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Are hiring mistakes inevitable?

Most startup founders worry about product-market fit and ignore the biggest challenge to create a business. Talent! Why is it so hard to hire right? It is because there are too many moving parts. Mistakes are inevitable because we do not understand how to overcome the barriers.

Hire the right person - not the best person

"I want someone with the right skill (and not take unnecessary risks), experience, who will not know how to keep a secret, will be punctual and flexible. The person should be reliable. I I want the person to be well groomed. If the person lives within a five mile radius, it is better. I assume the person will have their own transport and not depend on public transport. I want the best and will not settle for anything less."

Can you guess the job for which these specs were being provided? This was for a driver my friend was looking to employ. "How would you assess for these qualities?" I enquired. My friend was unfazed and said, "I can look at the person and assess if this person is an honest person or not."
That is how hiring goes wrong.

Define the jobs to be done clearly

That is the road map for finding the right candidate. The right candidate should be able to do the job (skill), will want to do the job (motivation) over time and who will fit the work-culture of the company. Amartya Sen may be a Nobel Laureate in Economics, but may not be as good an actor as your favourite screen idol. A superhero in cricket may be a poor cricketing coach. A terrific actor may go bankrupt when they start a firm.

Qualifications and experience are often poor predictors of job performance in a world that is constantly changing. So what should you look for in hiring. Jobs may need to be decoded.

Read: About how to use a Job Complexity Matrix

How to find the person-job fit

a) The personality of the candidate holds the key

Optimism, resilience, persistence, risk-taking appetite are very hard to train for. If these are vital to the job performance, then find a way to assess it before you hire.

An individual contributor who is a top performer, may make a poor People Manager. While leading a team, the person has to learn how to hire people into a team, how to set a vision for the team, how to evaluate performance and be comfortable differentiating rewards, deal with failure of a task and team morale etc. None of these are tested for an individual contributor.

Read: Why should hiring be driven by a resume?

 b) Motivation mattersy

I know someone who is an outstanding cook. The person can whip up a meal that can compete with any chef. Every friend and family member is convinced that the person would make for a very successful chef, except the person himself. The person continues to be a Product Manager in a Bank.

Every job that you CAN do, is not what you WANT to do every day. Technological changes and the short shelf life of skills could mean that the job you love doing today may need a new set of skills tomorrow. The person-job fit changes over time.

Motivation, preferences and values are a major predictor of fit with the organisation's culture. Hyperbolic and (often false promises made during the hiring process) are a major reason for dropping motivation. Avoid hiring with 'shiny objects' - they will wear off very quickly. Over promising can demotivate quickly. Telling someone "Your job is very strategic," when it isn't can backfire. Quirky designations like "Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence" (yes, that is an actual designation) can often invite quirky behaviour.

If you are using personality assessments, then please read this <click here>

(c) Strengths and derailers are role-specific : Taking initiative and being "passionate" (another misused word) are not universally desirable or undesirable qualities. For an Air Traffic Controller, taking initiative (and skipping some items in a checklist of procedures) can lead to fatal accidents. Someone who is visibly excitable may worsen a scenario when a pilot calls to say there is a hostage crisis on board. Measuring these is best done using tests. The appropriate tests are often expensive and take time. It is easy to assess coding skills, but harder to assess if the person finds it hard to manage timelines or pays attention to details.

A strength overused is a 'derailer'. Confidence in one's ability is good to have, but being overconfident prevents the person from making promises that they cannot keep. That can erode trust very quickly. When DSK, an economist, politician, former managing director of the IMF got involved in several financial and sexual scandals, it put an end to a promising career. When someone is constantly stressed in a job, their derailers are on display frequently.

How to assess for what the role needs in YOUR organisation

a) 'Top Tier Institutes"?

There is a belief that ‘higher-ranked universities indeed score higher on general cognitive ability tests, have more international experience, better English proficiency, and higher cultural intelligence. Top universities employ better instructors, offer access to better-equipped facilities, attract better speakers and guests to campus, which in turn, should lead to better training and subsequent performance.

"The HR manager knows that a host of factors determine employee performance: prior experience, training, interpersonal skills, personality, IQ, emotional intelligence, and work ethic. But this is also where the biases and untested selection methods crop up. better universities attract better students and provide better training, so it makes sense to use the university rank as a predictor of employee performance. This, after all, is why employers offer higher starting salaries to hires selected from prestigious schools." Do they perform better? Read this

Read: What they do not tell you about class toppers.

Read: Is talent Silicon Valley's Blind Spot?

b) Spend time doing reference checks: A previous manager may be in better position to comment on the person's work ethics and potential. The peers at the previous employer are better at describing how collaborative (or territorial) the candidate is. The team members can tell you how good a team leader the candidate is.

c) Use multiple assessment tools. Some candidates are poor communicators and show up poorly in interviews How to hire great candidates who interview poorly

Founders often use unusual questions, puzzles and more to discover if someone believes in their vision. Brian Chesky is known to have asked people in the early days of hiring for a then unknown startup called Airbnb, "If you had a medical diagnosis that you had only a year to live, would you join us?" (Listen to the interview given below)

d) Use the truth serum!

Nellie Wartoft, an ex-recruiter told a shocked audience in a Clubhouse chat on 9 Feb 2021, that "I worked at McKinsey" was one of the most common lies she heard. The conversation generated some great insights about the kind of organisation one should look for.


Here is another view about fit with the firm



Read: The lies we tell in a job interview

What I have seen on the ground

  1. Devote enough time and resources to hiring: According to research by Talview, "The best candidates are in the market for ten days." If hiring time is more, then you are playing in a smaller talent pool.
  2. It is complicated and needs skill and attention: Among my clients, I have found that poor hiring is often the root cause of their problems. Startups can get killed because of a few wrong hires. In a small organisation it can lethal. In a larger organisation, not being able to improve the talent base can turn a Unicorn or even a Market Shaper into an Incumbent.

I have written about how leadership, talent and culture are the new growth drivers in my latest book Dreamers and Unicorns. <buy it here>


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