How to Guarantee You Won't Make A Bad Hire

Last Updated Feb 4, 2011 6:37 PM EST

When most general managers fail to hit their goals, the problem can usually be traced back to hiring the wrong people.

The key is to hire for two factors: competence and values fit. If the person doesn't have both of these elements, do not hire them under any circumstances.

Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz has an excellent blog post about how to hire for overall competence, including the following must-read section on the three traps to avoid:
  • Hiring on look and feel. It sounds silly that anyone would hire an executive based on the way they look and sound in an interview, but in my experience look and feel is the top criteria for most executive searches. When you combine a CEO that doesn't know what she wants and a board of directors that hasn't thought much about the hire, what do you think the criteria are?
  • Looking for someone out of central casting. This is the moral equivalent of looking for the Platonic Form of a head of sales. You imagine what the perfect sales executive might be like then you attempt to match real-world candidates to your model. This is a really bad idea for several reasons. First, you are not hiring an abstract executive to work at an arbitrary company. You must hire the right person for your company at this particular point in time. The head of sales at Oracle in 2010 would likely have failed in 1989. The VP of engineering at Apple might be exactly the wrong choice for FourSquare. The details and the specifics matter. Second, your imaginary model is almost certainly wrong. What is your basis for creating this model? Finally, it will be incredibly difficult to educate an interview team on such an abstract set of criteria. As a result, everybody will be looking for something different.
  • Valuing lack of weakness rather than strength-The more experience you have, the more you realize that there is something seriously wrong with every employee in your company (including you). Literally, nobody is perfect. As a result, it is imperative that you hire for strength rather than lack of weakness. Everybody has weaknesses; they are just easier to find in some people. Hiring for lack of weakness just means that you'll optimize for pleasantness. Rather, you must figure out the strengths you require and find someone who is world class in those areas despite their weaknesses in other, less important domains.
Horowitz gives lots of specific steps, including:
  • Know what you want.
  • Run a process that figures out the right match.
  • Make a lonely decision.
I strongly suggest readers take a look at Horowitz's long list of questions to ask to assess whether the candidate is smart enough, knows how to hire sales people, is systematic and comprehensive on how to think about sales processes, and understands operational excellence.

I would add two points on competence:
  • Do not, under any circumstances, hire for untapped potential. Most people develop only a small part of their abilities, and hiring for untapped potential is like buying land in Nevada and waiting for California to fall into the ocean. It'll probably happen, but not in time to help you now.
  • Make sure the person is "scary smart." People can develop a lot of aspects of themselves, but IQ is not one of them. Unless the person has the mental horsepower, run!
The second key for hiring is, surprisingly, not even mentioned in Horowitz's post. It is: Hire for a values fit with the management team you already have. This key has three steps:

1. Identify the values the management team already has. A great way to do this is to run the "mountains and valleys" exercise with your team.

2. Get the team's agreement that the values you identified are, in fact, their values.

3. In the interview with candidates, ask open-ended questions in follow-up to what the person says.

The hard part of this process is asking open-ended questions. In general, closed-ended questions will bring up competencies and open-ended will lead you to values. Note an exchange with a closed-ended question:

Hiring Manager: What steps did you follow to get to that result?

Candidate: First, I knew what I wanted. Second, I made a two-week plan and ran it past the team. Third, I was relentless in the follow-up.

You've learned slightly more about competencies, but nothing about values. Contrast that exchange to two back-to-back open-ended questions:

Hiring Manager: Why was that result so important to you?

Candidate: The integrity of the team was on the line.

Hiring Manager: Why was integrity of the team so important?

Candidate: If we lost integrity, we'd lose the trust of senior executives.

This exchange is important for two reasons. First, you've gone off script, so you're probably asking questions for which the person doesn't have a prepared answer. Second, you're now understanding how the person makes decisions, and what principles are most important.

When you meet with the hiring team to make a decision, you only want to hire people who both have the competencies and share the team values. If you're uncertain about either one, keep looking.

Made a hiring mistake? Made a great hire and have a lesson to share? If so, I hope you'll post a comment below.

Photo courtesy bpsusf, CC 2.0.

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  • Dave Logan On Twitter»

    View all articles by Dave Logan on CBS MoneyWatch »
    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.

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