A system oriented approach to hiring

A system oriented approach to hiring

First, a personal story.

After we raised a series B at our start-up, we began to rapidly scale and hire new team members. On my team alone, I was looking to hire three additional technical team members to support our growth targets. I started to review dozens of resumes a day and spend half my days phone interviewing.

Our hiring process was time consuming to say the least. To increase efficiency, we would make changes to the process based on what we learned every week. However, we ended up adding new steps and questions, which morphed our hiring process into a monster. For fear of letting the wrong person join the team and wasting people’s time at an in-person interview, we over-assessed candidates.

We treated recruiting as a sales funnel that had to be optimized.

The result was that it took weeks for a candidate to make it thru to the final round, during which they had no idea of the overall process. At in-person interviews, we started to ask so many technical questions that some of them began to be unrelated the role itself. Surely, negative reviews began to pop up on glassdoor.com about our inefficient and unfair interview process. A revamp was needed.

We thus got together with our company recruiter and started to create a process from scratch. Our goals were to find a fitting candidate using the least resources possible, keep candidates excited about the prospect of working with us throughout the progress, and use data to optimize. We therefore started to A/B test interview questions, assessing for their effectiveness at revealing if a candidate was a fit for the role, as well as experimenting with more/less touch points to assess their impact on whether more/less qualified candidates made it through the funnel. We treated recruiting as a sales funnel that had to be optimized.

The result was less time spent on hiring and more qualified candidates making it through the funnel. And those that came in were always excited to speak with us, praising us for making the process transparent and fun.

In this blog post, I’m going to share a hiring process that has worked effectively in assessing and hiring technical people. My hope is that it helps fellow leaders reflect on their own hiring process and:

  • Sell the job and the company to superstars;
  • Ensure that candidates can do the job before being hired;
  • Assess whether the candidate will fit into the company culture;
  • Find the right candidate in less time; and
  • Establish a process that can be evaluated and improved upon.

In my experience leading start-up teams, hiring the right or wrong person can make or break the company. A superstar can inspire an entire company to set higher goals, whereas a mediocre hire will bring frustration to all. My opinion is often shared by VCs, whom don’t just invest in a company with good products and services, but also in a strong team. That includes Warren Buffet, who prefers to invest in companies with a strong management team.

How do I systematically interview candidates?

people funnel

It’s a good idea to approach hiring like we approach sales, thinking of it in terms of a funnel process. Doing so forces us to establish a process that can be consistently executed by different people, measured for effectiveness, and improved upon.

In the following sections, I will be exposing a hiring process that I’ve used to assess candidates for technical roles. I will explain what I’m assessing for at each step, along with why it’s a relevant step. This is meant to help think of hiring as a process rather than an ad-hoc task.

There are 8 steps in my hiring funnel. They will take us from screening resumes to making an offer. Let’s explore this in detail.

1. Reviewing resumes: Is this person qualified?

At this initial stage, our goal is to filter out candidates who clearly do not have the skills necessary to perform the job, or that clearly have no interest in the position. It’s difficult to clearly assess anyone based on paper resumes alone, so we’re simply on the lookout for clear signs of misfit, including:

  • Experiences and skills that are completely misaligned with the role and position e.g. If a candidate is applying for an electrical engineering position, yet has 10 years of experience practicing medicine and no engineering related work or education, it’s probably not a good fit.
  • Cover letters and resumes addressed to the wrong company e.g. If a candidate refers to a competitor or a different company in the cover letter sent to us, it’s not only a sign that they are not detail oriented, but also that they don’t have a special interest in our company. In the hyper-competitive world of start-ups, there’s no room for individuals that don’t have a strong interest and commitment to our company.

My recommendation is to let candidates with even a slight chance of fit to pass this round. In our world where art majors can be genius robot engineers, it is extremely difficult to say with confidence that someone is a misfit based on paper resumes.

OUTCOME: All candidates that clearly cannot perform the job are filtered out. At this stage, having ~50% of candidates that applied pass the round is acceptable.

2. Phone screening candidates: Do they fit our basic needs?

phone happy

Once we have a preliminary shortlist of candidates, it’s time to call them up and schedule a quick 15 or 30 minutes phone interview. Our goal is to ensure that candidates understand the role, assess for basic fit, and for us to sell the company culture by introducing a person into the process (most companies fail to introduce themselves until later). It is not yet time to assess for technical capabilities.

