(BUILDING AN A-TEAM – PART 2) For Part 1, click here.
Our previous post took a rather gloomy look at some of the hidden landmines that sabotage scale ups building an A-team. In this post we share some of the best hacks we’ve come across to navigate the treacherous terrain that is hiring. It’s a beast of a post that will take 20 minutes to read. But how much time does a single bad hire take? So we’ve erred on the side of giving ‘Power to you’…
Post 2 - Dartboard sketch
Levels of Hiring Accuracy The holy grail of hiring decisions is placing a person in a role when they are clearly:
  • An A-PLAYER: They’ve got a consistent track record of high achievement in multiple areas (which usually means they have plenty of talent, ambition, and soft and hard skills);
  • A ROLE FIT: They’ve delivered outstanding performance in a very similar role, or roles that require substantially similar attributes to succeed. Their strengths will be key to success; their weaknesses won’t derail performance;
  • SCALABLE: They will grow into the future needs of the role / business.

Making those judgments on a stranger after reviewing a resume and having 2x 1-hour interviews is like getting married the day after a second date. But that’s exactly what most hiring managers try to do! It’s crazy when you consider the cost of getting a hiring decision wrong!There are 5 horizons of accuracy in hiring decisions. Each horizon comes with less reliable data, making the hiring decision riskier.

Accuracy level 1: A-Player Networks

Accuracy level 2: 2nd degree A-Player networks

Accuracy level 3: Outsourced talent scouts

Accuracy level 4: Strangers, with a courting process

Accuracy level 5: Strangers, with no courting process

Obviously, you want to try hiring from sources with the highest possible accuracy level. The problem is that scale eventually forces you to further and further extremes. So you need to maximise chances of getting the decision right. Here are 17 hacks to do that. As you scale, scale your firm’s hiring capabilities by taking on more of these hacks.


Nothing predicts performance like first-hand experience of a person’s track record delivering a particular sort of results. That’s why hack #1 is…


Hiring people you’ve worked closely with before is without question the most reliable channel to source talent for scale up leaders. Hiring former colleagues – who you’ve worked with closely before, so you know them ‘warts and all’ – delivers the best results. But that will only get you through your start-up days. After that, your networks are unlikely to meet your demands for talent. Enter Level 2… Flag: hiring friends and family normally does not work out well. While you know them well, you’ve always thought of them through the lens of a ‘social contract’, not a ‘performance contract’. Experience says these 2 are radically different, and the price of getting it wrong is very, very high (you could lose a colleague AND a friend).


A-Players know how to spot A-Players (and B-players, and C-players!). So rely on referrals of high performing people. But they need to want to work for you. That’s why hack #2 is…


You need to be a talent magnet. The speed at which you can recruit top talent places a ceiling on the speed at which you can grow, so if top talent comes looking for you, you literally accelerate growth and create an amazing source of competitive advantage. So, just like you need to attract customers, you need to attract the best talent. Don’t be daunted. You don’t need all of them; probably 1% of any given talent pool is enough for you. It’s totally doable and there are countless Scale Ups proving it every day. But you do need to invest in a remarkable Employee Value Proposition (EVP, or ‘Talent Promise’) – one that’s as great as your promise to customers. Scaling talent is just as much a market place activity as scaling sales. You need to market to great talent, win them, and then deliver on your promises. So what’s your promise to top talent? The Big 3 drivers of an amazing EVP that helps Scale Ups win the war for talent against giants are: 1) PURPOSE: Have an inspiring mission; 2) AUTONOMY, PERFORMANCE & FUN: Create a culture where standards are high and high performers thrive and have fun, and therefore love coming to work every day. The key to getting this right is to hire nice, brilliant people, especially at a management level. Avoid compromising on this and the rest will take care of itself. 3) GROWTH: Create roles in which people experience amazing personal growth, mostly through stretch assignments.


Second only to your first-hand experience of a person is the strength of an A-player in your network saying ‘this guy is amazing and I think he’d be a great fit for that role.’ Most importantly, value referrals of A-players on your team. A-players not only notice other A-players, they love working with them and don’t like working with B- and C-Players. Get referrals from your Board and investors too. Watch out for ‘fit’ issues. Other A-players may know how to spot A-players, but the less first-hand knowledge they have of the job at hand, your culture, and the job context, the less likely they will get the ‘fit’ recommendation right.


It’s a strategic priority to expand your network of A-players in key talent pools. If you need plenty of Google calibre engineers, make it your mission to hire an engineer from google. Then harness their networks to tap into more top talent at Google. Now you’ll have an inside scoop on who the best performers are, whether they’ll be a culture fit, and who will provide good ‘bang for buck’.


Treat every meeting like a recruiting meeting. You need to build a ‘warm bench’ of strong talent. So treat every meeting with customers, suppliers, and bankers as an opportunity to spot high performers that might be interested in working for you one day. Actively build relationships with high performers even if it is unlikely you will ever hire them. They are the best source of excellent talent referrals. Tip – use this as an opportunity to build culture as well as reinforce the current Talent Promise to the existing team. Leverage this effort by getting the broader team involved. Make getting A-players into the business a badge of honour that’s celebrated and rewarded. Challenge everyone to identify and engage and excite 1 A player at least every 6 months. Cumulatively this will add up to a decent bench of A players


If you receive a resume from a candidate that has worked with people you know, phone them first to get a view on the calibre of the person. It’s amazing how often a 5-minute call can save you a few hours of interviews. Okay, but those hacks are obvious and you’re all doing them already.


