flashback friday: easy or great?

It’s been said that you become like the five people you spend the most time with. Is that good news?

Did the last person you hire make you think, “Man, I’m going to have to raise my game! I love being around people who inspire my best!” OR did you think, “I’m glad that slot’s filled. Next.”

The people you’re filling the company with – the people you’re surrounding yourself with – are pulling you up or dragging you down. There is no neutral, there is no holding steady – they are forcing you to be better or letting you slack. Do you go for easy and comfortable or do you go for greatness?


[This was originally posted on July 31, 2012.]

statistics can’t predict the individual

That position you’re trying to fill? All those candidates you’re interviewing and assessing, scrutinizing and evaluating to find the very best person for the job? I’ve got some bad news for you.

I’ve probably never met you. Certainly don’t know the position you’re trying to fill or the candidates you’re looking for but I do know one thing. It is impossible to predict whether an individual will excel at the job or not. Can’t be done.

We want to. We want to know that we’re hiring the right person. We want to believe we can look them over and just know. Hiring managers think they can tell something by the way a person shakes hands or looks them in the eye or where they went to school or their GPA in Junior High or how nicely dressed they are or where they have worked in the past or the recommendation of a friend of a friend’s friend. Vendors really want us to believe that if we purchase their assessment, their interview guide, their hiring secrets book that we’ll suddenly know the perfect match for the job. But, no matter how good we are overall, we can’t predict the outcome of any one individual.

If you go to a doctor and get diagnosed with a life endangering disease, the doctor cannot predict your chance of survival. This is important: they can only tell you the survival rate of people with a similar set of symptoms. They can tell you that, as a group, X% survive, but they cannot tell you your exact chance of survival. There are just too many individually specific factors at play such as genetics, skill of the doctor/medical facility, resources, your state of mind, willingness to fight, etc. Statistics can’t predict the individual.

Credit scores are used to predict how likely someone is to pay their debt based on past history, current debt load, etc. The strongest we can say is that people with X credit score tend to be a safe credit risk. But it can’t say how likely an individual is to pay their debt. Again, there are just too many uncontrollable variables: a person with a great credit score might lose their job, have a financially catastrophic medical emergency, go through an ugly divorce, develop a drug habit – who knows? Likewise, although people with low credit scores tend to be more of a credit risk, it’s impossible to predict what a specific person with a low credit score will do. After all, there are plenty of people with low credit scores who are determined to turn it around. Statistics can’t predict the individual.

I can tell you that the average height of a professional basketball player is right at about 6’7” (thank you Wikipedia). I don’t know much about basketball, but I do know that height is an advantage. Yet, there have been 24 NBA players shorter than 5’9” including Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy who was right at 5’9” and 5’3” (!) Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues. Statistically speaking, there’s no chance of a 5’3” person being successful, but statistics can’t predict individual results. Again, too many variables, including talent, drive, determination, creativity, etc. The strongest we can say is that the most successful people in the NBA tend to be tall, averaging 6’7” but we cannot say that any particular individual will be successful l due to their height. Statistics can’t predict the individual.

“Improves the odds.” That’s really all a good hiring system does. We try to accurately identify demands of the job and skills, knowledge, and experience required to be successful at the job. They we try it identify people who might have a chance at being successful and we measure a lot of different things in different ways and try to remove any evaluator  bias from the process (or at least cancel it out). All this to try to determine which of the candidates is most likely to be successful.

“Most likely to be successful.” That’s it. A great selection system will do a good job of identifying who is most likely to be successful BUT it cannot predict that any particular person will be successful. There are just too many other factors. We try to minimize those other factors with a well thought out selection system, but there are still too many uncontrollable variables. Someone who was a superstar might have family troubles, not get along with their boss, or not fit well with the company culture. And, there’re those who get weeded out by the select system but would have been fantastic.

Does this mean we shouldn’t create rigorous hiring processes? Just the opposite. I am a very strong believer in minimizing the variables and improving the odds when hiring. The more data and the more measures and the bigger the sample size, the more accurately we can predict. But, despite all the best efforts, there may be some who just don’t work out and there may be some phenomenal people that get missed.

Statistics can’t predict the individual.

hiring by proxy?