Considering that there is nothing technical about the call, I recommend for a Human Resource team member to execute this step and save the hiring manager some time. The interviewer should:

  • Introduce the company and speak to its history: Describe the company’s mission, core values, and general culture.
  • Once there is clarity on what the company does, ask the individual how they’d like to ideally contribute, or what role they’d like to ideally take on. We’re checking whether the candidate is familiar with the job description and whether they truly have an interest in the listed position.
  • After the candidate has shared thoughts on what they’d like to do at the company, describe the actual position’s responsibilities, day-to-day work flow, and challenges faced. This helps clarify what the person is actually applying for.
  • At this point, we have a clear picture of what the candidate is interested in doing, and the candidate has a clear picture of the opportunity offered. If there is alignment, commend them on doing thorough research on the role. If there is misalignment, highlight that fact and ask if they’d like to apply for a role that matches their interest closer. Should they say yes, then we need to come to an agreement to either pass on this role, or still pursue it as a “foot in the door” position that the candidate will likely grow out of.
  • Assuming that a person understands the role and wants to pursue it, let’s next ask about their expected compensation. Here, we’re assessing whether expectations match what we can offer, and give both parties an opportunity to get on the same page. If their expectations are within our budget, we don’t need to discuss more details at this point. Yet if an individual is asking for a salary that is 30% higher than the budget, it’s time to set the expectations straight and ask if they’d still like to continue the process. That’s only fair. If a candidate decides to not pursue the opportunity for salary reasons, consider letting them go. Early stage start-ups should avoid hiring team members that put a high importance on salary and benefits; start-ups need people that believe in the vision, that want to make an impact, and that want to learn. Even if we have the money, I highly recommend to only hire team members at or below market rate to ensure that people are joining because they believe in the company mission and value the adventure rather than the money. We can always bump up their salary once they prove themselves on the job.
  • Once there is clarity on whether the person is interested in pursuing the role, and we confirmed that their salary and benefits needs fall within the position’s budget, take a decision on whether they should reach the next round live on the call. Should we decide to push them into the next round, let them know that the next step will involve some homework (see step 3). Explain that it is meant to expose them to some of the work involved on the job.

OUTCOME: All candidates beyond this point have a clear idea of the role they’re pursuing, including a general idea on the position’s salary and benefits. At this point in the process, we should have filtered out another 25%+ of candidates who either are not interested in the role, or have misaligned salary/benefit requirements.

3. Assign homework and tasks: Can they do the job?

homework

The best way to see if an individual is qualified for a role is to have them do the job. While we may not be able to have the person work with the team for 2 weeks before taking a hiring decision, we can certainly assign them unclassified tasks and homework to test how they’d do on day-to-day tasks.

e.g. If we’re hiring a marketing director, ask them to design a plan to launch a new product or service. If we’re hiring a sales executive, have them call us to sell our own product back to us. If we’re hiring a data analyst, have them perform an actual analysis with sanitized data.

It’s critical that the work assignment or project is as close to what they’d be doing day-to-day as possible. It’s both an opportunity for candidates to experience work in this job, as well as a chance for us to evaluate a candidate’s work.

Therefore, homework assignments should be designed by the hiring team – they alone have the competency to design the tasks. Considering that most experienced candidates have a day job, I recommend to target a 1 to 2 hour completion time for the project so that they can complete it in one or two evenings. This means that anyone on the team should take less than an hour to complete the tasks themselves. A deadline should also be communicated to candidates to keep the funnel moving.

After the candidate submits their work, the hiring manager or a designated team member should be assigned to review task responses, and decide whether they’ve performed well enough to advance.

OUTCOME: All candidates that pass this round will have shown a real interest in the position, and proven their ability to fulfill the role’s basic technical requirements.

4. In-depth phone interview: Will the team like them?

phone interview

Now’s the time for the hiring manager to formally interview the candidate via phone and assess both their interest and their technical abilities. This is an important step as it is the last gate before candidates are brought in for in-person interviews – not properly assessing a candidate’s abilities and fit at this stage can result in many hours of wasted time for the team.

Assuming that we’re hiring for a technical role, I recommend to structure the phone interview as such:

  1. 5 minutes: Introduce the role and ask for clarifying questions about the role. There needs to be absolutely clarity for the candidate as to what the position is about and what the day-to-day looks like.
  2. 15 minutes: Ask a ton of questions, from many different perspectives, to understand why the person is interested in this role, why they’re interested in our company, why they’re leaving their job, what they hope to learn, how they plan to grow, where they see the industry going, etc. This helps assess whether the person is truly interested.
  3. 15-20 minutes: Ask some basic technical questions to test an individual’s skills on the spot. These are questions that a person with the right technical experience or education can answer in a heartbeat. We’re essentially making sure that the individual didn’t have someone else do their assignment. e.g. If we’re hiring a digital marketing person, ask them about the core metrics that we need to monitor to accurately evaluate our online ads’ performance.
  4. 10-20 minutes: Ask them if they have questions. A prepared individual truly interested in our company will have many questions about the organization, the team, the culture, all relevant to their ability to perform on the job.

