How to Attract and Hire Excellent Employees - No Matter the Position
“Ask employees why’d you join, why’d you stay, and why’d you leave and make sure your programs fit their feedback.”
- Amanda Gordon, VP People at Rewind
In the sixth episode of our podcast, Unicorn Leaders, our guest, Amanda Gordon, explains how companies and managers can attract, hire and retain amazing employees. She also tells us the importance of figuring out what brings an employee to your company, what makes them stay and what makes them leave.
The people on our team are key to any business’s success. The composition of a team concerns the skills and attitudes of each member. You want to try and get the right people on the team to achieve the desired high-performance level you’re aiming for.
What matters most on a team is the interactions between people rather than the necessary talent on the team. Over and over again, research supports this. Still, when we raise the bar and two sets of teams work effectively together, team composition becomes important in solving complex problems and innovating when building your startup and developing leadership.
To effectively manage team composition, you need to have to answer a few questions:
- What individual team members have the necessary technical skills?
- Do you have the right soft skills, the interpersonal skills?
- Communication skills?
- Are the individual team members committed?
- Is there alignment in their values, intrinsic values?
- Is the team the right size to complete the right tasks?
Teams with members who lack alignment in their motivation and engagement, aren't able to accomplish tasks and lack the skills to achieve their team’s goals.
Imagine a documentary about your team and what it's accomplishing six months from now. What specific results do you see? How was your day different from what the team is doing today?
Think about the skills needed to make that vision a reality six months from now. Once you've envisioned the ideal outcome of how your team works and feels, the skill that's necessary to achieve it, it becomes clear as you analyze whether those skill sets match the existing team members that you have and what the gap is.
You need to have honest conversations about letting some team members find a new place where their talent is a better fit. You'll also need to recruit the right people and skills because once you have a high-performing team, once you're moving towards that ideal vision six months from now of what your team will look like, you'll start to see the gaps in people.
In startups, we often talk about our customer journey and when trying to make the product market fit and understand exactly how our product has to be positioned in the market. We get good at customer insight. Why can't we do the same thing for employees?
We've got to create a talent market fit within our organizations. What is our employee experience? What are the challenges, and how are we positioning ourselves in the market to attract the most phenomenal team players to create a high-performing team?
Employee Experience Maps
Prioritizing and creating a phenomenal employee experience begins by mapping out their journey.
Many of us have the experience of customer journey maps where you're able to understand all the different parts of the customer’s experience with your business.
We have to look at the employee journey map in the same way.
In Jim Harter's and Jim Clifton's book, It's the Manager; they look at the three steps:
- Attract - how do you get top talent interested in your business?
- Onboard - make sure they feel the decision they made is effective.
- Engage - help them perform, drive expectations and develop their skills.
How do we recruit the top talent? Companies spend time and money on marketing campaigns to build a loyal customer base but often neglect to develop a strong employment brand to attract the best applicants.
Just like you want a brand for your customers, you want a brand for your employees. Thanks to technology, employees can reveal and share how they experience your company's brand, and everyone knows what happens inside the organization. This includes the entire employee experience from hiring, onboarding, career development opportunities and departure.
The reality is that the new workforce of Millennials and Gen-Z are highly networked. When searching for jobs, they seek referrals from current employees of potential organizations and suggestions from family members or friends.
They ask past employees questions and determine your employment brand by your reputation. Reputation travels much quicker now than in the past and organizational transparency has been made even more important in entering the workforce.
Suppose there's a discrepancy between how your organization presents itself to the world and how it really is. In that case, your future employees are going to find out online, from their friends, from someone that works there that they just randomly met on LinkedIn. They'll get the honest answer, and that employment brand is a reason that you're either attracting outstanding candidates or not.
Once you start attracting your ideal candidates:
- Do you have an employment brand? Is it clear?
- Is the culture clear? Is it talked about?
- Do you talk about your values?
- Do you talk about your vision?
Now, how do you pick? The wrong or bad hire can be extremely costly to your team and your organization. Not only did you miss the chance to hire a star, but now you have to spend more money to train a replacement.
Hiring engaged employees costs the organization less in the long run because they boost customer engagement, revenues and profitability.
Let's look at some of the common biases we face when hiring so we can call them out, become more aware of them, and use them as a checklist when we’re hiring.
- Glare factors: hiring managers give disproportionate weight to characteristics that appear on the surface during an interview, such as how a candidate looks, dresses and presents themselves. Reminder: those aren't the things you're hiring for.
- Experience fallacy: hiring managers previously had an applicant from the candidate’s previous employer become highly successful, so assume everyone who has worked at that organization will be a good fit.
