Identifying the Best Key Hires (Pre-Interview)

No business can be successful without great employees. It seems like an obvious statement, but it bears keeping in mind, because not everyone you hire will end up being successful in your company.

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Sometimes, it boils down to fit. A new hire may just not fit the particular culture of a company. Maybe their attitude doesn’t mesh with the attitudes of current employees. Perhaps their goals or values don’t match those of the company. Or maybe the person the candidate presented on their resume and in the interview process was not at all like the person that showed up for the first day of work.

There will always be risks inherent to the hiring process. There is only so much that can be learned from a one or two page CV or a brief face-to-face. Just about anyone is capable of presenting their best selves for an hour or two for the sake of securing a job, but no one can keep this up indefinitely, and they will inevitably slip back into who they really are—the problem is, this reversion to the mean is going to occur on the employer’s dime.

So how can companies and their hiring managers identify the best key hires? How do they give themselves the greatest chance of getting it right the first time?

There is no shortage of lists on the internet from reputable people and publications detailing what they believe are the most important factors to take into consideration when making a hire. Unfortunately, they’re all not the same—otherwise, what would be the point of everyone having their own lists?

Rather than giving readers our own list of the seven, eight, nine, or 10 most important things to do when hiring, we’ve divided our recommendations into two categories that apply regardless of industry, company size, or the stage of development a company is in.

The first category consists of factors that should be considered before the interview process begins, and the second of factors that should be considered during the process.

In a later article, we will examine the interview process. In this article, however, we focus on the most important pre-interview considerations:

What is your company’s long-term strategy, and what kind of employees do you need to execute this strategy?

Too many companies hire for what they need in the moment and fail to consider whether who they are hiring will help them reach their longer-term goals. Just as many interviewers will ask prospective employees what their five-year plan is, we recommend laying out your own five-year plan before even beginning to weed through the stacks of resumes you’re sure to have. Think about the skills your employees will need to have to get you where you want to go, not just what skills they will need to fill the current role.

What kind of traits do you value in employees, and which traits will make a potential employee successful regardless of their current skills?

The current educational curriculum is primarily designed to teach students the skills they need for jobs in the present, not the future. After all, with the rapid pace of technological transformation, it can be almost impossible to predict what kind of jobs will even exist in the future. Ideally, of course, a new hire will come in already possessing the skills you require. However, there’s no telling how long you’ll actually need an employee to have those skills. More important for companies that have ambitious growth plans is whether a new hire has the soft skills necessary to grow and adapt in a role. Consider whether candidates have demonstrated emotional intelligence, drive, and the ability to learn and grow. Maybe they don’t currently have the knowledge they need for the role, or maybe they don’t have the knowledge they will need for future iterations of the role, but do they have the ability to readily acquire that knowledge?

Once you have determined which skills you value (although the ability to learn is universally valuable), refrain from examining resumes solely for hard skills and technical expertise, and turn your focus to soft skills. Look for how they developed and grew in their previous roles. Take note of their educational achievements—did they do the bare minimum to secure their degree, or did they demonstrate an intellectual curiosity beyond just their major? And once you have whittled down your pile of applicants to a manageable number, be diligent about calling past employers, and ask them about ways your candidate showed the ability to learn and take initiative.

Are there any qualified internal candidates?

Often, companies choose to hire from without rather than promoting from within. But this could be a big mistake. It may seem to make sense to hire someone for a position when they have held similar positions at other companies before. After all, they should already have the skills necessary for the job. However, studies show that internal hires have a number of benefits over external hires.

Matthew Bidwell, Associate Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has shown in his study “Paying More to Get Less: The Effects of External Hiring versus Internal Mobility,” that external hires have significantly higher rates of voluntary and involuntary exits. External hires are also paid on average around 18% more than internal hires, are promoted faster, yet have worse performance than internal movers. Essentially, hiring from without can end up costing a company in just about every aspect.

The benefits of hiring internally, however, are manifold. As the Harvard Business Review (HBR) explains, “Internal hires tend to have higher levels of adaptation and success . . . not least because they are better able to understand the culture and navigate the politics of the organization. They are also more likely to be loyal and committed to their company. Further, promoting internal candidates boosts other employees’ engagement.”

Not only do internal candidates know the company well, but—assuming they have been successful, because why would you consider promoting an employee who has not been successful?—they have already proven that they are a good fit with the company. In addition, hiring internally will demonstrate to your other employees that you are committed to them, and it will likely increase their motivation to perform well so that they too can be considered for promotion.

Are you hiring for innovation, or to maintain the status quo?

Business growth requires innovation, and innovation rarely comes when every employee is exactly alike. While this may seem obvious, too often managers fall into the trap of hiring people who look and think like themselves. Company fit is of course important. But so is diversity of thought and opinion. While it’s essentially impossible to have a completely blind hiring process, especially when it comes to the in-person interview, managers should be cognizant of the fact that humans inherently have a bias toward favoring familiarity, and take steps to avoid this pitfall. Take a look around your company, and be honest with yourself. Do your employees overwhelmingly look the same—gender, race, ethnicity? Do they predominantly come from the same background—education, work experience, geographic location? Perhaps more difficult, are they socially homogenous—religion, sexual orientation, culture?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then you have identified a prime opportunity for growth and innovation. While it is not a universal truth that diversity in these aspects is directly related to a diversity of thought, they are perhaps the best proxies we have. When we hire people just like ourselves, it limits team performance. As HBR puts it, “The only way to think about talent inclusively is to embrace people who are different from you and others already on your team . . . The engine of progress is change, and change is unlikely to happen if you only hire people who perpetuate the status quo.”

Companies with diverse talent pipelines are far more likely to have better financial results, so it is imperative that managers recognize their diversity shortcomings beforehand and make a conscious effort to address them in the hiring process. Those that do not are leaving a tremendous amount of growth on the table.

Now you know the most important factors to consider before the interview process even begins. We’ll be back in the future with the key factors every hiring manager needs to take into account during the interview process.