A huge challenge we face whenever hiring someone is that we can never have perfect information. No matter how big of a rock star a candidate was in their last position, we have no idea what the future holds or if their skills, interests, and personality will mesh with the job, co-workers, and the company. And that’s assuming that we know they were great. Most often we don’t.

What if they were a diamond in the rough in a past job, just held back by a lousy boss, poor job match, or personal issues they’ve since gotten past? What if they were so bad that their boss and co-workers give them glowing references just to get rid of them? [Yes, it happens. I even once had a team supervisor tell me that whenever they got a bad general manager, everyone would pull together and work hard to make the GM look great so the GM would get promoted and transferred. Apparently, getting a terrible boss promoted was easier than getting them fired.]

Not only will we never truly know what they were like in the past, there are few jobs where we can try them out. Sometimes we can do job simulations, but those can be tricky and still not provide good information. So, we end up using proxy measures where we measure one attribute in the hope and belief that it provides us information about another characteristic.

Assessments are proxy measures. We measure general cognitive ability in the belief that higher scores equates better performance. We assess personality because we think it gives us some sort of insight into their character and cultural fit. We test integrity hoping that there is a good enough correlation between what people say on paper and how they behave in real life. We do drug tests in the thought that if they are straight and sober today they will always be that way.

Past experiences are proxy measures. And dangerous ones because they are heavily influenced by our own biases. We give too much weight to people being just like us (because we rock, so anyone like us should too) or just like our best employees. For example, some managers want the candidates to have a college degree even if it’s unrelated to the job because of what the manager thinks attaining a degree demonstrates. Or they want someone who played high school sports because of what they think it demonstrates. Or, they want someone who comes to the interview dressed to the nines. Or, they think any employment gaps are inexcusable. Or, or, or… Yes, these might demonstrate a person’s commitment, drive, determination, ability to work with others, set and achieve goals, etc. Or it might just demonstrate that they were able to survive off their parent’s money and binge drink for four years. Or that their parents required them to play sports and they loathed every minute of it and only finished because of their parents constant pressure. Or that they are all flash and no substance. Or that they took advantage of being young and unencumbered and traveled (and are far more mature and focused because of it). Or not. It could mean lots of things and we run the risk of overemphasising it’s significance.

As philosopher Alan Watts noted, “the map is not the territory.” The measure of the attribute is not the attribute itself. Proxy measures are useful because it’s often the best that we can do, but it’s important to remember that: 1) it might be measuring something other than what we think it measures; 2) it’s easy to forget that it’s a substitute for the real thing and just an approximation; 3) it can be heavily influenced by our own biases and prejudices. In other words, a candidate who excels on the proxy measures could still be a lousy employee and the candidate who does poorly could still be a superstar waiting to be discovered.

Your thoughts?

tale of two burritos

Customer service makes or breaks a business and good enough just isn’t. This weekend, I ended up having burritos from two competing franchises. Let’s call them Good Burrito and Better Burrito. Both offer super fresh ingredients, make them with specifically the ingredients and toppings you ask for, are pretty quick, and are very tasty. I never really thought about the differences until sampling them back to back.

Good Burrito asked what toppings I wanted and shuffled me from person to person as the burrito moved down the line. By the end of the line, three different people had contributed to my dinner. Henry Ford would be proud of the assembly line efficiency. Better Burrito had one person who put my food together and what a difference that one person made.

Supergregarious, he seemed to truly be interested in my day. How was my Saturday going, was I working or off, where did I work, did I like it there? When adding ingredients he’d brag on them a little: These vegetables are great, we cook them with… You can’t go wrong with that salsa, it’s great on everything…

A couple of important points. This took NO MORE time, in fact it was probably quicker because I didn’t have to repeat what I wanted like I did when getting passed from person to person at Good Burrito. He never got bogged down in the conversation. I never felt like I was being interrogated. It never felt fake or forced. Instead he gave the impression that he was really interested in my day and in making me the perfect burrito.

Then when I got to the register to pay I asked to get a brownie. The woman at the register (also superfriendly) said, “Let me find you a good one. They put the old ones on top.” And she dug through the basket until she found one. It looked like all the others, but she proclaimed it worthy. When I decided to get a brownie to take home for my wife, she dug through the basket again.