If an individual didn’t impress us on the phone one way or another, skip them. If we misjudged and skipped a candidate that was really passionate about the role, they’ll likely reach back out and ask for a second chance if they really want the job. A significant amount of time and resources is needed to properly interview individuals in-person (the next step), so only bring in individuals that impressed us. In a start-up environment, there is no room for mediocrity as it would drag the entire team down.

OUTCOME: Anyone that passes this critical round has impressed us in terms of both interest in the position and basic technical abilities.

5. In-person interview: Will they add value to the team?

interview

In-person interviews are a chance for different team members to meet the candidate, and vice-versa. For this interview to be effective, there needs to be a high level of coordination to ensure that all conversations complement each other and don’t unintentionally overlap. Allow me to share some tips on this process:

  • Loop in anyone that will be impacted by the hire to interview: Beyond the direct manager, I recommend for a manager two levels up (a director or VP) to also participate in the interview to show that the leadership is invested in all team members. If the team size is small enough (4-5), all team members should also interview the candidate. If the team size is larger than 5 individuals, different people should take turn interviewing different candidates over time. Everyone should take part in the interview process as it allows different assessment perspectives to be shared, on top of catalyzing ideas on how to improve the hiring process.
  • Decide on a set of traits to assess for: Depending on the role, there is likely a specific set of abilities that we need to assess for. Together with all interviewers, I recommend an agreement as to what these skills and abilities are. Especially for first-time interviewers, or for new roles, this is not always clear. This will help everyone evaluate a candidate effectively. e.g. For a sales engineer role, we may need the candidate to 1) be an excellent communicator; 2) know at least one sales system ; 3) have technical experience on …
  • Collaborate on the group interview: With multiple individuals interviewing, we can cover much more ground by having each person assess for a different skill set. For example, we may have one person assess for cultural fit, another assess for technical abilities, while another person assess their communication skills. At the same time, there are also aspects and questions that should be assessed by everyone: If an element is so important that we cannot take the chance of misjudging, have multiple people assess from different perspectives.  The goal here is to ensure that a candidate’s story or ability is consistent throughout the interview.
  • Document and share interview questions that everyone plans to ask in one file: Once everyone knows what they’re going to ask, put it all together in one file to ensure that all topics complement each other as desired. Interview questions also need to flow – the order in which questions are asked matters. The toughest, most technical questions, should go in the middle of the interview, after the person has warmed up to questions, and before we make sure they leave on a good note.
  • Sell the job: Top candidates are likely to receive multiple offers and have choice. It’s thus critical that we sell the job during live interviews. This translates into:
    • Avoid having 2 or more interviewers in the room at the same time. It’s too intimidating. If more than two people need to interview, split into multiple sessions.
    • Ensuring that everyone’s body language is respectful and enthusiastic.
    • Making sure that the interview room is clean and allows for a constructive, non-threatening conversation: Avoid sitting across from the candidate – sit in a circle instead.
    • Being upfront as to what will happen during the interview. If we’re going to ask tough logic questions that don’t have clear answers, let them know before we ask it. Avoid putting them on the spot unnecessarily.
    • If the interview lasts a long time, offering water, snacks, and breaks. Make them comfortable and relaxed.
    • Describing the benefits of working here along with the best parts of the job. There are many opportunities to expose the benefits of our work environment throughout the interview. e.g. Let’s say that we ask what a person wants to learn on the job. We can follow up on their answer with: “That’s really great. At our company, we put a lot of emphasis on personal development. We encourage team members to take at least 4 hours a week to spend on personal projects, in addition to giving you a budget of X per month for training.”

What to avoid: Avoid asking questions that simply fill up time and don’t assess a person’s ability to do the job or their interest in the role. This includes logic questions and puzzles that don’t assess the technical abilities necessary for the job, but simply intimidates the candidate.

OUTCOME: A candidate has a chance to meet and speak with different team members, and we get to assess a candidate on all aspects important to the role.

6. Taking the decision: Do we agree that they will add value?

yes or no

Decisions are easy when everyone either likes or dislikes a candidate, but can be quite difficult when there are mixed feelings. Allow me to share a process that will help everyone come to an agreement:

