I think it’s a reasonable given that we understand the need to find and hire the “best” employees possible.  Knowing how to do this, however, is the more-than-elusive goal many people struggle with, myself included.

Over time, I have studied and experimented with a lot of interviewing systems, strategies, and techniques.  I dare say it’s a never-ending challenge, and one that has forced me to stay on my toes.  Recently, though, I feel like we’ve converged on a system that works for us.  I’ll describe the system we use, and why I believe it works for our team.  If our situation is similar to yours, then hopefully it’ll help you too!

What is purposeful hiring?

Purposeful hiring is a “philosophy” of being very purposeful and clear about hiring needs.  It encourages us to think beyond the candidate’s resume, and instead to seek to maximize the odds that we’ll not only find the right person for the job, but that we’re also the right fit for the person right now.

We look at three distinct yet related views for each candidate:

  • Skills and experience.  This is the obvious place to start.  Does the person have the right combination of education, training, experience, skills, for the job we need done?
  • Cultural fit.  Recently, the benefits of a healthy team culture have moved front and center in many organizations nowadays.  For us, we try hard not to draw lines of “right and wrong,” but we do understand there’s a “right fit for us.”  Culture fit looks into working styles, personal and professional goals, and “values.”
  • Environmental fit.  This is closely related to culture, but is more concrete.  We look at the “right now” setup in terms of how our team operates and what we need.  How well known are the requirements for the job?  How stable are the responsibilities?  How much support do we have for the person?  Just like culture, this is rarely a right and wrong, but there is a “right for right now.”

Skills and experience is primarily an assessment of the candidate’s match to our needs.  Environmental fit is primarily an assessment of what we need to provide to set up the candidate to succeed.  And culture fit is somewhere in the middle because it has elements of both.

In terms of how critical we push for alignment, we’ve found two factors to be the biggest determinants of need:

  • Size of the team / project / overall business.  For startups, or even small projects or departments within larger organizations, the smaller the team, the greater the need to not make compromises.  This is simply because a single person tends to have a greater impact for a smaller team (good or bad).  The larger the team, the less we’ll tend to focus on specific skill and environmental match, but culture fit is something we’ve found to be important regardless of team size.
  • Level of impact the candidate can make.  If the candidate is applying for a supervisor role, then we push for greater alignment.  The higher the person will sit in the organization, the greater the need for alignment.  When one person’s behaviors or actions directly affect many others (positively or negatively), there’s less margin for error.

How this works in practice

There are reams of advise, guidance, and tests available to screen for the right skills, so most of the time, this is a reasonably straight-forward aspect for candidate assessment.

Experience is slightly more nuanced which we translate into the ability to apply their skills to succeed on the job.  A “success hack” one of our advisors gave us was to always hire in pairs.  Think back to situations when a new hire was struggling.  It’s really hard to know why, whether it’s them (don’t have the right skills), or us (don’t have the right processes).  When you hire two candidates to perform the same function, it’s usually pretty quick to see one of three possible outcomes.   First, one candidate does much better than the other (for us, it can be as fast as week), in which case, we will often decide to terminate the weaker candidate.  Second, neither do well, in which case, it’s usually a bad on us, and we try to quickly improve our processes and ask the candidates to stick it out with us.  Third, it’s also possible that both work out great, in which case, assuming we’ve got the budget, we keep both, and everyone’s happy!  We’ve used this method a number of times, and have had all three scenarios happen.

Environmental fit has become an increasingly important metric for us because we’ve found there is a strong connection between the external factors relating to a candidate’s prior successes and failures.  Just because a person has a strong track record, it’s rarely the case that they succeeded on their own.  Did they have a great supportive boss in their prior role?  Were they using a proven process?  Was it just great market timing?  It doesn’t dismiss the fact that someone succeeded, but it’s important to understand why.  As an example, what if we’re hiring the first candidate in our customer success department, which means we won’t have any proven processes that work.  If the leading candidate has never themselves set up processes, but rather has only used built-in systems, that’s a big risk for us, and the candidate to take on.

Culture fit is both the hardest to assess, and yet the most critical.  It’s easy to assess bad culture match (the classic one is interviewing the lone wolf type when everyone else likes to work on a team), but the difference between an average culture match and a great one is really hard to assess.  This is primarily because most candidates are on their best behavior during the interview, and even after they start work (we call it the honeymoon phase).  Even then, we’ve found that issues in culture fit tend to be buried when the going’s good, it’s when things get tough that the culture fit pays dividends.  As a leader, though, it’s precisely when things are tough that we need to know we can count on the entire team to pull through.  This is why culture fit is both so vexing and crucial to get right.

We’ve tried a number of question-asking techniques to assess culture fit and haven’t found any that yielded reliable outcomes, so instead we’ve come to rely on experiential tests.  One of the techniques we’ve used with reasonable success is the “overnight project” situation.   The setup goes something like this: We’ll design a reasonably doable task that requires the candidate to deliver something small and tangible aligned with the role we’re interviewing them for.  But the task also requires interaction with people on our team.  Given the short time frame, the pressure’s on for the candidate to produce, so it heightens most of the interactions.  When the task is delivered, we’re assessing not only their skill in delivering, but also how they delivered.  And we ask for feedback for how easy it was to work with us.  There’s been more than a few occasions where we thought it went great, but the candidate felt our style just didn’t work for them.  Even in those instances, they were happy to discover it before accepting a job offer, and all the explaining in the world for how we do things would fall short of them actually experiencing it themselves.

Why it works for us, and why it might work for you

We’re engineers, so we like processes to disambiguate situations.  We believe that, even though there are countless micro elements that ultimately decide whether a new hire is able to be successful with us, that we can go a long way to maximizing the odds for success through rigorous process.  One of the better books we’ve found on treating hiring like a process is “How to think about hiring: play smarter to win the talent game.”  The author, Lex Sisney, argues that it’s more important to find the right match for your system, than it is to find the strongest candidate.  To us, this translates strongly into “culture first, environment second, skill third.”  And then being clear about what your system actually is, and building the screening processes around that.

We’re actively using this system, along with some other processes, for one of our startups, microtau.io, and it’s been a game changer for us.  For an early stage startup, it’s all hands on deck, and we don’t have the luxury of investing six months into onboarding someone.  So we do our best to look for candidates that have the right skills, experience in building processes from scratch, and are matched to our culture.  So far, over 80% of the candidates that make it through have worked out well, so we’ve got to be doing something right.

Hopefully some of these ideas will resonate with you, if so, let us know and join the conversation!

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Kevin Miyashiro
Principal at Agile Gurus
I drink Agile Kool-Aid and help others drink it too.