Leading is Easier when you Hire the Right Employee


Can you really hire the right employee?

The trick to getting things done – when you lead a team – is having the right people on the bus going to the right place. Let's leave the “right place” off for now, with the assumption you know how to determine what it is for you and your organization. What I want to walk you thru today is how I go about hiring “the right people”.

I know the first objection is that there is no such thing as the “right” employee. But I disagree. I bet if we sat together, face to face, and talked about it, you'd at least agree with me that the opposite (the wrong employee) does exist:

  • Skilled employees who are toxic
  • Expensive employees who need micro-managing
  • Employees who don't learn from their mistakes – ever

So if we agree that a wrong employee exists, is it really that hard to believe a right one exists?

Defining the Right Employee

I care about five things when I'm looking to hire the right employee:

  1. They must be available – I'm trying to hire, after all.
  2. They must be learners – I can't predict my future needs.
  3. They must work hard – I lead high performers, not slackers.
  4. They must be communicators – I can't read minds yet.
  5. They must have skills – I'm filling a position, not finding a friend.

You might be looking at that list and think – that's all I needed, just a list of key things to look for and now I can be on my way.

I know the hardest part for me when I first started hiring was making this list. I used to have skills at the top, but it's now at the bottom.

And in case I didn't mention it, this is a list in ranked order. This is how I rank my needs.

My Hiring Process

When I hire for a software engineer – a highly skilled position with a lot of competition out there – I follow the same approach each time.

I post an announcement defining the position. I spend a decent amount of time talking about our high performance culture, so people can easily self-select and choose not to apply.

But when people apply, the applications/emails all come into a single inbox that I have access to. From there, every single applicant gets a response email. It goes something like this:

Thank you so much for applying to work with me and my team. I'm excited to see if you're a good fit. I know you're busy but in order to be considered, I need the following from you:

I need you to write some code. A simple application. If you've used Amazon's wishlist, you know how simple an app it is. A screen to enter an item, a list to display them, and a detail page to see it. Collect the standard data about the item like it's name, price, and what online location you can find it at. Create the GUI, the database to store data, and everything in between.

I need you to create a powerpoint presentation. Imagine you're going to teach a room full of people something new. Pick your topic. Something you think we don't know (you can even make it up if you want to), and create the slides to support your presentation.

I need you to write up a one-page answer for this problem. Consider you have 400 employees in a 6 story insurance building with 4 elevators. Where do you position them so that the least amount of people have to wait the least amount of time.

Thanks for doing this. While there's no due date, the length of time it takes speaks to your skill and interest. If I don't get it within 3 weeks, I'll assume you're no longer interested. By the way, if this doesn't sound fun, it's likely you wouldn't like working with/for me either.

Take care,

As you read my auto-response email, can you see what I did there?

The Results

I've used this same approach for probably 15 years. I change the problem sometimes, but the approach is always the same. And if I receive 100 applications on day one, from those applications, I will only, ever, get something like 15 results back.

Of those 15, it's not rare to only find 5-6 that I want to get on the phone with. And from there, I probably only interview 2 or 3.

So the most costly part of the process, the weeding out of 85% of the applicants comes to me for free. But I still get complaints from my approach (by applicants).

People tell me they already have a job and are too busy to work a couple of hours at night. It may be that they truly have no margin at all – making them not very available – or that they simply don't want to put in any extra time – suggesting they're not the kind of hard worker that I would want (my guys don't work all day and night every day, but sometimes when we have to, we do).

People tell me that they're applying for a programming job, not to be a graphic designer, powerpoint person, or writer. To me it says their lacking the kind of communication skills I want. Or it says they're not willing to give it a try and learn how to be better communicators. Either way, it tells me they're not right.

And some people send really crappy code. That worries me the least, but if it worries me a bunch, I don't move forward.

Either way, for the responses I do get, I can pretty quickly get to the right interview candidates and bring them in. Then the team and I interview them, and we make a pick.

I will say, more often than not, in the last several years, the candidates I've interviewed have been recommendations from my internal team.

This works because my guys know what I look for and what I care about. They do a great job of prepping people so that they know what it's like to work on a high performance team where every member owns the projects they're on.

Leading is then easy

The whole point of hiring the right employee is what happens after they become an employee. I lead them. Since I can't predict what we'll need in 5 years, there's really no way to know what skills I'm really hiring for.

So almost immediately, I'll be inviting new employees to learn new things – validating my expectation that they learn well. I'll create several tests to make sure they know how to bubble issues up. I'll check to make sure they're ok failing. I'll check to see if they're good at communicating with others.

But most of the time this is just double checking because the hard work is done. I've selected the right kinds of employees. Once you do that, you can lead them almost anywhere and not stress.

What approach do you take when you want to hire the right employee?