How to Avoid Hiring Mistakes and Select Top Performers

By John Vlastelica | Recruiting | No Comments

Whether you're an emerging small company or a large technology leader, every hire counts...especially in this economy, where headcount is so precious. So, what should you focus on to...

  • Avoid hiring mistakes?
  • Structure your interviewing process to yield the best hires?
  • Leverage your interviewing strategy as a selling strategy?

How can I avoid hiring mistakes?

If the output that you want is a great performer, then it's key that you get the right "performance" inputs.  Unfortunately, most interviewers focus too much on candidate self reported strengths and weaknesses and superficial questions. They key to predicting future performance is to

  1. Establish what great performance and "fit" looks like at your company, so that interviewers have common standards to use when evaluating a candidate, and
  2. Dig into a candidate's past performance and present performance. 

Evaluate Past Performance:

  • Every executive and hiring manager I've worked with in this economy wants the same thing: someone who can hit the ground running.  The key is to move beyond questions that just uncover responsibilities, credentials, and technical competence.  Instead, leverage techniques that help you understand what they've done and how they did it. 

  • Ask questions like "Tell me about a time when you had to..." or "Walk me through one of your biggest accomplishments/challenges related to...".  The secret sauce is in the follow up questions; you must dig, dig, dig.  What part did they personally deliver?  To what kind of customer?  Using what technology and skills?  With what constraints?  With what kind of resources and team?  Then, you must really dig into how they worked with other people to understand "fit".  For example, when they ran into a roadblock, were they quick to blame others or give up, or did they diagnose the problem, consider multiple solutions, get the right type of people involved, and lead the charge to move forward?

Evaluate Present Performance:

  • Identify a technical or business challenge that your successful hire will likely face on the job.  Make it something that a top candidate should be able to tackle successfully.  Present the real world problem and then ask them what they'd do first, how they'd do it, why they'd do it that way instead of this way, what they'd do if they ran into this kind of problem, and who they'd involve if this happened.  Have them white-board their responses while your interviewers listen and introduce technical or business constraints as they work.  This technique gives you evidence of performance and tremendous insights into their motivation (you can tell if this is the kind of work they're naturally motivated by when they tackle a real world problem; are they actively engaging with the interviewers?).

How to Leverage References

In general, a reference check should never take you from a "no hire" to a "hire".  Don't let some biased third party negate your process.  Having said that, references can be a reasonable source of data to validate your concerns and a candidate's accomplishments and work style.  The key is to solicit the references you want from the candidate.  Sometimes a quick check can reveal an inside connection that you can leverage to get honest, frank feedback (be sure to always get a candidate's permission/release first).  

How should I structure the interview to get the best hires?

  • How many?  An Engineering Director I worked with years ago ran a detailed statistical analysis on years of interviewing data to determine the optimal number of interviewers for a software engineer.  The answer?  5.  Is 5 right for you?  I don't know.  There is no magic number.  The way to figure out the number of interviewers is to look at the inputs you need to make a quality hiring decision, and then back your way into 30-60 minute blocks of time to see how much time is needed.

  • Focus Areas.  Organizations that "get" interviewing assign focus areas to their interviewers.  This is the key to getting depth and breadth.  Assuming a single interviewer can and will cover everything - technical skills, "fit", accomplishments, motivation - in 45 minutes is silly.  It's just not possible to go deep in every area.  Assign focus areas to each interviewer - and train them - so that they can go deep.  Then pull everyone together for a debrief meeting at the end of the interviewing day to calibrate and make a quality decision.

  • Who?  When assembling a team, ask yourself..."Who has the expertise to capture the inputs I need?", "Who has the credibility to help me get the buy in I need to make this hire?", "What kind of diversity (race, gender, age, work history) do I need represented on the interviewing team to attract the kind of person I need", "If I were this level of candidate, who would I expect to meet with and who could help me sell this candidate?".

How do I leverage my interviewing strategy as a selling strategy?

In this - or any economy - "A" players have choices; they're interviewing us as much as we're interviewing them, right?  And smart candidates are savvy these days.  There's a lot more information about what it's really like to work for your company available (have you seen  So, the question is, what can you do to put your best foot forward?  The good news is that you don't need to spend a lot of money on fancy recruitment marketing materials to impress "A" players.  

For 5 years I've been running focus groups with top performers and recent hires from leading technology organizations that have hired my firm.  Here's what they tell me they primarily looked for - as a candidate - when "interviewing" a company.

  • Is this an important role that connects to the business?  Will I make an impact?
    You need to ensure that you make the business/customer connection clear to the candidate.  Put quality interviewers in front of candidates who are making a difference, who know this job, who can articulate why this work matters to your department, your company, and even your industry.

  • Are these smart people?  Will I be challenged?
    "A" players want to learn from smart people and work on challenging projects.  Put some of your best - not just your most available - people on the interviewing team.  Show them that they'll work side by side with smart, motivated people who "get it", and work on challenging problems.  And recognize that the questions you ask candidates tell them volumes about your collective intelligence.  Asking someone "What kind of animal would you be?" or "Do you prefer to work in a fast paced environment?" versus asking them to problem solve a challenging technical problem creates a very different impression.

  • What's it really like to work here?
    Too often, we spend a lot of time telling the world - through our careers website or our phone interviews - that we're a customer focused, results oriented culture filled with smart, motivated people.  And then we go and do something stupid, like send in unprepared interviewers to meet candidates, take 2 weeks to respond to a simple request from a candidate, ask the candidate to complete a 45 minute online questionnaire before their first interview...all actions that tell them that the stuff we say is not what we actually do.  Audit your process from a candidate's perspective.  Is it too bureaucratic, too formal, too long, too onerous?  I have this saying: We build our employment brand one candidate at a time.  Is your employment brand attractive to your target candidates?

I wanted this article to provide you with some strategic and tactical suggestions and challenge you to really think about your interviewing and selection process.  But, obviously, we're just scratching the surface here.  What are you doing to hire better people?  How are you structuring your interviewing and recruiting process to ensure you can sell/close top candidates?  Are you doing something different because of the economic climate we're in now?  Let us know.  We'd love to hear your thoughts and learn more about what you're doing to get the right people on your bus.


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