Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street

Our episode 5 will help you focus on solving your #1 problem: hiring. Our abstract of Who: The A Method for Hiring (2008) presents the “A method” devised by G. Smart and R. Street at ghSMART to put the right people in place for maximum success. Hiring is “the single biggest problem in business today”, according to The Economist. The book targets everybody who needs to hire high-level “A Players” to make the necessary what decisions and execute them.

Geoff Smart founded his company ghSMART in 1995. Randy Street joined him as a partner and now heads the ghSMART Executive Learning Business Unit. Together they have been helping companies make better who decisions for many years. Before they set about writing this book, they conducted a large statistical study to help understand what types of candidates are successful performers. Their method is generally recognised as one of the most effective. It is widely used by managers and entrepreneurs all over the world.

Hiring is every company’s number one problem, yet managers use the wrong approaches to hiring 

When it comes to hiring, managers often still rely on a series of bad habits. For example, they continue to rely on CVs, even though CVs are “a record of a person’s career with all the accomplishments embellished and all the failures removed”. They often regard hiring as a mysterious black art with many secrets. They rely on “voodoo hiring” methods, among which: 

  • The Art Critic approach consists in trusting one’s guts: it may work fine for judging art works but it’s terribly inaccurate when it comes to hiring.
  • The Sponge approach is a common approach among busy managers who believe the more people will interview the candidates, the more reliable the hiring decisions will be. Unfortunately, if all these efforts are not coordinated, everybody will ask the same superficial questions, and no relevant information can be gathered.
  • The Prosecutor approach relies on the idea that tricky questions will reveal a candidate’s true potential. They don’t. “Knowledge and ability to do the job are not the same thing”.
  • The Suitor approach consists in spending all of one’s energy selling the applicant on the opportunity. It doesn’t involve any listening.
  • The Trickster approach, like the Prosecutor approach is not very useful. Tricks don’t work. You can’t get to know someone that way.
  • The Animal Lover approach consists in stubbornly holding on to one’s favourite pet questions, even though those questions have never been proved effective.
  • The Chatterbox approach is when every interview is turned to a friendly chat. It may be nice, but it doesn’t help collecting information about the candidate’s ability to perform on the job.
  • The Psychological and Personality Tester approach is believed to be more professional, but the truth is many savvy candidates can easily fake the answers.
  • The Aptitude Tester approach can at times be useful, but can never be sufficient: aptitude is only one part of a much larger equation.
  • The Fortune Teller approach consists in relying on hypothetical questions (“What would you do if…?”). Unfortunately we’re all prone to cognitive traps: it’s hard to see people for who they really are.

If you are willing to abandon all these ineffective “voodoo” approaches, the good news is there are clearer paths that can lead you out of the “hiring mess”...

There are 4 steps to finding A players for your teams 

A players are the only kinds of players you should want to recruit. Here’s how they are defined by Smart and Street: “a candidate who has at least a 90% chance of achieving a set of outcomes that only the top 10% of possible candidates can achieve”. They must also be a perfect fit for the culture of your company.

Hiring these players takes hard work because you have to dig hard, ask tough questions and sometimes be prepared to question your assumptions. ghSMART’s hiring methods relies on 4 essential steps:

  • Scorecard: it is the document that describes exactly what you want a person to accomplish in a role. It is not a simple job description, but rather a set of (measurable) outcomes and competencies that define a job well done.
  • Source: it is a permanent discipline and habit: systematic sourcing before you have slots to fill ensures you will have high-quality candidates waiting for you when you actually need them. 
  • Select: it is critical to break to voodoo hiring spell and rely instead on a series of structured interviews that will allow you to gather all the relevant information.
  • Sell: once the right players are identified, they must be persuaded to join the company. It’s anything but obvious and requires earnest effort!

Always start with the scorecard 

Scorecards are any company’s “blueprint for success”, according to Smart and Street. When companies don’t bother to define what they want before they begin the hiring process, they are doomed to fail and hire the wrong person for the job. “In hiring, everything is situational and no situation is entirely replicable”.

The scorecard must be composed of three parts: 

  • The job’s mission: write an executive summary of the job’s core purpose in plain language, be clear and simple for everyone in the company (and for outside recruiters) to understand. You have a good mission when no one asks for further clarification. Every mission is specific. Putting it in writing helps you understand you don’t need to hire the “all-around athlete”.
  • The outcomes: set out the outcomes high enough (but still within reason) that you’ll scare off all the B and C players even as you pull in the kind of A players who enjoy exciting challenges. For sales jobs, the outcomes must be quantified. In other cases, the outcomes must be made as objective and observable as possible. The employees thus hired will know exactly what they will be judged on.
  • The required competencies: list the behavioural elements that will make the candidate a good fit for the mission and the company. How is the new hire expected to operate to fulfil his or her job? Cultural misfits affect the bottom line so it’s vital to make it clear what it means to be a good “fit”.

“The beauty of the scorecard is that they are not just documents used in hiring. They become the blueprint that links the theory of strategy to the reality of execution.”

Never stop sourcing

To generate a flow of A players, successful executives can’t afford to let recruiting be a one-time event, or even something they only do now and then. They are constantly sourcing, constantly on the lookout for new talent. 