- Confirmation bias: hiring managers form a distinct impression of a candidate based on the school they attended or a club they belong to and only hear comments that confirm their beliefs about the person.
- Overconfidence bias: hiring managers believe they have a remarkable ability to judge applicants based on their gut and don't consider other information. I love that one. Managers tell me, "Oh, I feel good about it. I could just feel it. I could just sense it." Listening to your gut if you are highly emotionally intelligent can be a source of evidence, but we've got to have the right data to back that up.
- Similarity bias: hiring managers select and hire people who are like them. This is the most prominent bias, and we see it when teams take personality tests and hire people within the same grouping of their own personalities.
- Stereotype bias: hiring managers have unconscious stereotypes associated with gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity and age. We've got to be careful with one. A good way is to remove names and pictures from resumes.
- Availability bias: hiring managers rely on their memory of an interview and make decisions based on a few high or low points rather than having proper documentation and a comprehensive view of all the skill sets.
- The escalation commitment: hiring managers feel pressured to move forward with a candidate because they've already invested so much time and energy into the process. Example; we've already had two or three people go through the interview process, we should just select one even though all of them aren't the right fit.
Because of these biases, it's not unusual for managers to make hiring decisions that they regret later.
You've got to better distinguish between your biases and the truth and the data. See, in some fields, there are massive amounts of readily available data. When college athletes are recruited, for instance. Professionals spend hours studying stats, and watching games tape before making a decision. The recruiting bureaus use a five-star system to rate each potential player and the system. While it's imperfect, it does remarkably well in predicting which colleges will have teams running for a championship each year.
The drive for achievement. Do they have that internal motivation? That intrinsic motivation? Do they have the ability to get things done?
Are they able to work with people? Are they able to build teams? Have quality relationships? Can they solve problems through a simulation of new information?
We want to evaluate candidates on five traits: motivation, work style, initiation, collaboration and thought processes. Screening for these five innate tendencies will encompass most of what you need to know about a candidate and their potential.
Ed Catmull's (Pixar) principles: "When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than the current skill level." What they will be capable of tomorrow is more important than what they can do today.
In the later stages of hiring, you want to conduct multiple interviews with team members to give them a full context and everyone gets to know the top candidates.
These interviews allow you to understand the candidate's fit within the hired role and whether they’re the right person for it. Combining evaluation from several interviews substantially reduces the potential bias of a single interview approach. Three interviews is the magic number. In an interview, if possible, you want to have two colleagues alongside you (three interviewers total).
The traditional interview process is flawed.
Classic questions have been passed down from generation to generation, but as a lot of companies we've worked with have discovered, these questions are unreliable:
- What are your greatest strengths or weaknesses?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
- Tell me about a time you overcame a challenge at work.
Behaviour questions might be useful for testing how someone can relay information back to you or tell you a story, but storytelling and interviewing isn't the skill you're looking to test for, unless it is, unless this person is for a PR role. The questions test for the wrong thing: how well they interview instead of whether they are actually right for the role.
Let's break it down into four parts:
Before all your interviews, come up with the questions. Share the questions with the candidates ahead of time. Your goal isn’t to test their interview skills; you want to hear thoughtful, critical answers and ask helpful questions during the conversational portion of the interview.
We want to give ourselves about 45 minutes to 90 minutes for the conversational part of this interview to let it flow,see what comes up, and ask more questions that can allow the candidate to be engaged.
Your goal is to have them show enthusiasm, excitement and passion. The questions should be varied, and you can test for preparation by asking questions that are easy to research. For example, can you tell us a little bit of what you know about our company, why did you apply to our company, etc.
To test for critical thinking and tech savviness: ask more open-ended questions designed to start a conversation or spark creativity. For example, you can ask engineering candidates how they would develop an app to accomplish a specific task, such as viewing pictures or animals. Ask customer service or a sales candidate to choose a piece of software they're familiar with and demo it as if they're selling it or explaining it.
To test for listening and communication skills: format some questions as directions. This gives candidates a clear idea of what you want from them while at the same time allowing them to see whether they can deliver. For example, you might say, "Teach us about one of your passions. Something that you know a lot about, consider yourself to be an expert, and teach us as if we know nothing about it."
Many of these questions allow candidates to pick topics and discussions themselves, so it's important to share the questions beforehand. This is not about testing your recall memory, and it’s about whether you can prepare, have interesting, quality answers, and communicate effectively.
If candidates don't choose good topics when you've given them the questions beforehand, and don't know what they're talking about, then you can see that they're not prepared and perhaps that's not what you want. It shows that they didn't care enough to prepare for the interview.
