A Secret Recipe for Hiring Top Performers

My first search project (40 years ago) was for a plant manager for an automotive manufacturing company. Rather than listing a bunch of the skills and experience prerequisites, I suggested to the company president that we walk through the plant. After 45 minutes, we identified half a dozen major problems that needed fixing within the first 6-9 months to meet a major production increase, which became the job description.

Three weeks later, the company hired a plant manager who had a track record of turning around manufacturing plants with similar problems. He did the same thing at this company and became VP of Operations within two years.

On another search a few years later, a fast-growing software company needed a controller. Rather than using a job description, I asked the VP of Finance what he wanted the controller to accomplish during the first year. One major task was to upgrade the accounting department to set the foundation for going public within 18 months. Another one was to establish an internal financial management reporting and budgeting system. The candidate they hired had accomplished something very similar at a much larger manufacturing company, but wanted to make the shift to software and services. He succeeded and later became the VP of Finance.

This same process was repeated 1,500 times at my search firm over a 25-year-span with similar results. Only 5% of these people had to be replaced during the first year per the terms of our guarantee using this approach. While 10% of the remaining fell short of our predicted performance, over 50% of these people were promoted within two years.

It took about 100-200 placements to get all of the steps figured out and most of the problems were attributed to skipping a step or two. Here are the steps if you’d like to try it out for yourself. You’ll discover that if you don’t skip any, you’ll attract stronger people and more accurately predict their on-the-job performance.

12 steps to follow in order to hire high-performing candidates:

  1. Define the job, not the person, when opening a new requisition. This includes at least one or two major projects, tasks or accomplishments. For each of these, use action verbs (e.g., build, upgrade, design), the deliverable, some measure of success, and the time-frame.
  2. Build a beginning to end timeline describing the major sub tasks required to achieve the major objective. For example, one early one for the controller was, “Conduct an operational audit of the existing reporting and accounting system within 60 days to develop the detailed upgrade plan.”
  3. Highlight the top 2-3 challenges and tie them to a major project or company initiative. Use a form of this to create the emails you’ll be sending to the best people you find on LinkedIn. Don’t post your internal job descriptions or include any generic boilerplate describing how awesome and perfect your company is.
  4. After conducting a thorough work history review, ask candidates who are reasonably qualified to describe a major accomplishment most related to the biggest job challenge. Then have the person walk you step-by-step through how they started, managed and completed the project.
  5. If the process for achieving the accomplishment is comparable to what you need done, do the same thing for all the other accomplishments in subsequent interviews.
  6. Consider those who have achieved the most comparable accomplishments as hirable. Use a formal Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard to collect the evidence from each interviewer to make this assessment.
  7. Offer the job to the person who would see the job as a worthy short and long term career move and who is most intrinsically motivated to do the actual work that needs to be done.
  8. Before making the offer, ask the person if he/she really wants that job ignoring the compensation. If yes, have the person tell you why. If the answer is vague and general, don’t make the offer. A good answer involves the person describing why the job represents a career move, details about the people he/she will be working with, and areas the person finds intrinsically motivating.
  9. If the person balks at your offer, say, “Don’t make long term career decisions using short term information.” As long as your offer is fair and competitive, the person will accept your offer for the right reasons.
  10. Before the person starts, make sure you meet him/her at least once or twice to review the challenges of the job and to start the planning process in detail.
  11. During the on boarding process, review and clarify the performance objectives and timeline in detail so that job expectations are fully understood.
  12. During the year, manage the person to the timeline.

If you do the above exactly as described, 85% of the people you hire will be great hires.

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