Make better “Who” decisions

My summary and notes on Geoff Smart’s book “Who.” Resources about hiring (sourcing, interviews, planning, diversity, etc.)

Photo by Lukasz Szmigiel on Unsplash

The book “Who: The A Method for Hiring” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street is a reference in recruitment.

In this article, I’ll present:

  • #1: Why I read this book
  • #2: The core idea
  • #3: The key concepts
  • #4: How the book upgraded me
  • #5: More resources about hiring

#1: Why I Read this Book

To make better “who” decisions.

#2: The Core Idea

There is a clear and tested path that leads to hiring A-Players.

An A-Player is a candidate with at least a 90% chance of achieving a set of outcomes that only the top 10% of possible candidates could achieve.

The A-Method defines a simple 4-step process for identifying and hiring A-Players:

  1. Use a scorecard to describe outcomes and competencies.
  2. Ensure systematic sourcing to have high-quality candidates waiting before you need to fill slots.
  3. Select talent through structured interviews to gather relevant facts and make informed hiring decisions.
  4. Persuade the identified A-Players to join.

#3: The Key Concepts

Finding the right people is the #1 problem in organizations. Yet managers use voodoo hiring methods (gut instinct, redundant interview questions, tricks & logic problems, personality tests, etc.). The truth is that it’s hard to see people for who they are.

Use a scorecard to describe outcomes to accomplish and competencies that fit with the company’s culture and the role. A scorecard is composed of three parts:

  • Mission: an executive summary of the job’s core purpose written in plain language. It answers the question: “Why the role exists?”
  • Outcomes: a description of what a person needs to accomplish in a role ranked by order of importance. An outcome is objective and observable.
  • Competencies: a definition of how you expect a new hire to operate to fulfill the job. It ensures behavioral and cultural fits.

Ensure systematic sourcing to have high-quality candidates waiting before you need to fill slots:

  • Ask for referrals from personal and professional networks and A-Players (best technique): “Who are the most talented people you know I should hire?”
  • Ask for referrals from employees: make in-house referrals a crucial part of staffing policies and promotions, build internal sourcing into employee scorecards, and reward the effort.
  • Hire external recruiters or recruiting researchers: use de A-Method to identify them, treat them as business partners, and emphasize quality over quantity.
  • Create a list of the most talented people and commit to speaking with a least one of them per week.

Select talent through 4 structured interviews to gather relevant facts and make informed hiring decisions:

#1: The Screening Interview

Goal: clear out B and C-Players.

Logistics: by phone, no more than 30 min.

Guide:

  • What are your career goals?
  • What are you really good at professionally?
  • What are you not good at or not interested in doing professionally?
  • Who were your last five bosses, and how will they each rate your performance on a 1–10 scale when we talk to them?

#2: The Who Interview

Goal: select A-Players.

Logistics: 3h on average, depending on a person’s career length.

Guide: for each candidate’s job, from the earliest to the latest:

  • What were you hired to do?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What were some low points during that job?
  • Who were the people you worked with?
  • What was your boss’s name, and how do you spell that? What was it like working with him/her? What will he/she tell me were your biggest strengths and areas for improvement?
  • How would you rate the team you inherited on an A, B, C scale? What changes did you make? Did you hire anybody? Fire anybody? How would you rate the team when you left it on an A, B, C scale?
  • Why did you leave that job?

#3: The Focused Interview

Goal: gather additional and specific information about the candidate related to the scorecard outcomes.

Logistics: 45 min to 1h.

Guide:

  • The purpose of this interview is to talk about [specific outcomes or competencies of the scorecard]:
  • What are your biggest accomplishments in this area during your career?
  • What are your insights into your biggest mistakes and lessons learned in this area?

#4: The Reference Interview

Goal: gather additional information from the candidate’s references.

Prerequisites:

  • Pick the right references; don’t just use the candidate’s reference list.
  • Ask the candidate to contact the references to set up the calls.
  • Conduct the correct number of reference interviews: 3 past bosses, 2 peers or customers, and 2 subordinates.

Guide:

  • In what context did you work with the person?
  • What were the person’s biggest strengths?
  • What were the person’s biggest areas for improvement back then?
  • How would you rate his/her overall performance in that job on a 1–10 scale? What about his or her performance causes you to give that rating?
  • The person mentioned that he/she struggled with […] in that job. Can you tell me more about that?

Use collected data to rate all of the candidates on the scorecard. Then decide to hire the A-Player.

Some key characteristics of A-Players:

  • A-Players are specialists, not generalists.
  • A-Players know their career goals and are not afraid to tell people about them.
  • A-Players tend to talk about outcomes linked to expectations when describing past experiences. B or C-Players generally speak about events, people they met, or aspects of the job they liked without ever getting into results.
  • A-players have been effective in their past experiences. People don’t change that much, and past performance indicates future performance.
  • A-Players are generally pulled to greater opportunities. Don’t hire anybody who has been pushed out of +20% of their jobs. These people have x3 higher chance of being B or C-Players.

Some techniques to conduct interviews effectively:

  • Push candidates to give examples and details. Ask follow-up questions, for example: “What? How? Tell me more.”
  • Don’t accept vague answers. Keep reframing questions until you get satisfying answers. Get curious to understand truly.
  • Politely interrupt candidates once they go off course every 3–4 min using reflective listening.

Persuade the identified A-Player to join. Show the A-Player:

  • How his goals, talents, and values fit into the company’s vision, strategy, and culture.
  • How free he will be in doing his job.
  • How rewarded he will be at the height of his work.
  • How fun he will have.
  • How easy the change of life can be for his family.

#4: How the Book Upgraded Me

I found what I was looking for in this book: a standardized process, apparently complex but straightforward to implement, bullet points, mnemonics, red flags, illustrations, quantified statements, etc. It’s a book written by consultants.

I don’t think it’s that simple. I don’t quite agree with some of the questions asked. Overall, the book primarily opened my eyes to the importance of:

  • Defining a recruitment process, standardizing it to be fair to candidates, and optimizing it regularly
  • Defining the outcomes of a job and not the activities

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do. — Steve Jobs

  • Asking questions that don’t bias the answers and collect more details through follow-up questions (as for a user testing interview in a UX research process)
  • Recognizing A-Players, being on the lookout for them, and encouraging them to join an adventure that motivates them

The practice is essential to get the best from this process.

#5: More Resources about Hiring

The book is just the tip of the iceberg. I bookmarked these resources on hiring. I didn’t read everything, but I hope to get down to it as soon as I need it.

Sourcing

Conducting Interviews

Providing the Best Candidate Experience

Hiring Executives

Making a Hiring Plan

Hiring Sales

Ensuring Diversity

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