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?

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.

it’s not about you, it’s about the decision

Ever experienced (or maybe created) a situation where someone refused to yield on a decision? They made their preference known and refused to back off – even when it clearly went against the group or good sense?

So often, we’re not arguing for what would be best. We’re not hearing the other views, taking in new information, and reassessing our solutions. Instead, we’re sticking to out guns. No matter what.

And what a waste of time that is.

I was recently involved with a committee that needed to assess several applicants to determine who would receive an award. Each applicant was evaluated on several criteria and assigned ratings. One person collected the ratings from each member of the committee and compiled them into a spreadsheet, comparing the rating in a few different ways. The numbers showed there was a clear division between the top tier and the next level. The top group was certain to be granted the award, but there were a few the committee would need to debate. These were applicants that received mixed ratings across the committee.

On almost a whim, the committee members’ names had been removed from the spreadsheet. Although each could see all of the ratings given for each candidate, no committee member knew who had given which ratings.

Interestingly, with the names removed, the candidates became more important than the raters. No one dug in their heels or got defensive. Those who felt strongly one way or the other brought up their concerns – but it was clear it was about the candidate, not saving face or defending their ratings. Those who didn’t have strong feelings could quietly go along with the group without having to justify their scoring. Debate and discussion moved along quicker than ever, egos stayed in check, real issues surfaced, non-issues stayed away. All in all, a quicker and more effective method than in previous years.

This suggests to me that there are real benefits in any decision making when we can find ways to keep it about the decision. That’s what a secret ballot is all about. I’ve been harping on the idea that people don’t want the best decision, they want their decision to be best. Well, this is one way to remove the “their” part of the equation so that the group can focus on the best decision.

Although, this was for a community award, I’m very interested in using this approach with interviewing and selecting candidates. Or any group decision. Any thoughts?