The number one method is to ask for referrals from your personal and professional networks. It’s often been proved to be the most effective way to find the best candidates. 77% of industry leaders interviewed for this book believed referrals to be the best way to generate a flow of relevant candidates.

Being constantly on the lookout for new talent means systematically asking the people you meet: “Who are the most talented people you know that I should hire?”. Talented people generally know other talented people and they’re often happy to pass on their names.

Referrals from employees have proved again and again to be a unique source of excellent hires. They are necessarily well-targeted because employees know the company’s culture and values better than outsiders. Involving employees in sourcing and recruiting is highly beneficial to the company.

“By turning employees into talent setters, everyone starts viewing the business through a who lens, not just a what lens”.

Structure your selection process

Traditional interviewing is not predictive of job performance. The ghSMART method offers to structure the selection process through a series of 4 interviews. Precious time must be used intelligently to collect relevant facts and data about the candidate’s  performance track record.

1. The screening interview is the first step. It is a short phone-based interview (no more than 30 minutes) destined to sort the obvious mismatches and save everyone a lot of time. Even screening interviews must be structured. Here are the questions that should be asked during the screening interview:

  • What are your career goals?
  • What are you good at professionally?
  • What are you not good at or not interested in doing professionally?
  • Who were your last 5 bosses and how would they each rate your performance on a 1-10 scale when we talk to them?

2. The Who interview is a thorough structured interview meant to unveil patterns in a candidate’s career history. It is the most reliable predictor of performance that consists in a chronological walkthrough of a person’s career. For each job, the following questions should be asked:

  • What were you hired to do?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What were your low points during that job?
  • What was your boss’s name and how do you spell his name? What was it like working for him / her? What will he / she tell me were your biggest strengths?
  • How would you rate the team you inherited on an A, B, C scale? What changes did you make? Did you hire anybody? Fire anybody? How would you rate the team when you left it on an A, B, C scale?
  • Why did you leave the job?

When you walk the candidate through his / her career history chronologically, you get to understand the events as they actually happened. The threat of reference checks makes the candidate more honest. 

Typically, a Who interview can take as many as three hours to conduct. “For every hour you spend in the Who interview, you’ll save hundreds of hours by not dealing with C players. The return on your time is staggeringly high”.

Understanding why a candidate left his / her previous jobs is essential. A players are pulled to greater opportunities whereas C players are often pushed out of their jobs. That is why unveiling the patterns provides precious information about a candidate.

3. The focused interview is meant to gather additional specific information about the candidate. It focuses on one (or several) of the outcomes and competencies on the scorecard:

  • What were your biggest accomplishments in this area?
  • What are your insights into your biggest mistakes and lessons learned in this area?

After each answer, the interviewer should get curious and ask What? How? Tell me more! follow-up questions. There can be several focused interviews to double-check if the candidate is indeed a good cultural fit for the company.

4. The reference interviews are for testing everything learned during the previous interviews. Don’t skip the references! At least seven different references should always be interviewed: 3 bosses, 2 peers or customers and 2 subordinates:

  • In what context did you work with this person?
  • What were the person’s biggest strengths?
  • What were the person’s biggest areas for improvement back then?
  • How would you rate his/ her overall performance on a 1-10 scale? Why?
  • The person mentioned that he / she struggled with …in that job. Can you tell me more about that?

With references, the absence of enthusiasm is a terrible sign. 

Make the right hiring choices

The goal of the select steps of the A Method is to gather enough facts to decide if somebody’s skills (what they can do) and will (what they want to do) match your scorecard. An A player is someone whose skill AND will match exactly what’s on the scorecard. That is what the authors call the “skill-will bull’s eye”.

There are a series of red flags that can help you dive beneath the surface and determine for sure is someone is a mismatch:

  • When the candidate does not mention past failures
  • When the candidate speaks badly of previous bosses
  • When the candidate cannot explain his / her job moves
  • When the candidate blames others for his / her lack of success in something

After the whole selection process, you have graded each candidate based on relevant information and based on their scorecards. Hire only those who have straight As!

To seal the deal, don’t forget to sell the job and the company!

You are not finished until your ideal candidate becomes an employee (and even then it’s not really finished because he / she can still leave). The key is to put yourself is your candidate’s shoes. There are 5 Fs that each person cares about when it comes to choosing a job:

  • Fit: the most important point to sell: candidates look for roles where they can be A players, where their goals and ambition match the company’s vision and strategy. They want to make an impact and feel needed. 
  • Family: always welcome the family and make them feel at home. Sometimes the family can be an obstacle, but they can be turned into an ally.
  • Freedom: A players don’t like being micromanaged. They look for positions where they’ll be left alone to excel. “Freedom matters to today’s workforce, and especially to the most valuable among them”.
  • Fortune: probably not the most important element, but salary, bonuses and benefits are part of the equation.
  • Fun: fun depends on the company’s culture. If there’s a fit, it’s an essential selling point.

Selling requires constant attention. It’s something that should be done with persistence throughout the entire process. Even when the candidate accepts, selling isn’t over, because research suggests many new hires often leave in the first 100 days.

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