, how many people will you need to invite to meet with your team for high-quality interviews? It's time-consuming to do it right, so you have to take that into consideration.  Can you afford to take the time to do it well with 10 candidates? 6? It's up to you and your team to decide this part.

Continuing our way up the funnel, in order to get 6-10 people to high-quality interviews with your hiring team, how many people do you need to conduct phone screens with? Twenty?

The step before the phone screen is the resume screen. How many applications do you want to read through and discard to get to the number of people who you will call on the phone for a 15-30 minute initial screen?

Remember, the whole point of this is to create a large enough field of talent for you to identify the best person who will be a strong addition to your already strong team. The cost of cutting corners or abbreviating this process is severe and we see it all the time. In fact, a lot of the work we get asked to do is to help turn around interpersonal conflict that could have been avoided by hiring well in the first place.

Again, the key is not to rush the process to try to fill your open position, it is to make sure you get where you are heading by being strict with yourself to not put the wrong person on the team in the first place.

Behavioral Interviewing Skills

The interview process is inherently flawed because the people who are applying for the job know they are being interviewed. People who aren't great performers at the actual job may be good at interviewing. It is a hoop they know they need to jump through in order to get to the prize on the other side, which is a steady income stream for them and one of the main liabilities you are trying to avoid as someone with P&L responsibility, a fixed expense!

The skillset you need to be proficient at in order to weed out the people who will drag your team down is asking questions about past performance, which is commonly called asking behavioral interviewing questions.

Are you looking for someone who is good at Customer Focus, who is strong at anticipating, meeting and/or exceeding customer needs, wants and expectations? You could prompt a candidate with, "Give me an example of when you went out of your way for a
customer. What was the outcome?"

Are you looking for someone who is highly collaborative, who is driven by being in a supporting role and contributing with little need for individual recognition? You could ask questions like, "What role has control played in your job satisfaction in your prior roles? Can you give me an example?" and, "How important is it for you to control your work environment? Please share an example of how you responded to a time when you were given direction by a boss that were not able to speak into."

Are you looking for someone who is consistent? Does your job require predictable performance in repetitive situations?
You could ask questions like, "In your current role, can you please give me two examples of how you have followed processes the same way every time? What about a time when you made changes to a process to fit your own style? Which of those examples felt more energizing to you?"

Stay focused on your number one job of saying no to someone who will not be a good fit for your team. It's easy to just want the process to be over, but you will pay for it later. As soon as you find one flaw in a candidate, eliminate them from the process and keep looking for someone better.

Making a Hiring Decision

When you get down to 3-5 candidates that you are having trouble making a decision between, you are in the best spot to be in. It won't necessarily feel good or be fun to decide who not to hire when you can easily imagine each of them on your team, but it is better than the alternative, to not have any good choices.

Now is the time to begin to feel excited about the reason you wanted to grow your team in the first place, you are almost there!

Schedule your final interviews, meet with your hiring team of subject matter experts, review the selection assessments and resumes for each candidate and your notes from the interview process so far.

If you can, rank your short-list in order of best to worst and go down the list, challenging your team to think of a reason not to hire each one. Remember, it would be a worse mistake to hire the wrong person than to pass on the right person.

Once you've decided, follow the instructions in The Effective Hiring Manager book on how to make the offer, which is outside the scope of this article.

Next, you need to bring them onto your team effectively and empower them to help you get to that opportunity you saw!

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