2. Technical Skills
After the question portion of the interview, schedule a 45 to 90-minute chat between the candidate and a team member who's an expert in their field. Not another manager; a peer who has the necessary experience.
This is followed by a short exercise to test their skills. During the chat, team members ask candidates role-specific questions to help gauge whether they have a genuine interest in the work they're doing. With customer service positions, for example, we ask candidates if they think that helping people is rewarding, whether they like talking on the phone, whether they like solving people's problems. And depending on the candidate and the flow of that interview, you might ask less direct questions and more general ones about their interests that they find most rewarding.
For the exercise portion of this stage, you want to create scenarios that allow people to see the candidate's skills in action and evaluate how well they collaborate with other employees. Allow the candidate the opportunity to experience what it would be like to work on a specific team. For instance, you may ask an engineering candidate to participate in pair programming (when two developers work together on a problem).
All of the on-the-job testing is key for engineering, customer service, sales and management roles. Again, you have to let the candidates know which topics you’ll be covering in the technical portion beforehand, such as what they'll be testing, what activities they’ll be doing and how they should prepare.
3. Writing Samples
Many companies collect writing samples from candidates before or after the initial interview. This is one time where it's more beneficial to keep a close eye on their work because it gives you insight into the quality of a candidate's writing without any potential outside assistance.
You want all your hires to communicate clearly, in writing, without extensive editing, and sometimes actually under a time restraint. The assignment you give should be specific to the role each candidate is applying for.
For example, if they're a customer service candidate, give them a sample email of a hypothetical angry client, and an example response to reflect the ideal company voice. Ask them to mimic the company voice and write up their own response. Expect them to ask as many questions beforehand as possible and take notes. Don't specify the length of the response, but the examples given will set the expectations. This can be done for sales, technical briefs, or even for allowing them to pitch a new idea.
If you're interviewing in the office, you can give the candidate about 30-45 minutes in a quiet room. If you're interviewing virtually, just break the video call. Say, "Okay, we'll see you in 30 minutes, and get back at this time." You don't have to watch them on video; just give them a limited time to try and respond.
When their time is up, they give you the writing piece, and you resume the interview. You go through what they wrote and ask questions. Ask them why they chose specific phrasing, certain structure, how they came up with ideas and their thought process.
What you're looking at is whether they can think critically, compose writing, mimic the company voice and overall thoughtfulness.
4. Team games.
We want to know how candidates will interact with their colleagues with interactions being the most important part. Instead of making assumptions based on specific interview questions like “how would your coworkers describe you?” you want to design peer interactions around board games that challenge players to work together toward a goal. Here's the key thing, the games have to be collaborative, and they have to work together toward a goal.
One great game is Code Names. You get to learn how the candidate interacts with team members while showing them your company is a fun workplace.
The outcome of the game isn't crucial, and it's not about who won. You're looking for signs of a good culture fit. Over 1-3 hours of playing together, you get to know the candidate and learn about them in a new way.
Be Committed to The Hiring Process
Successful hiring organizations are obvious on what they look for. A Canadian speaker, Eric Termuende, says "Hiring cultures should be like cilantro. You either love it or you hate it."
It's very clear whether you fit into this group or not, whether it's a part of your DNA or not. It's part of the culture. Most hiring processes are built to be lengthy. Demanding processes that seek to assess fit, contribute through deep background research and extensive interactions with different people, and measure a personality test and strength test and all these different pieces to try and see whether it's a good fit.
Take your time hiring. Often when you slow down hiring, you make it better. You want to fill that role, get that project going, and just need another person, but having the right people is so much more effective than the cost of turnover when you hire the wrong people.
Some groups like Zappos even add an extra layer of belonging cues, an extra layer of whether you belong in this organization or not. After they hire you and the training is complete, they offer trainees a $2,000 bonus if they quit. They’ll give you $2,000 if you quit, because they don't want you there either if you don’t 100% want to be at their company. About 10% of trainees accept the $2000 offer.
How did you get placed in a human resources role?
Amanda: I remember reaching out to my dad, and I said, I don't even know what human resources means; what is it? His response to me was that he had had an incredible mentor in his career. He said there are two streams of HR and people. One of them is very strategic and a critical piece of a business; the other is more administrative.
I'm not criticizing either, but he said to me that you are 100% in the strategic stream. If you can find a role like that, run screaming into the building. So the early part of my career was in people, roles, recruitment, always in tech, and I grew up in a phenomenal industry that was exploding. I still pinch myself of some of the career opportunities I had. So from small, tiny little startups that started from the bottom now we're here.
How has your attitude around recruitment changed from when you started versus now?