  1. Right after the interview session, send out a questionnaire that asks each interviewer to:
    • Assess the candidate on the agreed upon set of traits (I recommend a binary choice of 0 and 1: 0 = the candidate failed to demonstrate this specific ability; 1 = this candidate succeeded in demonstrating this ability). Avoiding a middle option gets rid of ambiguity.
    • Decide whether they are in favor or not in favor of hiring the candidate. Again, avoid ambiguity by asking for a yes or no answer.
    • Ask for details surrounding their responses above.
  2. The hiring lead or an HR person will then review all responses to assess whether there is:
    • An agreement from the majority of interviewers to hire the individual, or not hire the individual. If this is the case, the decision is quite straight forward; or
    • There is disagreements among many individuals and mixed feelings as to whether we should hire or not hire the candidate.
  3. If there is disagreement, it’s important to discuss in detail everyone’s perception of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. For interviewers that are still not comfortable hiring the candidate after a discussion, we need to see whether there is a way to address their concerns in a follow up interview or exercise. e.g. A candidate that failed to demonstrate their technical abilities may get a second homework assignment and follow up interview to respond to some technical questions.
    • If there is little that we can do to ever become comfortable hiring this candidate, then pass;
    • If there is a chance that an individual may succeed in a follow up interview, then have the unconvinced interviewers lead it. They can report back on whether their concerns have been addressed (hire), or if they are still not comfortable (pass).
  4. A final note of caution: Most candidates interviewed will have flaws and weaknesses. That’s normal. Nobody is perfect. However, before hiring an individual, it’s important to assess whether our organization is OK with these weaknesses, or if we have the resources available to coach and mentor the individual. e.g. If a sales engineer candidate is well versed in our sales system and technically competent, yet has confidence issues when communicating, we need to decide whether we have the resources and time to help the individual understand their insecurities and gain some confidence.

OUTCOME: At this point, there is a clear decision on whether we will extend a job offer to the candidate.

7. Giving the offer: How can I guarantee their acceptance?

handshake

When possible, I recommend for someone else than the hiring manager to give the offer. This ensures that any negotiation that happens with regard to salary and benefits is carried out fairly, and doesn’t taint the relationship between a hiring manager and the new hire.

It’s very likely that when an offer is made, all kinds of weird requests come in. Some will have already scheduled four weeks of vacation, while others will want double the pay. This is when negotiation starts. It’s important to avoid taking any decisions on the spot. I strongly recommend to loop in a seasoned negotiator for advice or at least read this book. In a constructive negotiation, both parties try to understand each others’ priorities and means. To fulfill our goal of starting a long-term relationship on the right footing, we need to ask as many questions as possible to understand why the individual is making their requests, and also explain the basis for our offer. There is usually a way to satisfy both parties’ core needs creatively.

OUTCOME: A strong offer will have been made that satisfies both the candidate’s requirements and our needs. Let’s remember that our goal here is to both close the deal and start a new relationship on a strong footing. Should the candidate accept the offer, it’s also time to start the new team member’s profile. This is the start of their growth path at the organization.

8. Improve with data: How do I make my hiring funnel more effective?

target

Obviously, our hiring funnel won’t be at its best on day one. It’s thus a good idea to regularly review the interview process, and see if each step is as effective as it can be. Effectiveness can be assessed by looking at how candidates that passed a specific step fared on the next step(s). Should any steps be ineffective, we can try different approaches and ways to achieve the same goal. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to assess the effectiveness of each funnel step:

  1. Reviewing resumes: Are there enough candidates in the pool of applicants? Are we letting through too many or too few candidates? Based on candidates that performed well on phone screenings and task responses, do we have a better idea of the ideal candidate profile? What do the resumes of high performing hires look like?
  2. Phone screening candidates: Do our questions effectively assess an individual’s interest in the role? Are we clear in communicating what are the role’s responsibilities?
  3. Assigning tasks: Do our tasks fairly represent the day-to-day work? Are our tasks effectively assessing a person’s technical abilities? Are too few people responding to the assignment? Who tends to drop out of the process here?
  4. Phone interviewing: What percentage of candidates pass the phone interview stage, yet fail the in-person interview? What profiles of people tend to pass the phone interview, but fail the in-person one? Do too many/too few people answer the technical questions correctly?
  5. Interviewing in-person: Do all interviewers know what to assess a candidate for? Do most candidates seem at ease or seem intimidated? Is a certain trait that we’re trying to evaluate difficult to assess? Do our questions cover all areas we want to assess? Based on hiring decisions of previous candidates, are we bringing in the right people?
  6. Taking the decision: Is the interview team mostly in agreement, or do they tend to debate more often than not? Is there a specific trait or performance area that is most debated? Are we asking the right questions during the interview? Have recent hires proven their abilities?
  7. Giving the offer: What percentage of people accept our offers? Why do certain people not accept our offers? What do people mostly negotiate on? What challenges do we face in closing the deal?

I recommend for a specific team member to manage the hiring funnel and lead any process improvements. This can be either the hiring lead, a team member, or a HR representative. The goal is to maximize the effectiveness of the process, to improve the odds of hiring the next superstar.

If you’re interested in reading more about hiring, here are a couple more resources:


Recommended exercise

Let’s ask our new hires: “What questions or processes did you find irrelevant during the interview process?”


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