Hiring: Why the Most Skilled Candidate Isn't Always the Right Candidate
Hiring a new employee is a leap of faith. It's more alchemy than science, based on a combination of skill-matching, research and gut feel. When you begin the process, you consider the work that needs to get done and the skills required to do it. So, when it comes to making the hiring decision, should you focus on technical expertise? Well, no. Too often, founders pay more attention than they should to skills alone. Later, they're surprised when someone who's perfect on paper turns out to be disruptive, less than productive, or simply not as good at their job as managers might hope.
Not long ago, I hired a contractor who fit the bill perfectly. She was smart, assertive, kept me informed and met her deadlines. Unfortunately, her vision of each project differed from mine, and when I revised her work the resulting arguments were long and maddening, the kind that leave you with the need for 10 minutes of deep breathing once you've hung up the phone. Finally, I decided I was better off living with the hole in my team than continuing what had become a vicious and frustrating cycle.
In hindsight, I could have avoided all that heartache if only I'd stepped back and asked myself whether our styles meshed. I'd ignored an important rule: You don't hire based on skills alone.
By the time you've asked a candidate in for an interview, you've already decided that they can do the work. While you still want to vet their talents when you get together, now is the time to get a sense of whether this person can meet your needs in a way that fits with your approach. How do you do that? Here's four bits of advice.
- Ask open-ended questions. Find out how they've handled tensions with co-workers and managers. If their examples are all about being the smartest guy in the room, or their determination to advocate a "better approach" even after a project's well underway, they may not fit well with a team that's respectful of each other's expertise and follows a well-tested approach to their work.
- Ask other people to interview them. You're not the only person who'll be working with the new employee, so getting a sense of how others react to his or her style is equally important. Plus, others on your team have been removed from the hiring process. They'll look at the candidate with fresh eyes, and may notice traits that you didn't.
- When checking references, ask about “soft skills.” While talking to past employers and colleagues about candidates, you'll undoubtedly learn about their skills and productivity. Don't forget to ask about their ability to get along with others, work through problems and get things done even during periods of tension.
- Debate them. Politely disagree with the candidates’ approaches to a problem and make them defend it. You can bet that people who become frustrated and defensive in the interview will display those traits on the job. People who are confident but not overbearing, who listen to your points and at least try to incorporate them into their thinking, will probably be more valuable than those who insist their way is always the right way, or even those who quickly give up and say, "You're the boss."
Just remember, interviews aren’t the place for you to show off your own skills. The interview is about the candidates and what that individuals can bring to your team. If you’re talking to the right people, you’ll likely be learning something along the way.
Mark Feffer is the Managing Editor of Dice News, which provides news and advice for job seekers on the technology career site Dice.com. As a journalist he has written for Dow Jones and Bloomberg, and ran his own startup, Tramp Steamer Media, which provided editorial services to small business and corporate clients including AT&T, Marsh & McLennan, KPMG and Thomas Edison State College. The views he expresses here are his own.