Here’s the most important point: Whether they cared about me, my day, and my lunch doesn’t matter. What matters is that they made me feel like they did. It took no more time, cost no more money, and made all the difference.

The HR and business lessons I take from this:

Hire right! Here’s the secret to hiring people: hire people who give a damn. Nothing else matters unless they care. If they care, the rest is largely irrelevant.  I’ll take under qualified people who care over qualified but apathetic people any day. Qualified and they give a damn? Score! I suspect that the guy making my burrito was following a semi-scripted patter. But he was so fluid and did it so well that it came across as very authentic. And, he was clearly a very outgoing person and a good fit for a customer facing role. The woman at the register went out of her way to find a good brownie. It’s hard to train people to care or go above and beyond. Much easier to hire for it.

Train right. Again, I suspect that much of it was patter, but done so well it felt natural, not forced. That requires a lot of practice, role playing, feedback, more practice, etc.

Think twice about your dress code. Employees at both places were clean and well groomed. Except that the three workers I saw at Better Burrito had long hair (male), blond dreadlocks (female), purple hair (female), and a heavy emphasis on tattoos and face piercings. And they were supernice, not too cool for you, not angsty, not indifferent. Let’s see, person who gives a damn and has nose rings or one who is unpierced and indifferent? Hmmm, easy choice.

Sustained business performance requires great customer service. Great customer services requires great people. Great people requires an intense focus on hiring right and training well. That requires leadership that truly gets the DIRECT connection between people and performance.

The final lesson? Great customer service trounces good customer service every time. Good enough customer service never is.

ten reasons you don’t need to make hiring a top priority

Hiring people – especially if you really do it right – takes a lot of time and effort. It’s hard work getting your processes to world class and training all the hiring managers. And any selection system worth its salt is going to be a involved multi-step process, never mind all the scheduling and follow up.

I get it. So I’ll let you off the hook. Below are ten quick reasons you don’t need to make hiring a top priority or spend any time improving your selection processes.

1. You need to free up time for disciplines and terminations. Who has time to hire right when you’re too busy firing?

2. Your company lives and dies by the philosophy that “there’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.”

3. You enjoy turnover. The revolving door approach is a great way to meet new people.

4. Hiring top quality people would intimidate current employees. It’s best to keep standards low and keep people happy.

5. Your competition also has lousy hiring practices. Why be better than you have to?

6. Lawsuits are fun.

7. You see no direct connection between the people doing the work and the company’s business results. You probably also see no connection between the food you eat and your current weight. Time to buy stock in your competition.

8. You assume all people are the same so one is as good as any other. A cog’s a cog, right? Why spend a lot of time looking when any warm body will do?

9. You are so worried about today, you don’t have time to worry about tomorrow.

10. You hate the company and are currently looking for your next job, so who cares about the quality of employees at this company. It’s not your problem.

What did I miss?


two crucial activities for leadership success

Yesterday, Steve Boese posted “Onboarding for the rest of us” and referenced the employee handbook from the gaming company Valve. You may have seen this handbook posted elsewhere, but it is very worth a read. It’s fun, irreverent, and does an amazing job of helping a new hire understand how to succeed in a unique company.

Crucial Activity #1

Valve is a completely flat organization with no (ZERO) managers so I found the insights into how that works enthralling and, although, I’m not going to be changing my company’s structure anytime soon, it would be easy to share the same types of information with new hires: your first day, facts about the company, your first month, office culture, how your performance will be evaluated, your first six months, company history, what the company is good at and what it isn’t, etc.

Yes, new hires need to know where to park and where the bathrooms are and how to sign up for benefits. AND it would be a huge boost forward if they also knew the things that Valve does such a good job of sharing.

Crucial Activity #2

Onboarding is important, but the part that left me slack jawed is in a section titled, “Your Most Important Role”: Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing. So when you’re working on hiring – participating in an interview loop or innovating in the general area of recruiting – everything else you could be doing is stupid and should be ignored!

Pause. Let that sink in. Go read it again. That’s right. They consider getting selection right is so important to their organizational success that: 1) It’s in the new hire handbook; 2) it’s in a section titled, “Your Most Important Role”;  3) it’s more important than breathing; and 4) when you are hiring, anything else you could be doing (like your regular job) is stupid and should be ignored.

