Interviews can make your hiring decisions worse

By Tõnis Arro – headhunter, executive coach, entrepreneur

recently shared with you some experiences from my headhunting business, focusing on how the headhunting process can go wrong and end without employment. There is another common cause of such a negative outcome: the interview. Yes, the core mechanism for hiring people is the common context for making hiring mistakes. This selection tool has been criticized a lot for its lack of validity. When it comes to predicting work success, the results of unstructured interviews have been shown to be close to or even worse than random selection. In a way, it’s like dating. It might be great fun, but it isn’t a great predictor of having a quality relationship for years to come.

Most people would still not consider making a hiring decision without a proper interview, in spite of growing evidence that the typical hiring ritual — a freely structured or even unstructured interview — does not contribute to better hiring decisions or even makes the quality of the decisions worse. There is plenty of evidence to support the claim that even most experienced interviewers cannot avoid being human with all of the biases and irrationality that comes with it. No matter how impersonal they try to be, they are still vulnerable to stereotyping, self-fulfilling prophecies, the halo and horns effects, the contrast effect, the similar-to-me effect, or the personal-liking effect. Surprisingly enough, the interviewer’s experience during the interview, and the self-confidence associated with the hire could increase the probability of hiring the wrong person.

Would you decide on the best possible new hire based on his or her birth date or eye color? Not likely. But why are someone’s hobbies, or the kind of yacht he owns, or the golf club he attends, considered a basis for such an important decision? Yet aren’t these the very things that people tend to ask about during interviews to get a better understanding of the interviewee’s personal chemistry? People tend to underestimate how often these little details actually influence hiring decisions. The decision to accept or reject a candidate is often made early in the interview process, and the rest of the time is used to rationalize the subconscious decision that has already been made.

Can we skip interviews entirely? Probably not, but we can use our time together to ask sensible questions in a structured way in order to supply us with real, valuable information. For example, we can concentrate less on what the candidate “thinks,” and more on what he or she can do or has accomplished. We can make an effort to base our decisions on facts, not on gut feelings. Most experts would agree with the following recommendations:

● Use structured interviews instead of unstructured, intuitive interviewing;

● If multiple interviews are set up, then rate the answers and compare/summarize the ratings given by different interviewers;

● Use data from references and secondary sources;

● If possible, test the skills and competencies of interviewees in job-related tests (job simulations);

● Try to find out how the candidate fits in with the people he or she is going to work with.

In general: don’t rely (solely) on your gut feelings, as this will probably result in hiring people similar to yourself, or people you just feel comfortable with. In many cases, these may not be the very people who will make the best additions to your team.

How to choose your headhunter?

By Tõnis Arro – headhunter, executive coach, entrepreneur

Employment decisions are among the most difficult ones for executives. The cost of the wrong decision is high and usually, executives are not well prepared for selecting people. They have not received specific training in making people decisions and after all, they are humans – a thing that cannot (yet) be fully improved. Humans tend to simplify, be biased, be influenced by halo-effect and other social phenomena that influence decision quality. One might exclude some candidate simply because he or she reminds someone else and vice versa. And then there is the myth about “personal chemistry” and the belief that “just having a human conversation” is a good thing to predict how good your potential working relationship might be. In reality, people tend to select other people who are similar to themselves and base their decisions on rather marginal indicators. Someone with similar tastes for movies or going to same golf club are examples for this. There is way out – prepare the hiring process better and use professionals to help you with this.

How good are the people working for you is the key that opens your door to success. And this key is in a keychain that is in your search partners hands. Choosing your partner for search and recruitment is the decision that leads you to great candidates – with superior service provider your time is never wasted meeting mediocre people and you have a trusted advisor to help you with the difficult decisions of utmost importance.

What should you look for while making your mind to choose between different service providers for executive and professional search?

Does the consultant understand (your) business?

This is the fundamental question. If negative, no need to think further. Your search partner is acting as an extension of your business. It is, therefore, crucial to check how well you are on the same page in your business understanding. What is your prospective consultant’s management experience? Does he ask right questions about your business? Does he understand your challenges? Sometimes it is recommended to find a specialized agency for a field or industry, but this might be a problem on smaller markets where usually the only good option is the most professional generalist.

How do they work?

Make sure you understand your prospective partner’s work processes and methods. Beware of fake “headhunters” who offer suspiciously good deals, but in fact, are never doing more than screening their own or public databases. Ask in detail about all the methods and pay attention how transparent your prospective services provider is. Do the methods and processes they use to correspond with your expectations? What are your possibilities to check the progress regularly in the search process? How often are they going to communicate with you and in what format they report progress?

