It was the most gut-wrenching moment of my life.
I was young, inexperienced, and ill-prepared. Our company was young, full of hope, but lacking revenue.
It was a recipe for disaster, and I was the cook.
So I sat in front of a dozen good people, preparing to deliver words I’d rehearsed many times but that now seemed so insensitive. All eyes were on me, and everyone knew something was wrong. They were about to be laid off, and I was the one to do it.
I’ll save the details of this lay-off, the preparation it entailed, the emotion, and the end-results for another article (subscribe and receive it directly to your inbox when it’s published). It is, after all, important to handle these things appropriately, sensitively, professionally should you find yourself in the same situation.
More importantly, however, is to look at how and why it happened to begin with.
You see, these people had tried their best, worked hard, and done some good things for us during their employment. They were professional, ethical, and eager to please.
At the end of the day, they simply didn’t fit our company. Moreover, it all boiled down to one thing… a different moment in time before this layoff:
The moment we decided to hire them.
Hiring The Best is Hard
If this layoff taught me anything, it’s that hiring a good employee is easy.
But we’re not looking for good, are we?
We are looking for great. We are looking for the best!
If this layoff taught me anything else, it’s that hiring the best of the best is incredibly difficult.
The best people have qualities that are hard to quantify. They not only have the skills and experience, but they also have the motivation to always be their best, the drive to help the company succeed, the aptitude to learn new skills, and character to lead the charter for which they were hired.
These are the “A players.” These are the employees that make a difference in your organization. They solve the unsolvable problems, they jump in and help where help is needed, and they are instrumental in helping drive new business.
So how do you consistently hire A players in your organization? Before I tell you that, let me share with you the worst way to hire so you never do it again.
The Worst Way to Hire
The typical hiring strategy—the one that my company started out with and the one that I’ve seen most companies employ—is based on two simple criteria:
- Does the candidate have the skills I’m looking for?
- Does the candidate have the experience I’m looking for?
Managers using this strategy sift through resume after resume, looking for keywords and job titles that fit as closely as possible to the job for which they’re being hired. If they’ve got 3 years of experience, they might work.
5 years? Even better.
15? They’ll cost too much.
10 years? Bring them in for an interview!
The interview itself is simple. The candidate comes in and fills out a job application. You “get to know them” and ask a few questions. Maybe some questions you’ve read online. Others are ad-hoc. After 60 minutes of chatting, they meet a few team members and get sent on their way.
If there’s a decision process for the candidate, it’s mostly a formality… you’ve already decided whether they are going to be a good fit, likely upon first impressions.
Hopefully not, because this is the one of the worst ways to hire.
Why Experience and Skills Matter (to a Small Degree)
Experience and skills are valuable to a degree. These things help new candidates hit the ground running, help them make informed decisions, and help them fit in with the team.
But in many cases, hiring someone with a particular set of skills for a specific job at hand pigeon-holes them into this role for their tenure at your company. They will find it difficult to branch out, help in other areas, and won’t be the type of person that takes it upon themselves to gather new skills and experiences.
In other words, this hiring process will land you a few good employees. Maybe even a few A-players. But this process doesn’t land the best and the brightest consistently. More often than not, a B-player sneaks through.
And while B-players are good, they’re not great. What’s worse, B-players never attract A-players… and many times attract C-players. Do you see where this is going?
With just a few of these on board, they will drag down your culture and efficiency, increase your cost, and balloon your schedules.
It’s that same recipe for disaster I found myself in above. This time, though, you’ll be the cook.
Hacking and Hiring
To be Mr. Obvious, we want to avoid that situation at all costs. But how do you do that?
How do you consistently hire people who do great work every day, who make your company successful, who look for ways to grow and expand themselves and your organization?
Let me tell a story of how I went from laying off good people to hiring great ones. It’s a story about how I stumbled into a new way of recruiting that changed our business, our culture, our effectiveness, and our productivity.
This discovery wasn’t a new one. It’s a process top companies in the world—companies like Google, Apple, and Proctor & Gamble—use to find high performers.
Everyone has a different name for it. We called it, “hiring for aptitude.”
Our company was in the business of professional hacking. We took our customer's computer systems, broke into them, then wrote up reports of the vulnerabilities we found and ways they could protect their systems from attack.
We had a small, dynamic team and were growing fast. So we posted job requirements on all the typical online hiring websites, pulled ads in the local newspaper, and contacted universities.