Pause. Let that sink in. Go read it again.

But Wait, There’s More

Further in, they are very clear that they understand that because their company is so unique they miss out on hiring some great folks, and they’re really ok with that. No vanilla here. They are not trying to be all things to all people – they are very clear on who they are.

When we talk about interview questions, we almost always look at what we’re asking the candidates. It’s also important to think about what we’re asking ourselves as we evaluate the candidates responses. When evaluating candidates, they ask themselves three brilliant questions: Would I want this person to be my boss? Would I learn a significant amount from him or her? What if this person went to work for our competition?

Imagine if you had the hiring bar so high that you only hired people you could learn something from; people who helped you be better. That’s very intimidating for most people so few do it. And that alone is a great reason to start. Over time, this will transform your company.

Get hiring right by making it a super priority and managing gets much, much easier. Get it wrong by treating it like a distraction and an afterthought and managing gets much, much more difficult.

one basic tenant of business success

Technology should simplify and make things easier for the customer/end user. There’s really no other purpose. Technology for the sake of technology is, well, annoying at best. But then anything for the sake of itself is inefficient, ineffective, and dumb. Case in point: my  local newspaper recently ran an article on a program to encourage shopping at local businesses.  It sounded like a cool program, but if I wanted to find out more about how to participate or which businesses were involved I had to either go to a website or use my smartphone to scan a QR code. Dumb, dumber, and desperate. Too much, too late.

I get that this is a multimedia world, but there is one basic tenant of business success that should never be overlooked: make it as easy and simple as possible for customers to give you their money. Amazon, Apple, etc. are all great businesses, but their genius is (say it with me) making it as easy and simple as possible for their customers to give them their money. It’s not the books that set Amazon apart, and I’d argue that it’s not even really the prices (although those help), it’s that they make it really freakin’ easy to buy a book. Ditto iTunes. This is really what innovation is all about – making it easier for people to solve their problems (even the problems they didn’t know they had).

There is a minimart/gas station near my house that I buy 80% of my gas from even though it is 1) out of my way; and 2) more expensive. So what’s their competitive advantage? I don’t have to pre-pay. I can pull up to the pump, fill my tank, grab my favorite source of carbonated caffeine, pay all at once, and leave. Every other place makes me pay first, which means that I either have to do two transactions, and, if I’m paying cash, walk back and forth to the cashier a couple of times. I will pay more because they have made it as easy and simple as possible for me to give them my money.

So the newspaper, in a very misguided effort to be relevant, has made it more difficult for me to get the information I need. I instantly stopped caring about a program I’d otherwise be curious about. Them forcing me to go to my phone is just as silly as, say, Amazon’s Kindle telling me to go find a dictionary when I ask it to look up a word. But we can learn from this editor’s mistakes. In an ideal world, everyone would be forced to  voluntarily use their own products and services to experience it from the customer/end users point of view.

If you’re in HR, just how easy is it to apply for a job at your company? Are there any hoops you’re making folks jump through that could be put off until later? (For example, do you really, truly need to get everyone’s SSN on their initial application? Here’s a hint – the answer is no and you’re driving away top candidates if your automated process insists on it.) Do you actively seek ways to make it easier for candidates? Do you explain the process to them up front? Do you keep them informed and regularly updated on their status or do you force them to waste their (and your) time by initiating all communication with you?

If you’re a small business, do you accept all forms of payment? If you can’t process credit and debit cards, you’re not really serious about being in business. (No, seriously, these businesses exist.)

If someone calls your business, do they talk to a person who can actually resolve their problem/concern/request/order/desperate attempt to buy something from you? Or, and I’m thinking about the freight company that made a concerted effort to not deliver my new bicycle, do you have an automated voice “recognition” system that doesn’t actually recognize voice commands and eventually connects you with a minimally trained and hard to understand person who insists on reading the script even when the script doesn’t apply?

Does your website load superfast and is it easy to navigate? No matter how cool the graphics are, many of your potential customers have about a 1.6 second attention span. Too slow? Too hard to figure out how to get the right info? Good bye.

Examples go on and on. The principle is simple, but easy to get wrong when we think about what would make the shopping/buying/applying/etc. process most easiest for the company instead of what would make it most useful to the customer.