How experienced is the consultant?

Always find out who will be the person handling your search assignment. Ask how long has this person been in search business? Will he/she be your single point of contact and fully responsible for the whole process (or will you see him/her only during the sales and final meetings)? You want to feel that you’ll be receiving a consistent service from someone who is experienced, not passed around from one consultant to another.

Are references available?

Who are their clients and what kind of searches have they been doing? Are references available, is the consultant/agency happy to share their reference list? Feel free to talk to the other clients – if they are happy with the service they will also be happy to share their experience.

Does the consultant understand your needs?

Of course, briefing your consultant well is your own responsibility. Without full details of who you’re looking for, no recruitment agency could be blamed for not finding them. Make clear what skills, qualities and/or experience is essential, what qualities are desirable and what are optional. If you talk to several potential partners, pay attention to how well they summarize your needs and even more important – do they add value with their questions and their brief or is it just a copy and paste of everything you have sent them? Thoroughness in analyzing of the position is indicative of the attention and engagement of the partner in the search process.

What are the timeline and terms like?

The direct search process is a dynamic process where strict dates are not always possible. Still, some consultants are more specific than others while describing their steps in the recruitment process. What is important for you is to see that the timescales are well planned and realistic and that you will be regularly fed back about the progress. It is also important for you to plan well in advance your own time for meeting the finalists according to your hiring policies.

Do you trust this person?

This is the final criteria you will have to use. Gut feeling is important here of course, but presumably, you use as much data as possible to make it. You have to ask yourself the simple question – is this the right person to handle your search assignments? Would you feel comfortable in discussing with later in the process? Is it someone whose advice would be welcome, whom you would like to be your trusted advisor in this important process?

To summarize: hiring people is a critical decision of utmost importance. Selecting best search partner who brings you greatest candidates and helps you choose best among these is an important step to success.


Why executives fail and how onboarding and coaching can help?

By Tõnis Arro – headhunter, executive coach, entrepreneur

Executives sometimes fail. They tend to say that they didn’t find what they expected at the new job, that their bosses had changed or didn’t give them the resources they needed. Their bosses say that the new hire didn’t meet their expectations. They also sometimes think that the person they selected had changed after they started.

Failure is actually two-sided. And it is not always a selection mistake, but many things can go wrong on the first days on the new job. Or even before. Organizations are more like living organisms than machines, they don’t always greet a new in-plant happily, more often than not, some antibodies are formed and sometimes these become stronger than the new hire. If we are talking about a CEO, then his or her surroundings are far wider than the immediate organization – CEO has also to be in good terms with lots of stakeholders outside – the board, community, opinion leaders etc. All this is quite a complex network of relationships and without a clear focus, it is easy to get lost. And the loss of control and initiative is the main danger for a new CEO.

Bigger organizations usually have some formal policy in place what is called onboarding. These practices differ widely in content and effectiveness. A recent study indicates that most of the programs include familiarization with administrative arrangements, business orientation, and legal formalities. At the same time, only in about half of the cases, corporate onboarding process includes something that helps the new executive to align with expectations of teams and bosses, and even fewer cases deal with stakeholders and facilitating culture familiarization.

There seems to be the problem – corporate programs often fail to focus on the most important things and deal only with things that are easier to handle. One of the keys to becoming an effective and well-functioning member of an organization is familiarizing with the culture, becoming a part of it. The other keys are aligning with the expectation of the bosses and your team and taking charge of the team. Without a conscious effort, these things happen rarely happen smoothly and quickly, if they happen at all.

Some headhunters – like ourselves – offer additional service to our clients and other new executives, what we call onboarding support or onboarding coaching. This is like insurance for the hiring company – after making a considerable investment into finding a great person, it is reasonable to spend a little more to help him or her to become fully effective as soon as possible and minimize the dangers that something will go wrong at the early stages of employment. We become sparring partners for the new executives, help them to compose their 100-day plan and keep themselves focused on this. If possible, we also involve some stakeholders in the process – the immediate boss and HR director. Being an attentive and experienced “other” we can question some ideas and suggest some aspects of the onboarding process that might need the executives’ attention.