Our job requirements listed certain skills… skills that we quickly discovered were easy to find. Unfortunately, these skills also came with certain personal characteristics that we couldn’t stomach: lack of ethics, highly egotistical and, in general, bad actors.
I recall some phone interviews we held with candidates bragging about their attempts to break into government systems or innocent peoples’ personal computers. Their skills were impressive, their character wasn’t.
I couldn’t get them off the phone fast enough.
We couldn’t hire those people. We couldn’t bring them in. They weren’t going to be professionals. They were going to get themselves and our company into trouble.
How did we get around this issue?
We created a test.
This test was a set of problems that mirrored the problems we typically solved for our customers.
We wanted to find out whether somebody had both skills and the ability to learn how to get the job done. If we could find the right problem-solving skills, we could find a professional candidate, an ethical candidate who maybe didn't have the experience, but had the technological background and the ability to solve any problem we threw at them.
We call this the hacker aptitude test and it was awesome.
It started off minimal, and we enhanced it over time as we better understood how to assess the aptitude of each candidate. Interestingly enough, we found that there were far more people who had the talent for hacking than there were actual hackers. They didn’t have the experience, and that was OK. We knew with their technology, background, and mindset, they would fit in great and begin solving problems in all areas of our business.
We were hiring smart. We were hiring for aptitude.
Why Does This Matter?
But, you say, I don’t run a company of computer hackers. How does this matter at all to what I do?
I have good news: We’ve applied this “hiring for aptitude” concept to other companies and found it works great. In fact, Google (widely considered an expert at finding extremely high-quality candidates) spoke with Wired.com about their hiring practices. The result is a fascinating article entitled Here's Google's Secret to Hiring the Best People discussing Google’s VP of Operations’ experience with different types of recruitment.
The Value of 6 Various Interview Techniques to Employee Performance Over Time
In short, 6 variables in the interview process explain a candidates’ performance over time: unstructured interview questions, reference checks, years of work experience, a work sample test, cognitive ability, and structured interview questions. The last three (work sample test, cognitive ability, and structured interview questions) explain a full 81% of the hires performance over time.
Unstructured interviews? Only 14%.
I think this sums up nicely why anyone should consider building a new interview process. The current way most companies hire means they are only 14% likely to get an A-player on board. But if we shift to hiring for aptitude, we can have an 81% capture rate.
In a nutshell, once you stop worrying about the skills and experiences your job candidates have and start focusing on their ability to solve the types of problems your company faces daily, you will build a team of A-players that can be deployed on almost any project, put in front of any customer, and learn new skills that will carry your company into a successful future.
So how do you go about hiring for aptitude? Let’s build the process from the ground up.
1. List Your Problems
Get out a pen and paper and list your problems.
List the problems your company runs into on a daily basis. List the problems your customers bring to you. List the kinds of problems your engineers grapple with when building your companies’ products. If you are hiring for a specific position (e.g., Software Engineer), list the problems they are going to have to solve for foreseeable projects and in general.
Don’t just focus on the problems you need for one position. List ALL the problems you face.
Do all this BEFORE posting your job.
Without these problems listed, you really don’t know who you are hiring. Your job posting may be specific, but it will be specific to a title and not ability (e.g., Engineering Manager, Documentation Specialist, etc.) You’ll find yourself looking for skills and experiences. But we want to look for the aptitude to learn and grow and build a better company with you.
Your list is going to be the basis for your aptitude test, your structured interview questions, and your entire hiring strategy for bringing on the A-players you need to succeed.
2. List Your Candidates Required Problem Solving Skills
With a good understanding of the problems you are faced with on a daily basis, think about the kinds of problem-solving skills your candidate will need to have to assist in resolving those challenges.
Be careful with this one… you’re not listing raw skills like “knows how to use Microsoft Office” or “can program in Java,” you’re listing problem-solving skills such as persistence, out-of-the-box thinking, drive, ability to find new information quickly, flexibility, etc.
Remember, if you ask for candidates with specific skill sets like Microsoft Office, you’ll get them.
What you won’t get are the candidates that know how to solve your problems using faster/better/cheaper tools. What you won’t get are candidates who know that your problem may already be solved. What you won’t get are candidates who can think independently, take appropriate risks, and drive forward to get the job done.
3. Map These Problem Solving Skills to Questions
Here is where we begin development of your interview and the aptitude test.
