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 Recuriting Success Lessons Learned

Three Steps to Recruiting Success

Most organizations look at recruiting as a departmental function managed by HR. However, while important to all types of companies, successful recruiting is absolutely mission critical for software technology companies which achieve business success through the creation, distribution and support of intellectual property.

As CEO of three software technology companies over the last 16 years, I’ve recruited, interviewed, hired and fired plenty of staff while simultaneously trying to learn from the experiences and understand how to do it better. I’ve compared notes with dozens of other CEOs, many of whom believe that you create a systemic process, but at the end of the day it’s a crap shoot. While plenty of recruiting experts suggest that the recruiting process is more art than science, it’s been my experience that there are plenty of lessons learned which collectively add science and predictability to the process.

I’ve found that by insisting that recruiting be a company core competency (and not a departmental HR function) and evaluating candidates by comparing them to the characteristics of over-achievers and the behaviors cited by the legendary Jack Welch, you can dramatically improve your ability to hire and retain great talent. Here’s the process that works for me.

Make Recruiting a Core Competency

Making recruiting a company’s core competency begins with executive sponsorship by the CEO. The CEO must be visible, vocal and active in pushing the enterprise-wide agenda, securing management commitment, systemically implementing a repeatable process and committing the company to a course of continuous process improvement. To drive change, adoption and sustainability, CEO’s are wise to implement a progressive communication plan that advances the recruiting messaging along a continuum, from awareness to interest to understanding to engagement. This multiple phase communication approach, along with referencing plenty of vision, facts and data, will slowly but steadily permeate the corporate culture and achieve staying power. While the CEO never stops acting as the chief recruiter, long term success is contingent upon recruiting being co-driven by a senior HR executive and the recruiting culture being integral and pervasive throughout the company.

Characteristics of Over-Achievers

Comparing candidates with the characteristics of over-achievers has been the single greatest contribution to my hiring success. For each characteristic, it’s important to dive deep into the detail in order to truly understand and vet the response. Below are the top five characteristics.

  1. Initiative. Staff without initiative require increased management time, sometimes micro management, and hold back the company’s advancement. To verify initiative, have the candidate provide an example where he or she demonstrated exceptional or extraordinary initiative for their prior employer. It’s critical to separate those people who make things happen from those people who things happen to.
  2. Ability to execute. Good ideas are important, but implementing and executing good ideas are what separates activity from progress. Too many companies fail to advance because they fail to execute. To mitigate this concern, have each candidate provide an example where they have completed a challenging and important project on time and on budget or otherwise achieved significant success. Again, get into the specifics and substantiate the details. Understand the project scope, goals, budget, team, constraints, challenges and journey. Dig in to understand if your candidate was a bystander, strong contributing participant or the leader. I often ask candidates to describe managing a project that was under-resourced (in terms of staffing or funding) or not given enough time.
  3. Leadership and team work. Successful business and successful sports teams have a lot in common – discipline, preparation, practice and an understanding that a integrated team is far more powerful than any superstar athlete. To vet this characteristic, I ask recruiting candidates to share an experience where they led a team under particularly difficult times. I also ask them to describe a project or business initiative where they led a team to a successful conclusion. Again, get into the details, find out who were the primary resources on their team, what were the challenges incurred and how do they resolve those challenges. Finally, ask what’s the most significant business decision they have ever made.
  4. Proven track record. Getting staff with prior success is a proven method to accelerate your company’s advancement. To validate prior success, consider probing questions such as the following:
    • What extraordinary successes have you achieved previously and what caused you to be successful?
    • What are your significant professional accomplishments?
    • Why are they significant?
    • How did the company benefit?
  5. Ability to adapt. No two companies are the same. Staff that are unable to transition to a new company culture will stop a company’s progress cold. Inquire with candidates to understand how the culture of their last two employers were different and how they adapted to those differences.

