How to hire: Get a system. Use it. (Part 1 of 2)

When you have a vacant position on your team, filling it is the most important thing on your plate. Truly, it is. Get the right person, and get ’em to work. The almost-right person will drag the whole team down and eat up all your time.

This article is not about psychological profiling or the best tricky interview questions or how to set salaries. These are suggestions for how to make the process as smooth and systematic as possible, to help guarantee the best results every time. I am going to describe a process that I developed as a middle manager. It worked well for me and my team. Every time we were able to hire a new position, or refill a vacancy, I pulled out this process and we followed it.

First off, understand that finding a new full-time, in-house person and getting them in place is a project with standard steps. Manage it like you would any other important project. Give yourself a timeline. If you don’t have a candidate waiting in the wings (something to aspire to), it can take 3 months to get a new full-time, in-house person in place, often longer. Here are the main steps of the process, and why it takes so long:

  • Scope the position, write/revise job description, post position: 1 week
  • Market and network for applicants, allow applicants to respond: 2 weeks
  • Complete phone/video screening interviews: 1 week
  • Schedule and complete in-person interviews with top candidates: 2 weeks
  • Make the offer, negotiate salary, set start date: 1 or 2 weeks
  • Wait for the start date: 2 weeks or more

That’s 10 weeks. And this is the short version. (Of course, the more senior the position you are hiring, the longer all these steps can take. And the more likely it is you are using a recruiter or other expert resources.)

So, for this high-stakes project that is to be managed wisely and tightly, here are my recommendations for how to do it well:

Start with a formal meeting with Human Resources. HR should see you as the most serious and hard-working hiring manager they have. And you want HR to do as much of this work for you as possible. Work with HR to draft an interesting and specific job description. With specific requirements, HR can screen out a lot of candidates who are not a good fit. Help HR learn what is important to you for your next new team member, in skills, attitude, knowledge, experience. (No HR? More freedom! More work on you!)

Sell the position in the job description and in ads and postings. This is talent branding.  The job needs to be worth a great person changing his or her life to join your team. Fresh and motivating is what you want.

  • Move that horribly dull boilerplate language to the end. Better yet, get permission to take most of it out.Marketing 101: Speak directly to the candidate. Use the word “you.” Instead of “The successful candidate will manage projects related to population health improvement,” say “You will design and lead cutting-edge initiatives that will measurably improve the health of our community.” See the difference?
  • Describe the exact position, including what success looks like, not just a list of duties.
  • Describe the organization in its most inspiring light. But don’t lie. If they come for “ground-breaking” but get “herd-following,” they may not stay. Or if they stay, they get to resent you for misleading them.
  • Describe the team and its work: “We rely on each others’ wit and commitment to make things happen. We never stop moving.” Or whatever is exciting and true.
  • For inspiration, check out other job listings, in and outside of your industry.
  • For guidance and examples, search “talent branding” or “talent marketing.”

Market and network the position big and all at once. Let’s call it the Position Promotion Push. This is a big one. You need to lead a big, exciting, coordinated push to get the news of your open position in the right hands.

Here is what happens if you don’t do this: Some okay-but-not-great people apply. One or two good candidates apply, but not as many as you need. You interview people, but you aren’t sure you want to offer the job to any of them. … You hedge, you re-circulate, interviewing continues. … One of your top two gets the message that she’s not a slam-dunk match for your needs. … She takes another job so you lose her. … You are stuck in a cycle of almost-good-enough and let’s-do-one-more.  Avoid this agonizing time-wasting spiral. Get all the best applicants at once, so you can choose between the top candidates, and quickly.

For more on the moves to make as part of the Position Promotion Push, see the second article in this series.

For interviews, hold blocks of time in your calendar, and in the calendars of team members and senior leaders participating in interviews. This is such a simple step, but in a meeting-heavy organization, failure to do this could delay interviews by two weeks or more. Be clear with any C-suite interviewers that you want to stick to a tight timeline. Don’t lose great candidates, or sit there with that desk empty, because you couldn’t get time in people’s calendars.

For all interviews, including initial screenings by you or HR, develop a hiring guide. I like the book Who: The A Method for Hiring, by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. What I like about Who (“ … you keep me warm at niiiight, yeah!”):

  • The model instructs you to write out measurable goals for the first months and the first year of this person’s tenure. This helps you be more clear about what you really need this person to do to be a high performer, which helps you be more objective in assessing experience and skills.
  • The advice on reference checks helps make this step of the process much more useful than usual (the usual being not very useful at all).

Have the position’s peers interview top 2 or 3 candidates. Use specific questions and guidelines. Peers should interview for culture fit as well as aptitude for specific role responsibilities. Clearly define this culture with your team before these interviews. This will help you be clear about what you are looking for, and will help reduce the bias for “people who look and talk like us” that is easy to fall into when interviewing for a future peer.

Have a quick huddle with your team members who interviewed the top people. Use a structured (structured!) discussion of pros/cons of top 2 or 3, while making it clear that it’s your decision, not a group decision. Keep it short and tight and the comments as objective as possible. You don’t want people to hold back on fair concerns in this huddle. You also don’t want the new hire to hear “Well, Jason said we shouldn’t hire you.” With my team, I always said something like “If it works out like we want it to, we will be working with one of these people soon. So try to be objective here.”

And there you have it. Some ideas for how to take hiring from what can feel like a one-time hassle (every time it happens), to a systematic process with scripted moves. Nothing is more important to your success, and to how much fun you can have at work, than the people you work with. A clear process can make hiring much less stressful and exhausting, and give better results. 

Do check out the supporting article about the Position Promotion Push. There are some good ideas there, too.