Amanda: In the early stages, we had 30 positions we had to fill. I was working with a team of engineers and wanted to impress them. They would screen every candidate I’d recommend. I realized quickly that I had to make sure that anybody I recommended was a yes, so we could build trust.
The only way I could get there was by having some deep conversations with the team about what they really needed. I would passionately screen candidates and try to find the right fit for our teams. I've always told people when I'm mentoring or when I'm working with them early in their career, don't take recruitment for granted, and really lean in with managers.
If you can hire some stars for them, they will start to trust you. They'll ask you about how to onboard a star or retain talent. They'll come to you with different things. I've really looked at that now is that, um, the relationship you make with a candidate is lasting, you know, in a lot of cases, those candidates will invite me to their barbecue, to their children's weddings, to their baby showers because they will come to you and say like, you, you took a chance on me, and we form a very different relationship. And you coach candidates through that process and form really good relationships with them. So all those lessons learned to say, like being real and caring about the candidate experience. And I would never oversell. I learned that later in life, never oversell an opportunity because the candidate will land and then they'll run screaming outta the building.
More and more employers are struggling with finding the right people. So they feel like they need to be selling. They need to be kind of pushy. How do you balance that?
Amanda: Some recruitment we're doing right now in Denmark and Poland and we have a couple of candidates that have been brought forward, and it's not only we need to find talent for that region, but compensation is insane right now where we're seeing candidates that are saying, sure, I'll join you, but I want a US salary, or I want something that's completely out of market. I challenge my team regularly to say that we have to stay true to Rewind's cultures at the end of the day. And so our culture is to, you know, diversity, equity inclusion to really make sure that what we do for one we'll do for others.
I don't want two people in a role with completely different salaries, because somebody is a better negotiator. I say that because you layer on the need for talent, some of these roles are business critical and talent is in demand these days. So it is really tricky. You're respecting the experience with the candidate, and you're listening to them. Don't try to fit that square peg in the round hole. But when you find great talent, it's a noisy market of everybody saying we've got a great culture.
We're an employer of choice. I believe that Rewind actually has some secret sauce. I would not have come here if I didn't believe that. I'm trying to really help them to tell that story that's real, and it'll resonate with some. If they run screaming away, I'll actually happily recommend them to other companies.
Give me some insight into how some of your cultural roles changed throughout SkyWave through the decade you were with them?
Amanda: It was crazy. It's crazy. And even to think that I was there for 11 years is like, what I, never, ever, especially at that stage of my career, would've guessed that I would've stayed at a company that long. But it wasn't the same company. Every couple of years it was changing, and our challenges were different than before.
I walked into Skywave with three little babies. When the CEO interviewed me, he interviewed me in my house, and it was nap time for the babies, I gave my dog to the neighbours because I knew he was going to ring the doorbell and the dog was going to bark, and the babies were going to wake up. So I was thinking I could interview in my house with a CEO about a job with sleeping babies. It was crazy.
Part of the assignment was around your building, the teams’ future leaders. Tell me about that. Tell me that you, you had a, it was a formal program around building future leaders at SkyWave, was it kind of ad hoc? How, how was that?
Amanda: I would say the seed was planted at Skywave for really respecting that we had a management team that needed support. As we were scaling, we didn't always want to be hiring externally. We really wanted those employees to come on the journey with us. And so we started to build more management chops within our organization. And what you start to see when your business is scaling is it, it's not just a management layer, it's a leadership level that you need. So we looked at future leaders, but I would say to you where I saw this most and worked in it most was with consulting. going into companies and looking at where they were struggling and often it was management layers. And so did this for multiple clients where we designed a management development program for them.
And then we would challenge them on the future leaders program. And so even at Rewind, I had a conversation with a member of my team just yesterday talking about, we have an assignment. It's kind of like a puzzle for our company. And I said, what if we made that an assignment for one or a couple of our future leaders like pull people out of their jobs on a cross-functional puzzle and, and allow them to dig deep into coming up with suggestions and solutions for our executive team as well as giving them training and development in what does it really mean to be a leader, but giving them real life, real world, real company problems that are outside of their domain so that they understand finance better. They understand our customer better. They understand you know, whatever it is that they are given the exposure to the business side of our business.
Why will people come to work for you? Why will they stay and why are they leaving? I think that's the kind of employee value prop, what other key parts of a talent strategy should we consider?
Amanda: So one best piece of advice to anybody is don't join a company in November because you have to report on your last quarter results, your annual results. You have to create your new plan for the next year and your plan for Q1.
