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Use the Domino Theory to Rethink Everything About Hiring

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Like dominos, everything falls into place when you define the job before defining the person taking the job.

In 1999, in the ground-breaking book, First Break All of the Rules: What the World’s Best Managers Do Differently, the Gallup Group clearly demonstrated that a manager’s primary focus needs to be on defining, measuring and managing performance. It begins with the commonsense idea of clarifying job expectations upfront. The result: increased job satisfaction, lower turnover and improved individual performance. In a later study, Gallup demonstrated that, collectively, this technique to improve employee engagement leads to a 2-3 point jump in corporate ROI. Google’s 2012 Project Oxygen reconfirmed it.

Despite the evidence, when it comes to hiring new people, most companies still emphasize skills, academics, experience and personal attributes rather than describing the actual work that needs to be done. As a result, companies are left using a series of indirect means to predict on-the-job performance including skills testing, behavioral interviewing, personality questionnaires and gut feelings. Research shows these factors are only 10-15 percentage points better in predicting job performance than a coin flip. Worse, the best people won’t be seen since they’ll either be filtered out or won’t apply to a job that appears to be a lateral transfer.

Here’s a simple plan for hiring managers who are fed up with the status quo:

  1. Stop using skills, experience and personality traits as the primary means to define a job. We’ve all met people who have these skills and aren’t top performers. More important, we’ve all met people who have a different mix of these skills or comparable skills and are top performers. Why would you use a process to exclude them?
  2. Clarify expectations by defining the job as a series of 5-6 performance objectives. It’s much better to say, “Lead a team of amateur climbers to safely conquer Mt. Everest” than “Must have 10+ years of world-class mountaineering experience and a can-do attitude with strong communication skills.” Every job can be defined as a series of performance objectives like these. Since what you should be telling every new hire is what they’ll be doing during the onboarding period, why not tell them before they’re hired? Here’s a post to get started preparing these and a whole book on the subject.
  3. Tap into the ideal candidate’s personal motivators as the primary means to attract top people. How many great people do you know, whether they’re looking or not, get excited by a list of skills, competencies and boilerplate? Instead emphasize what the person will be doing and why the work is important.
  4. Learn to “slow dance.” Hiring top people for career moves is a different process than hiring good people to fill jobs. Most managers confuse the two. One difference: you’ll need to give career-motivated candidates more time to better understand the upside potential of a job. The first step is an exploratory discussion. Here’s the first dance lesson.
  5. Ask the Most Significant Accomplishment (MSA) question for each performance objective. Ask candidates to describe their biggest accomplishment most related to what you need done. Focus on the intensity and impact of the person’s experience and skills, not their absolute values.
  6. Use behavioral fact-finding questions to peel the onion. Under the umbrella of each accomplishment find out how the person used their drive, problem-solving ability, leadership, and team and communication skills to achieve success.
  7. Wait 30 minutes to increase objectivity. You’ll increase interviewing accuracy 5-10 percentage points if you wait 30 minutes after the start of the interview to even begin to decide if the person is competent or not. This is how you neutralize the impact of first impressions.
  8. Use the “No 2s!” rule to minimize hiring mistakes. On our Quality of Hire Talent Scorecard a level 2 person is perfectly competent to do the work but usually falls short of expectations due to lack of motivation or some team or cultural issue. Avoiding a Level 2 problem ensures the person will be in the top third of all people you hire.
  9. Use the “Results = Ability x Motivation” formula to determine if the candidate should be a finalist. Assessing ability is much easier than assessing motivation. Motivation to get the job is not motivation to do the job. For better results, have every interviewer get multiple examples of when the person went the extra mile, then compare these to what you need done.
  10. Assess situational fit to determine who should be offered the position. Good people underperform when the job doesn’t meet promised expectations, they have a style problem with their boss, or they don’t fit with the team or culture. All of these situational fit factors need to be incorporated into the performance-based job description.

Like dominos, everything falls into place when you define the job before defining the person taking the job. If a person is competent and motivated to do the job and fits within your organization, you’ll soon discover the person is exactly who you were looking for before you even started looking.


Lou Adler (@LouA) is the CEO of The Adler Group, a consulting and training firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring. He’s also a regular columnist for Inc. Magazine and BusinessInsider. His latest book, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013), provides hands-on advice for job-seekers, hiring managers and recruiters on how to find the best job and hire the best people. You can continue the conversation on LinkedIn’s Essential Guide for Hiring Discussion Group.