For our “Hacker Aptitude Test,” we went searching for Mensa type puzzles that represented the kind of thinking we needed in computer hackers, namely persistence, creative thinking, and the ability to unstick themselves from a path of thinking that’s not working.
For your aptitude test, you will use your listed problems above to think about abstract questions you can ask candidates that will give you a good feeling for whether they will be able to solve your problems, and any future problems your company can throw at them.
Let’s take software engineer as an example. In the past, you may have specifically asked for a “Java programmer with a math background and 5 years of experience.” Now you are looking for someone who can build math software that runs on any computer. Your test may have some of the following types of questions to find just those candidates:
- Math problems of varying difficulty levels
- An open-ended question asking the candidate to list programming languages they know will create programs for any computer, or where to find such programming languages.
- Show them a program one of your current employees has created that is similar. Ask your candidate to explain what’s happening. More importantly, ask your candidate to make changes to the program to make it more efficient or explain why it can’t be made so.
4. Create Your Test
Now comes the easy part. Creating your test.
I recommend having multiple sections to your test that embody the different characteristics you’d like to see in your candidates.
Put all your questions together in a single test that you will give to each new job applicant that comes through the door. Weight each test question based on how important each problem is to your business.
Our test looked like this, yours can be structured similarly:
Section 1 – Skills
Here we asked specific questions about the candidates hacking skills, computer programming skills, computer architecture skills, etc. We wanted to know what they already knew about computer hacking.
You will ask questions unique to the skills for which you are hiring. Find out what they already know about the types of problems your company has to solve.
Weight answers in this sections low… no more than 15% of the total test. The thing about skills is that you can always train your candidate for the specific skills you need them to have. You are more interested in the next two sections.
Section 2 – Cognitive Ability
Questions in this section need to get to the root of how candidates think. This is a bit of an IQ test, with IQ-test-like-questions.
If you can, create cognitive questions that align to the types of problem-solving skills you defined above. For example, if out-of-the-box thinking is required for your work, find some questions that exercise this thinking.
Weight this section high. Over 25%. You want candidates that have quality thinking when faced with unknown problems. For specific work-related problems, we should look to the next section.
Section 3 – Problem-Solving
You are asking your candidates to do one thing in this section: prove that they have the ability to solve the types of problems related to your work.
Take some time to design questions that force your candidate to “perform” the kind of work they would have to perform on the job. For our software engineering example, it’s easy… ask them to create a computer program (either on paper or live).
For other types of jobs, ask them to describe how they would solve a particular kind of problem you are faced with. Better yet, have them do it live.
Score this section high. Over 25%. You want candidates that show an aptitude for doing the type of work you’ll expect them to do on the job.
Section 4 – Experience Questions
The final section gets to the bottom of their experience. You’re not going to weight this section high. Less than 15% I’d recommend. Their previous experience is less important than their future performance. However, this section will help you gauge whether the experience they listed on their resume was accurate and relevant to your job requirements.
Section 5 – Structured Interview Questions
Drill your candidate here with questions you’ve designed up front to get to the bottom of their character. You want to find out what they’re all about, how they work, when they get frustrated, what they do about it, etc.
If you’ve had problems with past employees, ask them specific questions that will indicate whether similar problems will surface with this employee.
If you’ve had great experiences with past and current employees, put those questions on here too.
At the end of this section, you want to have a solid understanding of how the candidate will interact with your team, how they will work under pressure, how they will deal with unknown situations, etc.
Weight this section high, over 25%. Teamwork and character are far more important than years of experience or skills that can be taught.
Having gone through the above steps, you should have a solid framework for a new interview process that lands you A-players.
Yes, it will take some up-front work and planning. It will take thought and development. But the time you will save when your new employee hits the ground running will be orders of magnitude more than the time you will lose developing this interview process to begin with.
Hiring great employees cannot be an afterthought. It takes foresight and dedication. I hope this guide has given you the tools you need to stop bringing good people onboard and instead start bringing on the best.
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About the Author
CO-FOUNDER | TECHNOLOGY, PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT, MARKETING, AND SALES
Michael Mehlberg helps small businesses owners achieve their goals and live their passion. His approach to technology, corporate strategy, product development, marketing, and sales is both practical and highly effective, and has helped multiple small businesses grow into the company their owners envisioned. Reach out by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org or learn more on our About page.