I look at, um, layering in, we have great feedback tools in our company. And so before I set our new OKRs, I'm going back into like, I've just spent hours and hours reading through and answering all of our office five responses and hearing, you know, what people love and where they're challenging us to do better. I think if you put them into those kinds of strategic buckets and challenge yourself on what is true now and where do we wanna be and what would have to be true to get us there and then layer in what matters to employees like spend the time, ask people why did you join? Why do you stay? Why would you leave? And make sure your programs fit.
If you’re building a talent strategy based on a sample you saw online or a great book you've read you will not match what your business needs. Whenever I'm doing any kind of talent strategy or when I was consulting, I was always asking people, what are your business goals? It was shocking to me that I would look at the talent strategy and couldn't see the business connection and I couldn't see the employee value proposition connect. I'm like, that's why you're struggling, because your programs probably aren't resonating with people and you're spending money where you shouldn't be…
What advice would you tell your younger staff? Both personally and, and professionally.
Amanda: It took me a long time to just be you and be real. I talked about being real with candidates; if they run screaming out of the building, it's okay. If they run screaming in then really focus on that. That only comes from open courageous conversations and understanding the business. To connect and make a difference, you layer in understanding what this business needs and what this team needs.
I would also tell my younger self that hard work will pay off: be brave and take steps. When you think you're not ready, it's okay. You'll figure it out. That's where big growth happens. I could have easily stayed at SkyWave for another 5-10 years, but when I think of the growth I've had since then it's magic because I was brave and said, okay, I got this. And I think that we do get scared of stretching, but stretch is beautiful.
The other piece of advice I would give my younger self is that I had beautiful learning when I went to a small company, big company, small company, big company. I would encourage people to do small. Don't be afraid of small - small is phenomenal if it fits you.
Gallup has found in their research that only one-third of college students strongly agree they’ll graduate with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the job market, and 53% believe that their major will lead to a good job. These findings came out of the Strada-Gallup study in 2019 and a national representative survey of students across the United States that examined their perceptions and preparedness for the workforce and the career-related support they were receiving from their institutions.
What they were looking at in further research, the Gallup Alumni Survey, designed to measure the quality of college experience from the perspective of college graduates. They identified six positive college experiences that are linked to success after college and university.
These six factors, if they happen while at school, in university, and while in college, have higher tendencies for actual success, and they have a strong link to actual success in the workplace.
- Having at least one professor who made them excited about learning.
- Having at least one professor who cared about them as a person.
- Having a mentor who encourages them to pursue their goals and their dreams.
- Working on a project that took a semester or more to complete.
- An internship or job allowed them to apply what they were learning in the classroom.
- Be extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while in college.
These six experiences are linked to post-graduate well-being and employee engagement, among other key outcomes. What's really interesting is that only 3% of graduates have had all six experiences in college.
The more of these experiences they have, the higher the chances of them succeeding at your company.
Within the Gallup Alumni Survey findings lies a massive opportunity. Your startup can play a huge role in three of these six experiences. One, having a mentor because you, as the manager, become the coach. Two, working on projects that allow them to apply what they learned, and then three, having an internship. By hiring students currently in university for internships, you can help with their future success and prepare your future workforce to fill the roles you need.
To prepare your next wave of recruits, consider partnering with a university or a college. Create an intensive work-integrated experience for students. Take employee branding to a new level and give students a realistic idea of what working for you would be like. They’ll spread the word to students across their university and college and give you even more recruits. Not only does this greatly benefit your organization, but it could also be something that as a company, as part of your values, part of your purpose, you're helping provide infinite value and opportunities to students.
Ed Catmull from Pixar says, "Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they’ll screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team and they’ll either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are they'll get the ideas right."
We have to obsess over our team.
Some key elements in hiring and attracting talent are super important in being able for you to interview to get the right individual. Attract them with a solid employment brand, and then close the deal by providing them effective compensation.
Given the fact that as a startup, you have limited resources, invest the majority of your HR dollars in recruitment.
If you can recruit the best people, that will be where you should focus. Hire only the best by taking your time. The interview process we gave you has four steps. It might take a few months to get through, and it's a lot of work, but as a manager, the last thing you want is to bring on a lousy member to the team. If you have a high-performing unit, it will drag it down.
Hire only people who are better than you in some meaningful way. They have to be better than you and they have to know things you don't know. They have to have skills you don't know (unless they’re student interns that you are training and helping grow).
When you're hiring for a team as a manager, you should give the team who's going to be working with this individual the final hiring decision. Remove the final hiring decision from yourself as a manager and give it to the team who's going to be working with them. Involve your team members in the interview process, so they can choose who they want to work with because in the end, it’ll make them a more effective team.