When reviewing job candidates, I take a different approach than most high-tech CEOs. I rarely grill applicants on the ins and outs of geekery such as CSS, PHP, Twitter Bootstrap and Ruby on Rails. I let the technical team, who will be working with the new hire on a day-to-day basis, deal with all that.
Instead, my focus when interviewing any candidate is on the so-called “soft” stuff. I look at their ability to fit in with the team, I examine their personality, I review their goals. This helps me decide whether they’re a total loser.
Loser employees can destroy a business, especially during the startup phase. I have hired them before, only to watch them erode morale, slow down productivity and, worst of all, drive otherwise enthusiastic top performers away.
It’s a problem that’s best nipped in the bud. If, heaven forbid, you hire a loser who eventually progresses into a management position, he or she will almost definitely go on to hire other losers. Before you know it, you’ll wake up one morning surrounded by people you simply can’t stand.
How can you avoid this fate? Learn to identify these three types to make your workplace a loser-free zone.
Winners can spot losers. You just have to know what to look for.
When I sift through CVs and LinkedIn profiles of job applicants, I focus on their education, hobbies, charities and where their work has been published—not so much on their prior jobs. That’s because I’m more interested in gleaning who they are as a person and making a connection on that level. If you’re able to display your humanity to me in this context, odds are pretty good you are not a loser.
I also keep an eye out for a defensive attitude. Losers approach job interviews thinking that what they conceal from the hiring manager will get them the job. Instead of trying to get hired, they’re trying to prevent themselves from not getting hired. It’s a subtle difference that manifests itself in a nervous, uptight and reserved demeanour.
The opposite behaviour wins me over, which is why I generally look to draw out candidates’ true spirit and colours during interviews. I do it by prompting them to riff on an idea or experience that has meaning to them.
For example, if a candidate has an academic background in mathematics or engineering—subjects I don’t know a lot about—I’ll ask her to describe her most perplexing challenge during school and how she muddled through it. If a candidate likes kayaking, I’ll ask him to describe his favourite trip and explain what he draws from the experience on a day-to-day basis. If a candidate was unfortunate enough to have studied Shakespeare (as I did), I might elicit a soliloquy or inquire about whether Freud was right about Hamlet’s Oedipal complex.
The goal is to unlock candidates’ passion for a subject area in which they’re knowledgeable and engaged. This approach also gets them to open up and let their freak flag fly—that is, if there is one lurking back there.
One of my key concerns is to find out whether a candidate actually wants to work with me, and is not just looking for a job to pay the bills—classic loser behaviour.
I look for signs candidates are excited about our company. I’ll ask them to critique our product, our website, our marketing— even if it’s outside their expertise. I’ll pitch to them as if they were investors and solicit their honest feedback. I will press them for ideas and suggestions. I’ll ask for their perspective on our industry. And I’ll ask them about our competitors.
I don’t expect job applicants to do tons of upfront work when applying, but I want them to come into an interview with some knowledge of—and interest in—our business. It’s my belief that if they haven’t taken the time to learn about what we do, they’re not taking our interests seriously— and are losers.
People you wouldn’t befriend
Lately, I’ve been privileged to work with people I like—people with whom I enjoy spending time outside of work (although not often enough) as well as in the office.
Probing for details about an interviewee’s passions gets them to open up and let their freak flag fly
Common interests help foster this convivial environment, but they’re certainly not mandatory. Differing visions, ideals, and life experiences give the team, as a whole, a broader perspective.
Selfishly, I want to work with people I like because I feel I have exceptionally good taste in friends. You likely feel this way, too. Think about this practically: if you’re trapped in an elevator with an employee, the odds of you working together to “MacGyver” a solution instead of staring angrily at each other depends largely on how much you like each other.
On a day-to-day basis, making eye contact on your way to your desk with a coworker you despise has an appreciably negative effect on your enthusiasm and vigour—and results in way too many sleepless nights for a manager. There are so many negative forces you need to deal with outside the company, why would you welcome them inside your walls?
Of course, I don’t hire everyone I like. Over the years, I have made friends with people I interviewed but didn’t hire. I’ve helped them get jobs or contracts more appropriate to their skills and personalities; I’ve even made introductions to assist them in securing business deals.
During that time, I have punted 10 times as many losers, only to see them predictably fail with other employers.
I consider myself the company’s chief alchemist and, as such, I am always looking for ways to spice up the dynamic of the crew. This takes patience. To get the chemistry right, I often wait for the right person to “fit.”
I strongly feel that the “friend test” is a good filter for CEOs to use while hiring. Some very smart people, with degrees imbued in platinum, can still be losers. But someone less experienced—with an openness to self-expression, the right approach to learning and sheer likability—may shock you with star performance.
Read: How to Fire a Dud
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Ian Bell is a Vancouver-based entrepreneur with 13 years’ experience in building and helping technology startups in the U.S. and Canada. He most recently founded Tingle and RosterBot. A former Apple Research Fellow, he worked at Cisco Systems and Telus before going rogue. He blogs about the industry at IanBell.com.
More columns by Ian Bell