Evaluating and Selecting Senior Talent – Perhaps the Google Way?

There was an interesting article earlier this week on the interview approach that Google has used as part of their talent selection in the Wall Street Journal by William Poundstone. My preceding post reviewed the Google approach and what best practices there are for more junior IT talent. In this post, I cover the best techniques for evaluating and selecting senior IT talent.

As mentioned, according the the WSJ article, currently Google gets over a million applications per year, and from this only about 1 in 130 applicants are hired. Yet getting this flood of applicants and having ratios of candidates to hires close to 1 to 100 is not unusual. At the last two large companies I have held senior positions in, we received hundreds of thousands of applications per year, and the end ratio to the hire was close to 1 to 100. And, as an IT leader making sure your HR department can handle these ever-growing volumes effectively is an important service you should provide, especially if you are a retail company. Remember every potential applicant who has a poor experience on your web job site and process is a potential customer who is now turned off on your company. Again, the preceding post covers how to filter and handle this flood today, we will cover the senior end of the spectrum.

For recruiting senior staff, I think it is important to understand two key facts:

  • They already know the buzzwords and techspeak and political positioning and that you are unlikely to catch them out in an interview with traditional questions (e.g., ‘What was your best project experience and why?’ or ‘When have you failed and what did you learn?’ or ‘What weaknesses do you have?’)
  • Fully one third of all senior hires through traditional methods are duds and only one third are outstanding hires or A players

So how do you effectively sort through a knowledgeable field of seemingly qualified applicants and make the right hire and avoid the duds?

The Google approach, and apparently a growing approach elsewhere is to include brain teasers in the interview process such as:

You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?’

Hopefully, these brain teasers will enlighten the interviewer about the intellect and creativity of the candidate, and also provide how they might respond in a tough situation. While I think this can be better than the stock interview questions that the candidates are already prepared to answer, I think there are a number of better techniques to sort out the best candidates from those who are just adequate or worse, the duds. And again, I think you must start much earlier in the process than the interview.

You should have a dedicated process just for senior candidates staffed with your best recruiters. And these recruiters are good at three things:

  • Being good at cold calling and getting hold of A players who are busy and not looking for a job (we’ll talk later about the source of the names, but this is the entry step)
  • Checking references – really finding out how well and in what manner this person has delivered
  • Recognizing critical cues about the candidate based on the candidates behavior throughout the selection process

In your selection process for senior talent, the first step is the candidate sourcing, or where you get the names of potential top talent that would fill one of your senior positions. This is actually probably the most important step of the process, because if done well, you will have a ready source of mostly ‘A’ caliber talent and you will avoid most of the duds ever getting into your recruiting process. For reliable sources of good talent I would rely on the following:

  • your own personal ‘virtual’ bench – you should cultivate and maintain a virtual bench throughout your career. Those outstanding performers who worked for you or with you and would come and work for you again.
  • thoughtful referrals from your current ‘A’ players – use their virtual bench and their knowledge of other strong performers to reach the A players that you might otherwise not find.
  • industry referenced talent based on either:
    • strong results at top firms or progression working under a well-known strong leader – that’s where quality results, leadership, and excellent approaches are forged.
    • strong recommendations from previous colleagues now working with the candidate – get a real-life view from a reliable perspective.
    • balanced recommendations coming from an established vendor – while taking care to understand their potential bias of course, could point out talents from someone who has a the perspective to measure and benchmark.
  • top recruiters or search firms known for their quality (this must be used in a cautious manner though) – also can have great perspective and if they know you well, and are focused on your needs can get you the right talent. Don’t forget often talent is off the table because of agreements with other clients.

Once you have the right list of candidates then you move into the evaluation and selection process. I have successfully implemented top-grading approaches to interviewing but I would suggest I am an 80% adherent of this method. The top-grading approach can be lengthy and exhaustive but I think you can trim it substantially and achieve the same effect (though I am sure Brad Smart would disagree). And you can improve it by adding and emphasizing behavioral and team interviews. Given that many senior hires do not work out due to culture misalignment, leadership style, or poor teamwork; a behavioral interview focused on these aspects will reveal potential issues. I recommend doing a team type interview where at least one, if not both of the interviewers are skilled in behavioral interviewing and non-verbal cues. Ensure you explore their flexibility and adaptability for   different environments and cultures. Someone who has been highly successful in one environment for 10 or 15 years may be a fish out of water in your firm.

As for those key questions to help sort a great fit from an okay fit, I recommend that you will get a clearer response if you ask a ‘reflective’ question versus a direct question. For example, if you want to understand their personal attributes, rather than ask them a question like “Do you work hard’ or ‘Do you consider yourself innovative’, etc, instead ask them to reflect their own image with questions such as ‘When you are building a team, on what attributes do you select the team members?’  They will not typically have a stock response for a reflective question, and they will be less guarded in their response because they would not perceive that they are talking about themselves, merely their approach. But their answers can be illuminating, it will show what they value. Someone who builds a team based on loyalty and experience attributes is very different than someone who builds a team based on initiative, intelligence, and ability to work through problems. Reflective questions can provide these insights.