Don’t be satisfied with responses that contain generalizations or lack specificity – as those are signs that the candidate did not personally contribute or drive the claims. People who have lived the firsthand experiences in these performance characteristics can cite the details like the back of their hand. Also vet those claims that reference specific figures by understanding the sources for those figures. For example, if a candidate claims to have driven a 15% revenue increase or a 20% cost reduction, inquire further:

  • (When) For what period, from what date to what date?
  • (What) were the starting and ending numbers you use to derive that result?
  • (Where) Was this for the entire company, a product line, a division or a territory?
  • (How) did you grow revenues or reduce cost?
  • (Who) were the customers?

Apply the When / What / Where / How / Who drill-down inquiry frequently throughout the interview. These investigative questions will separate the candidates who were the drivers of the benefits as opposed to those that were outsiders looking in.

Recruiting Lessons from Jack Welch

Now on the speaking circuit, the legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch, attributes much of his outstanding 30 year corporate performance to investing 50% of his time on talent acquisition and management as well as consistently using his successful hiring criteria. Those four criteria, sometimes referred to as his 4 E’s, include:

  1. Energy. Jack recommends looking for candidates with boundless energy; people who like to move 95 miles-per-hour in a 55 MPH world.
  2. Energizers. These people know how to motivate others to perform. They can create a story around an initiative or project and solicit passion from team participants.
  3. Edge. People with edge are inherently competitive. They hate to lose and do what it takes to be successful. As stated by legendary college football coach Woody Hayes, “Show me a gracious loser, and I'll show you a bus boy."
  4. Execution. According to Jack, execution is the key to the entire model. Jack would be the first to reiterate that what gets measured gets done and without measurable results, the other 3 E’s are ineffective. Candidates that can execute understand the difference between activity and progress and are capable of achieving business performance without excuses.

Technical Skills Matter, Just Less So

Certainly technical skills must also be vetted; however, too many employers focus solely on skills. When you recognize that people get hired for their skills and fired for their behaviors, you can begin to understand why skills alone will not contribute to staff retention and a high performance culture.

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By Lil McGovern
You seem to deemphasize technical skills in the recruiting process. This comes across as unusual for software tech companies. Would you go so far as to hire a recruiting candidate that had your over-achiever characteristics but lacked technical skills?

Possibly, but it certainly depends on the particular position and the skills. I have found it more effective to hire staff with the right performance characteristics than the right skills. Motivated people constantly learn and advance the skills they need to be successful; in fact you can’t hold them back. Skilled people that have not adopted the characteristics of over achievers probably never will. In the words of a great football coach, “You give me an athlete and I’ll make him a wide receiver.”


By anonymous
What if its too late? What if we've already hired people that will never become over-achievers?

Perhaps as best illustrated by Jim Collins in Good to Great, the CEO’s first mission is to get the right team on the bus - and to get the wrong team members off the bus. Nothing positive can happen until your recruit, retain and empower talented staff. Hiring or keeping the wrong staff will kill morale, stall progress, thwart success and eventually decay the company if not remedied.

I once read an interesting blog post titled "There is no such thing as good hiring, only good firing." The article suggested that your skill as a manager is not based just on your ability to get good people, but also on getting bad people out. The sooner you cull weaker players, the sooner you can replace them with stronger players and improve the human composite of your firm. While I think the article was a bit aggressive on this point, it certainly raised a valid argument.


By T T Salcomb
What other questions do you ask?

It really depends on the open position and the candidate, however, here are a few questions that I often find helpful.

  • All new jobs come with difficulties, if you encounter any in this position what do you think they may be?
    Remembering that you are trying to weed out marginal candidates quickly, this is another question that reveals a candidate’s area of weakness and / or a candidate’s self-doubt about being able to accomplish the goals of the position.

  • What activities in your current position do you enjoy most and the least?
    This is an indirect way of determining a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Candidates typically like to do activities they are good at, and try and avoid activities where they are marginal or weak.

  • Last book read? I'm only looking for continuous learners with an insatiable appetite.

  • Most recent business concept or strategy learned?


By Jillian Myers
Do you do anything else in the recruiting process?

Sure, I always take management candidates to dinner during the recruiting process, preferably with their spouse. I also conduct background checks and thorough reference checks, especially with prior employers.

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