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Don't Allow Bad Hires To Derail Your Team: 6 Questions for Effective Hiring

Spot the common characters with uncommon interview quesitons

Subtraction by Addition

The Hunger Games

Read time: 4 minutes 31 seconds

We've all been there. The team is working flat out. Everyone is at 120% capacity, and we can't find the right person to fill the open spot. The search stretches from weeks to months, and just when we resign ourselves to giving up, it happens: we make a hire.

We're relieved. The team is delighted. Help is finally on the way.

But we have this nagging worry in the back of our minds: Did we settle? Did we lower our standards as desperation became exasperation? Will this be the help we need, or did we accidentally do subtraction by addition?

Unfortunately, we won't know we made a mistake until it's too late. We often only discover this after the person has been onboarded and is doing more harm than good. And now we're faced with two expensive problems:

  1. Thoughtfully removing a poor fit we just hired and

  2. Starting the entire search process all over again.

But what if we could avoid these bad hires in the first place?

While there is no foolproof process, you can dramatically swing the odds (forever) in your favor.

The Common Culprits

The Usual Suspects

It can be easy to miss the warning signs. And when we do, these are the 3 common archetypes that leave us with buyer's remorse.

The Toxic A-hole

What makes someone toxic is they're manipulative. And they tend to be very competent. So you have someone with a track record of success that shows up very well in an interview. Sounds like an A-player, right?

What are the signs? 

  • Serial short stints (a year or less) are a flag you have to go deep on

  • Reluctance to give a reference from the last company

  • Defensive on weaknesses, attributes failures to circumstances and environment

How can you buy down risk? 

If there's a chance you have this archetype in front of you, it's critical to do everything you can to check. I would do everything possible to find a trusted reference within my network before I move ahead.

The Loveable B-Player

These candidates are seducing. You want to get the interview over with and go out for beers. Time melts with them, and before you know it, your hour interview is over, and they chatted you up the whole time. Don't get me wrong. I want to work with people I enjoy.

What are the signs?

  • Every accomplishment on the resume was done by an anonymous "we" when we probe for details

  • Lot's squishy language and company jargon, very few concrete numbers or accomplishments

  • A little too eager to take on feedback

How can you buy down risk? 

I want to work with this person. Can I hire them as a freelancer first? Can we do a small project to test what it's like to work with them? Even an interview case study that simulates the work we do. I would want a trusted third party with less of a connection to be a part of that test too.

The Culture Mismatch

This one is less about the candidate and more about the hiring manager not knowing their cultural non-negotiables. The common mistake is doing a "culture fit," which is code for, "Do I like this person?" The better way is to isolate the value that is the common denominator across high-performers and single-mindedly assess for that.

For example, imagine you have a culture based on Radical Honesty. Then the fundamental value you need candidates to show you they have is learning from feedback. Every candidate will have one answer prepared for this, but only those who operate this way consistently will have 4-5 across different domains.

If they seek and apply feedback at work, on a team, in school, or from their friends, you can have more confidence they'll do the same when they join you.

How can you buy down risk? 

Spend the time to codify the cultural values on your team. Then do the necessary work to isolate the one you simply can't compromise on. From there, you need to layer an assessment of this value into your process, either with a head-on culture interview or as a factor throughout the process.

Now tell them a story about someone at your company living that value, one that makes their eyes open wide with surprise. Can they imagine operating in the same way?

The Question Behind the Questions

A Few Good Men

Google the best interview questions, and all the usual suspects show up. I'm not looking to trick anyone with riddles about how many golf balls fit in a 757, but I do tilt toward questions they haven't heard before.

Why? Two reasons:

  1. I want authentic answers that helps me learn and connect with them, not overly rehearsed scenes from a play.

  2. I almost always focus on the Why over the What, because I care most about their values (which I cannot change) and their decision-making (which is what I'm paying for).

Here are my go-to questions. Feel free to borrow and modify as you see fit.

"If I had dinner with your 3 best friends and asked them to describe you, what would I learn?"

What I'm Listening For: Honest self-awareness. 3rd party feedback asks them to consider how they're actually perceived not how they wish they were.

"What did you do to prepare for this interview?"

What I'm Listening For: Proactiveness, motivation, creativity. High marks for people who used the opportunity to add value to the organization, not just memorize facts.

"Tell me about a time a subordinate gave you negative feedback. How did you handle it?"

What I'm Listening For: Ideally, they sought out the feedback as a regular practice. I want to understand how they considered it (not all feedback is useful) and their action to address it. Bonus points if they had the confident humility to circle back.

"What is the most significant challenge facing job seekers in your seat today?"

What I'm Listening For: Understanding of the profession, an appreciation of the craft, and the forces confronting them. Ideally, they proactively have ideas about addressing that challenge too. I tend to ask this late and see if they can connect to what they're learned about our company and team specifically.

"Teach me about something you're obsessed with."

What I'm Listening For: Labels fall away, and it's just passion, clarity of thought, storytelling, and enthusiasm. Everyone has access to a passion. It's also a chance to build a deeper view of them on a human level and connect personally.

"Why will people follow you here?"

What I'm Listening For: This is my favorite. I learn about their standing within their team and community and what they did to earn that place. It also signals the expectation that they'll help us build out a team from Day 1. We want missionaries, not mercenaries.

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