One of the key themes for a new executive is getting on good working terms with his or her immediate team (or teams). As you know – people are selected for competencies and the experiences they have gained in their careers, something they can utilize on the new position. If they leave, it is often because of the mismatch with the people they have to work with. Often this mismatch can be compensated by tuning one’s approach according to personalities and values of your closest colleagues. One part of onboarding effort is therefore always getting to know and developing good working relationships with one’s co-workers. Tools like Teamscope team profiling can be used to assess the team culture and plan your way to great working relationships with immediate colleagues.

And to conclude – one last tip – beware of day 1! We remember what is presented first and last, and tend to forget the middle items. So, this is why the first day on the job is extremely important. There will be no second chance to create the first impression. A great handbook for new executives recommends considering at least the following things:

  • Who will you meet on your first day and in what order?
  • Where will you be on your first day (head office? The office closest to you? Meeting your closest colleagues informally for a dinner?)
  • What is the message you want the stakeholders to get from your first appearance?
  • When will you start – on your first day you get paid or perhaps even earlier?
How to conduct a meaningful job interview – advice for startup founders

One of the biggest challenges for many startup founders is recruitment. Most founders are first time managers, so you probably don’t have much prior experience you can rely on. And unless you just closed a major vc round, you probably can’t afford the best headhunters (and you really should not hire the mediocre ones). So you’ll have to figure this out yourself.

To make matters worse, the cost of a bad hiring decision is much higher for startups than it is for more established businesses. First, the team is all you have in a startup and all it takes is one unreliable, uncooperative or incompetent team member to kill your team’s productivity and engagement. Second, you will probably lose around six months of what would otherwise be productive time on onboarding, managing, and replacing the person. And six months is a really long time for a startup (it’s like dog years vs human years if you compare startups to established businesses). And third, there’s a high risk that you will settle for a mediocre candidate, which can completely ruin your business (more about that in the next blog post).

So how can you as a startup founder figure out which candidate would be best for your team? There’s a few things we can recommend.

1. Don’t trust your intuition alone

The first thing you need to know is that people are biased, especially in the hiring situation. And no, you are not special in that regard. If you rely on your intuition alone, you will subconsciously make the decision about a candidate based on the first 20 seconds, and you will spend the remaining 59 minutes of the job interview asking questions that would reaffirm your initial impression. So if you like the candidate (because he/she looks similar to you, has a firm handshake, has a nice haircut, or whatever other bogus reason), you will ask questions that you know he/she can answer. If not, you will be much more critical. So do you really want to make your most important management decisions based on a 20-second impression?

2. Have a structured process

The best way to get over your biases is to establish a structured process. The process does not have to be perfect and you don’t have to do it as well as Google does, but you need to have some structure to make an informed decision. Discuss with the team (again, don’t rely on your opinion alone) what characteristics the candidate should have and make a list of 5-10 critical aspects. Put that into a checklist and evaluate all candidates based on the same criteria. Even if your checklist is really simple, it will almost certainly give better results that relying on your intuition.

3. Ask behavioral interview questions

Invest some time into learning about how to conduct a good job interview and what kind of interview questions provide meaningful information about the candidate. The traditional “where do you see yourself in 5 years” and “what are your 3 biggest strengths/weaknesses” only show whether the candidate took time to google “interview questions” before meeting you. At best they will tell you nothing about the candidates’ skills, attitudes, or performance. At worst, you will try to look for meaning in otherwise meaningless answers and usually draw the wrong conclusions. Instead, ask for real-life examples where a candidate has demonstrated a trait you need – e.g “What was the last really difficult goal you set for yourself?”, “When was the last time you received criticism that you thought was not justified? How did you react?” or “When was the last time you started a project / proposed a new way of doing things that was not your direct responsibility?”.

4. Involve your team to the decision

The second best way to get over your bias is to involve your team to the selection process. And don’t just let them voice their opinion, but give them equal voting rights. If you can’t reach a consensus, there’s probably good reason for it – after all, your team has to live with the candidate as well. Let your team meet at least the shortlisted candidates, but don’t let it ruin your process – brief your team on what you have learned about conducting interviews, stick to the questions you prepared in advance, and collect your team’s opinion in a structured way. That way you can be sure that everyone’s opinion is taken into account and that you are evaluating candidates on things that really matter.

5. Don’t try to be clever

Hiring is a science, so it makes sense to learn from the best practice of successful companies and decades of scientific research before trying to improve the process. If you think you have come up with a clever interview question that reveals everything about a candidate, you are probably seriously mistaken. Companies like Google have long ago discovered that brain teasers like “How many gas stations are there on Manhattan?” and “How many golf balls would fit into a Boeing 747?” reveal absolutely nothing about the candidate’s’ ability to do the job and questions like “If you had a theme song, what would it be?” only serve to amuse the interviewer.

