Big Red Car here in the beautiful ATX. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, we have a day like today and a day like yesterday.
On Earth as it is in Texas!
Hiring is one of the things about building a great startup that is alluded to with a backhanded swipe of the founders’ hands.
It is an essential consideration. [Do tell, Big Red Car. Give us more, please.]
Hiring is like writing a character into a novel. Your high school creative writing teacher told you that characters had to be “deep” and warned you against allowing them to have the fatal flaw of being “one dimensional.”
When you got to college, you learned that characters had obvious or exterior characteristics, traits, habits and quirks. Love those quirky traits. Things you could see with your eyes. You could tell the bad guys by their appearance, right? If you were watching a movie, you knew the bad guys were coming when the soundtrack got ominous.
But what really drove them was their backstory, their interior drivers, the meaning they attributed to life. The “why” of what they actually did. These are interior considerations.
Then you had to deal with their actual behaviors. Their actual behaviors might conflict with their exteriors and contradict or be driven by their inner demons. The conflict between their competing qualities is what made the story interesting. Storytelling is all about conflict. Creating it and resolving it. Then John Wayne gets the girl and rides into the sunset, right? Wrong.
Life is all about conflict. Good hiring is about conflict. The conflict between what the applicant thinks you want in the hire and who they really are. You want to hire the real person, not the faux, manufactured person. But how do you find that person?
Characters and applicants are complex
Characters and job applicants are a combination of:
1. Their obvious characteristics which can be viewed and sensed by the interviewer. It is what you see and the caution is this — what you see may not be what you get. The wild rebel who is going to wreck your culture may look very meek in her perfect interview dress. And guess what, you may get fooled by him. [Big Red Car crossdressing joke. Totally inappropriate but a little provocative nonetheless. When you sit in a driveway all day, sometimes you write truly stupid stuff. Sorry.]
2. Their interior driver, their personal backstory, the why of what they are and want to be.
3. Their actual behavior and whether it is consistent with their obvious characteristics and the “why” of their lives. Is it consistent? Does it contradict? Most importantly, how does it correlate with the exterior and the interior of your applicant?
OK, Big Red Car, how do we get so deep into our applicant? How do we find out their backstory and their behavior? Sheesh, Big Red Car, this is complicated. Isn’t it? Why can’t I just get them to fill out an application, talk to them for ten minutes and hire them?
Because, dear reader and CEO and entrepreneur, you will make a lot of bad hires. Hiring is one part dodging bullets and one part finding rock stars. You have to do both.
Know this, you can do it if you will harness that big brain of yours. You can do it.
How to get the exterior right
Most hiring processes — wait, you do have a “hiring process”, right? — do just fine on the exterior characteristics, the obvious stuff. Your eyes and ears will tell you what you need to know.
The applicant’s resume — more than fifty percent of applicants will tell you a lie in writing on their resume — will help you on this matter.
Look at the above link to get a framework as to how much baloney gets baked into resumes. It is frightening. Know this.
How to get the backstory
Getting the backstory will not be accomplished by asking:
“What do you consider to be your greatest shortcoming?”
[Well, unless the question is administered using waterboarding techniques but that’s a more advanced lesson.]
“My greatest shortcoming is that I am impatient when striving for excellence and, at times, I work way too hard.”
Bullshit meter clanging at your end yet?
To get to backstory, you will have to creep up on things with questions that delve into their personal view of life. After all, you are trying to find out how they view life and what it means and how it drives their behaviors. You are ultimately hiring their behaviors. Remember that. It will ultimately be what they do for your company that counts.
“Do you read much? What books? Best book you’ve read recently? How do those apply to what you do?”
“What is your favorite movie of all time? What lesson did you take from it?”
“Is there a particular public figure you admire? Why? How would that apply to your life?”
“Favorite teacher or coach? What did they teach you and how do you use it today?”
“What would you change about your upbringing, if you could?”
“What are your favorite charities and why?”
“If you could invite anyone to a dinner party who would your first three invitees be and why?”
These questions are not brilliant, in fact, they are a little predictable and mundane but they are the way you are going to get them to talk about the things that are a little below the surface. You are looking for the “why” of each of these questions. You almost don’t care about the actual answer, you care about what it reveals as to why your applicant does things. What is driving your beloved candidate?
There is no silver bullet; there is only hard work. Remember, you are probing and if you are completely rebuffed that also tells you something.
Probing for behavior
The first quest in trying to detect how the exterior and the interior melds and drives behavior is simply checking references.
Don’t ask questions which are going to elicit knee jerk favorable or unfavorable answers. Probe with questions that will elicit anecdotes or descriptions of behaviors. Get their former employer to tell you what they did.
[Pro tip: Make damn sure you know why the applicant left every job and how they got their next job. This junction at the end of former jobs and the beginning of new jobs is a critical point of observation. It may be a pivot or inflection point and the answers may provide incredible insights into the “why” of it all. Know the answers.]
Ask “what if” questions that force the applicant to come up with answers that are based on their instincts and inclinations. You are probing for how their exterior and their interior will work together in a real world situation. In some ways, this is a lab experiment.
“If you were faced with this situation, how would you deal with it?”
“Someone did this in reaction to this, would you do the same thing or how would you do it differently?”
Make the situation very close to the actual job they will likely be doing. Follow their most instinctive answer, don’t pay too much attention to what bubbles up five minutes later when they’ve quashed their instincts and are trying to model what they think you want to hear.
The Big Red Car counsels that job interviews should be a little structured and process driven. Not that the applicant is going to know this.
Write out your questions and group them under the appropriate headings — exterior, backstory, behavior — and weave them together in such a way that the applicant doesn’t figure out: “OK, here come the backstory questions. Must have read that goofy Big Red Car blog post.”
Remember always you are hiring complex people but you are hiring their entire story — their characteristics, traits, habits, quirks; their backstory and drivers; and, their behaviors. The first two just combine to become their behaviors.
But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Hire well. Be kind to yourself because you, my friend, you are a very complex character and you are the one writing this story. Hire well.