Another reflective approach is to simulate leadership approaches and decisions with broad scenarios. Suggest they have inherited a poor performing team. Ask them what they would do. Again, you will get very different answers — some might delegate the problem to a trusted expert, others will apply an improvement approach that has worked for them previously, or they may form a committee to investigate. These are all illuminating. You can also try ‘off-guard’ questions to test their resilience or knowledge. You can even be slightly confrontational to see how they react to such situations. Do they constructively defend their positions or do they just fold and seek full consensus.  I recommend building a developing your own scripts that enable further insights into your senior candidates.

As you narrow down the choices, ensure you check the reference before you have made up your mind. I have seen many poor senior hires where one or two well-placed phone calls would have steered the company clear of the choice. And, if you do make the wrong hire, don’t wait to fix it. The single biggest regret that most senior managers have is not moving fast enough to replace a poor performer. If they are not doing well in the honeymoon period, they will not get going when things get tough. Spare them and you and make a quick and respectful break. Plus, you will likely still have the #2 or #3 candidate available.

The last recommendation I have for senior hires is: don’t forget about the ones on your current team with potential. For senior roles, I think large organizations often ‘pigeon-hole’ current talent and never see the potential they truly have. Someone who is successful in their current role, is smart, capable, coachable, works hard, and gets outstanding results is someone who likely can step up to the next level with assistance. Don’t overlook them.

If you deploy these techniques with senior hires, you should be able to reduce the ‘duds’ rate to 10% and increase the ‘A’ player rate to 60 or 70%. This is a huge improvement that will make a major difference in your organization. So, what techniques or ‘key questions’ have you used to make the right senior hires? Let me know, I am very interested in your approach as this is a tough area to be consistently successful in.

And if you were wondering about the brainteasers, WSJ and Mr. Poundstone also provided the answers to those Google interview questions. I did not provide the ‘right’ answers to the ‘reflective’ questions though.

Best, Jim

About Jim D

Jim has worked in the IT field for over 25 years and as a senior leader for over 15 years. He has successfully turned around a number of IT shops to become high performing teams and a competitive advantage for their companies.
This entry was posted in Best Practices, Building High Performance Teams and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Evaluating and Selecting Senior Talent – Perhaps the Google Way?

  1. Amit D says:

    Another great post Jim! In case of senior talent, the difference in results produced from an “A” player against a “duds” is phenomenal. The “A” players are mostly competing with themselves than anybody else to notch up their standards every time. They are self motivated, ambitious and driven to be the best in whatever responsibility they are assigned. Also, there is a domino effect; “A” players will always bring in “A” players under them which create an encouraging environment conducive to produce high quality results. Loyalty is another very important trait to look for, hence, like you rightly mentioned, building our own trustworthy network of high performing leaders who are hungry to work for you is extremely critical to success.

    • Jim D says:

      Thank Amit. I would suggest though that there are some A players who do not want the competition and purposely hire Bs and Cs underneath them so they are the hero or center of attention. Or they may even undermine talent that works for them or talented peers. And they may not even be aware they have these tendencies….

      • Amit D says:

        Yes Jim. You are absolutely right but their success is short-lived and their winning qualities will diminish over time. Moreover, these “A” players will never become inspirational leaders whose teams follow him/her out of respect. As any leader moves up the organizational pyramid, their success and ability to execute on strategy + vision + plan is completely dependent on the efforts of his/her lieutenants so, I believe, it is dysfunctional to adopt such negative tendencies.

        Having said the above, no leader prefers to have a senior talent who is hungry for personal attention busy marketing himself across instead of religiously working on the collective agenda to make his manager successful. This is why I emphasized on the “loyalty” aspect so much. This trait is extremely difficult to spot during interview process hence most senior executives, when they take up new responsibility and have limited time to prove their credentials, bring in senior leaders from their personal network (internal and external) that they can trust and rely upon as their direct reports.

        This is why we typically see successful senior executives / CEOs change some key (my personally preference) or their entire first layer of direct reports when they pick new responsibilities because it takes long time to build trust and earn loyalty and respect from your senior leaders. No leader wants to risk their position by having to battle multiple fronts simultaneously; challenge from a peer or peers who is trying to undermine you for his/her gains (be a hero or center of attraction to promote themselves over you) and then subordinate (s) who is / are closer to your peer due to their long standing relationship, acting as mole, helping your peer to sabotage and derail your plans.

        The above statement might sound negative but it is the reality that every senior executive faces today.

  2. Amit D says:

    One thing I have consistently observed is that “A” performers, working in any capacity at any level in the organizational pyramid, are always motivated by challenges. They don’t enjoy status quo. Change they seek is primarily fueled to satisfy their appetite to continuously improve on their absolute value. Also, “A” type senior talents are visionary but not academic, high in common sense (which is not very common these days), have positive attitude, strong desire to learn/drive new things and more practical in their execution style.

  3. Amit D says:

    Benefits, value and loyalty a leader can derive from top performers are extraordinary hence it extremely important to properly care, feed, mentor and manage these relationships well. Trust in the leadership is the element that attracts these “A” players towards the leader.

    Jim, I believe, you have done a outstanding job on this front!

    • Jim D says:

      Amit, you bring out an important point, the direct manager is the most important factor in retention of talent. To be a good leader you must care for, develop, guide, and reward your top talent and coach and bring along those with potential but not yet top talent. And what you do as a leader is comparable to all the other elements combined (though you probably cannot overcome a poor corporate environment). Consider this impact when you look at how you allocate your day as a leader. Best, Jim

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