So there’s no magic, trick questions or other sorcery involved – just take some time to learn what recruitment science and more established companies have known for decades and follow their advice. Agree on a process with your team, figure out your interview questions in advance and evaluate candidates in a structured way based on the same criteria and your chances of making the best decision rise dramatically.

How to build a winning startup team?

Team is everything “– you’ll hear that from investors, startup founders, advisors, and everyone else involved with the startup scene. But when you dig deeper and ask what are the criteria they look for in teams, you’ll probably hear something emotional like “Look for the spark in their eyes” or “Look for hustlers” or “Great teams only have A-players”. If team really is everything, then why do we still rely on emotion and guesswork when building teams?

At Teamscope we know from our own experience that intuition alone is not enough. When we first build our team by simply bringing together people with the required skills, we failed miserably, and we learned from it. After analyzing over a hundred startup teams and going through hundreds of academic papers on group dynamics, we composed a list of 10 tips for building winning startup teams.

Hire based on values, not skills

The first fundamental difference between a team and just a group of people is purpose – teams need to have a common goal they all want to achieve. But how can you agree on a common goal if you value different things in life? Take the time to understand what really motivates your team and only hire people whose core values match with your team members. Forcing someone to act against their intrinsic values will result in conflict that you cannot solve, so make sure to get this one right.

Establish a strong core

Studies have found that teams where at least a couple of people have strong connections to each other are much more stable and cohesive. It’s enough if only two people have some history together – that will form the core of your team and help establish trust in the crucial early stages of team development.

Get someone more experienced on board

Optimism and some arrogance are valuable traits for a startup founder, but be honest about your limitations – if you lack management experience it’s crucial that you get someone on board who has managed people and built something before. Technical problems are easy and can be solved by googling, but people problems can’t, so make sure you have someone to talk to.

Diversity in most aspects is great

Startups are about looking at things in new ways, so you want to have as many different perspectives as possible. If you are all the same age, went to the same school and hang out with the same people then your view of things is probably quite limited. Diversity in age, gender, ethnicity, experience, and education is priceless if you can build an open and collaborative culture.

Diversity in some aspects is not so great

If diversity in demographics and experience is great, then diversity in some personality characteristics can be quite harmful. First, watch out for people who are much more conservative and traditional than the rest of the team. Startups are about breaking norms and doing things in a new way, so excessive conformity and obedience will only slow you down and cause unwanted tension. Second, be careful when hiring someone much more individualistic and competitive than others – at best, this may drive your team forward, but most likely will simply ruin collaboration and undermine trust in your team.

One bad apple can ruin the barrel

A large organization can normally handle underperforming and difficult employees, but in startups, the effect of every team member is disproportionately high. Even one unreliable team member will throw your whole project off track and one overly critical and negative person will ruin the mood of everyone else. There is a small chance that your difficult coworker is the next Steve Jobs, but most likely they are just an a-hole, and I believe it’s not worth the effort.

Establish norms early on

It does not matter how good you are at selecting team members, you will inevitably have conflicts. Take time to understand the communication and collaboration preferences of your team and establish rules for avoiding and resolving conflicts early on. For example – if some of your team members tend to be overly challenging, establish a rule that you speak in turns and do not interrupt each other when making important decisions.

Focus on building trust

An important characteristic of a great team is that team members can criticize each other’s work openly. If team members feel they can trust each other and the team leader, they should have no problems with giving or accepting honest feedback. If this does not happen, you are doing it wrong (criticizing the person, not the task) or you have failed to build a secure environment for the team.

Respect the personal preferences of your team

The way we like to work and interact with others is largely determined by our personality, and personality cannot be changed. This, of course, does not mean we should categorize people and set artificial boundaries – for example, introverts can easily be the life of the party and shine on stage, but they normally just don’t want to. Some people need more space and quiet, others need social interaction to be energized. Some are intrinsically driven and organized, others need some external pressure to get things done. Respect that and build an environment where everyone can achieve their best.

Fill in the missing piece

Your role as team leader is to make sure that everyone else can be their best, and that often means you need to get out of your comfort zone. Figure out what are the things that your team is not great at, and become great at it yourself. If the team needs support with planning and organizing, figure out how to do that. If they are not great at networking, helps build the connections they need. Lead by example, even if that makes you uncomfortable.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about teams, but also a lot we do know, and even simple things can have a major impact on your team performance. Take time to learn about team dynamics, because team really is everything.