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How to Not Hire Jerks

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Assessing team and leadership skills, cultural fit, and soft skills is not only easy, it’s essential. In the process, you’ll avoid hiring jerks.


I had a meeting with a young CEO (under 25) last month whose company will soon be an Inc. success story. He was getting paranoid about hiring older managers, concerned they would dismantle the team and the performance-oriented culture he was building. He asked point blank, “How do you make sure someone has the team, leadership, and soft skills that will fit our culture? I’m real concerned we could hire some jerks. We want managers who can build people up, not tear them down.”

1. Observe the growth of the “360 Work Chart” over time.

On the whiteboard I drew a small circle with a bunch of spokes and labeled it a “360 Work Chart.” Then I said that, during an interview, have the candidate draw a chart like this for each job he’s had over the past five to 10 years, using the spokes to label the people the candidate has worked with at each job. This would include people who have worked for the candidate, if a manager, as well as the people he or she has worked with and for. If the circle and spokes keep on getting bigger over time, the person’s likely a good project manager. Then ask whom the person hired from companies he previously worked for and if he was hired by a previous boss or co-worker. Then ask the candidate to rank the quality of the people on the current team and how he developed these people. Finally, ask who from the person’s current or prior position got promoted as a result of the candidate’s personal influence.

I then said that good managers can point to a track record of taking on bigger and more influential teams, developing and hiring great people including former staff members, and proactively helping people who work for them take on bigger roles. Don’t hire anyone who can’t prove this to you for a senior manager role.

2. The prime driver of cultural fit is organizational pace.

We were starting to run out of time but the CEO asked me if I had any tricks on assessing cultural fit. I then handed him my Performance-based Interview handbookand said it’s all covered in here, but the short version can be summarized with a simple curve. I then drew an S-shape company growth curve on the whiteboard and said that two things define your culture: how fast your company is growing and the hiring manager’s leadership style, which we just covered. Since you’re at the rapid growth stage you need people who can make decisions with limited data, are comfortable dealing with ambiguity, are flexible and tireless, don’t make excuses, and will break some rules now and then. He then said, “Wow. You’ve just defined our culture.”

Based on this, I suggested he ask each candidate to describe a major accomplishment for each of the past three to four jobs. I then demonstrated how to do this using theMost Significant Interview Question of All Time, asking the CEO how he started his company. As part of the fact-finding associated with the question, find out the rate of growth of the project and how the person got assigned to it. Then for each project get examples of how decisions were made, where the person went the extra mile, and what rules the person had to break to get things done. If all of the stories hang together, the results achieved were positive, and the environment and manager’s style are comparable to yours, the person will be a good fit with your culture.

3. How to assess soft skills.

It was 30 minutes past the appointment time and others were banging on the CEO’s door, but as I was getting ready to leave he asked me one last question. “How do you assess soft skills?” I said, “First, don’t call them skills; call them non-technical skills. They’re too important to be called soft skills. From a practical standpoint, if you measure team skills and cultural fit as described on the whiteboard, the non-technical skills will stand out.”

After I got back to the office I sent him a copy of a book I recommend to every manager who wants to hire stronger people and a link to this article on measuring¬†soft skills.” And in my email to him I said that evidence of strong cultural fit, appropriate soft skills, and leadership all based on the person’s past performance is a great way to prevent hiring jerks.