Once your recruiting demands are outstripping your ability to hire from 2nd degree networks, you’re into much riskier terrain. You’re now effectively sourcing strangers. This is the worst source of candidate because you now need to make calls on people’s ability to perform without very reliable sources of information. Once you’re hiring strangers, at least try to source ‘qualified strangers’ with decent quality performance and fit data. Which is why Hack #7 is…


The best of the worst sources of candidates are that rare breed of high quality recruiters. Most recruiters are incentivised to place a lot of candidates, so they place a lot of B- and C-players. Don’t work with those recruiters. It’s not much better than placing newspaper ads. If you do work with them, treat their candidates as unqualified strangers who’ve been coached on how to look much better than they really are. A small minority of recruiters are driven by qualityplacements. They’re interested in long term relationships with clients so they try to only place A-players who will perform in their new roles. These are usually boutique firms and you’re normally working with an individual with a real eye for talent and a knack for matching candidates to cultures and roles. But these recruiters are few and far between. Find them, know their ‘sweet spot’ (what types of roles they are best at placing), and build great long term partnerships with them where they get to know your organisation and culture. Having these recruiting partners does mean you pay recruitment fees. But that’s worth doing to avoid hiring mistakes. The right recruitment partners will increase your supply of quality candidates and help you avoid making hiring mistakes. They effectively act like outsourced talent scouts who’re always on the job, actively prowling both active and passive talent markets for you while you run the business. They have a very wide ‘catchment area’, but they curate high volumes of candidates and send you only a handful of candidates that best fit your role. The best thing is this all happens in the background, for free, while you Scale Up. You only pay if you place someone. It’s a real win, if your partners are skilled talent scouts.


If you’re forced to consider resumes from outside your direct network, the odds are against you making a good hiring decision. So you need to build a recruiting engine that tilts the odds back in your favour. Here are a few hacks that will get you there:


It’s remarkable how poorly interview performance predicts job performance. Hiring strangers after a few 1-hour interviews is like getting married after the second date. Whenever you can, take your time and get to know them. The best test of how a stranger will perform is to actually observe them doing the job. Always try recruit candidates who can and will do some version of an internship or contract role first. Working with someone for 30-60 days is an infinitely better basis for a long term hiring decision than a few hours of interviews.


Most candidates who’re over 25 can’t do internships or contract roles because they’re in a good job, and don’t want to risk losing their income for a job that might not happen. If you’re forced to hire from candidates in that position, you need a system to get it right.


Your new date is much less likely to inflate their achievements and hide their dark side if they know you’re good friends with their ex. That knowledge acts a bit like a truth serum, which hopefully saves you from falling for a loser with charm. So tell candidates repeatedly that, before making a hiring decision, they will need to arrange reference calls with all their former bosses so that you can ask them about the candidates’ performance and strengths and weaknesses. This “Truth Serum’ lets C-players know they need not apply and lets everyone else know they will have to present their strengths and weaknesses honestly.


When hiring from a pool of strangers, you need to think: cast net wide, filter fast, short-list ruthlessly. That way you are most likely to get quality candidates from a low quality process. But you can only cast the net wide if you have a smart way of filtering fast. Skip the resume. Get a career history form that tabulates performance on the job and bonuses for all jobs. If that’s what you look at first you can screen most candidates out in 30 seconds. This sounds ruthless because it is. But remember, in Scale Ups ‘good enough’ is not good enough. You need awesomeness, and awesomeness stands out.


Don’t go shopping when you’re hungry. If you want to avoid wasting money, eat first and take a list that you stick to. Likewise, when hiring, have a shopping list you stick to or your brain is more likely to trick you into recruiting people who make a good first impression, have the gift of the gab, are a lot like you, and may suck at the job. So the first hack to dramatically enhance performance when recruiting strangers is a role scorecard. What results must candidates deliver in the first 12 months on the job to be rated an A-performer? Using that as a basis to evaluate candidates in interviews will go part of the way to protect you from a myriad of cognitive biases that sabotage your selection.


Make a rule to never hire people that don’t strongly demonstrate ‘the achiever pattern’. Role fit mistakes can be fixed for achievement oriented people who bring passion and like to perform. That’s why people say ‘hire for potential, train for skill’. That’s simplistic, but there’s truth to it. High potentials are gems that can be moulded. Mediocre talent makes their inability to perform in a role your problem. So use interviews to look for the ‘Achiever DNA’. Achievers talk differently. If you’re listening for it, you can hear it. Achievers talk about stretch goals that put them out of their comfort zone and force them to learn and grow. They’re naturally aware of setbacks and obstacles, pivots and setbacks to overcome them, breakthroughs, failings and learnings along the way. Achievers have medals (like major project successes, boss reviews, awards etc) and you can hear when there’s just that clear ring of achiever DNA in their language.Don’t be fooled by the politically savvy ‘fake it well enough and you’ll make it without actually having to make it’ sorts. That’s why you use hacks #9, 10, and 13-16 to vet the interviews.


But there is still a gaping chasm between hearing from a person and seeing them do the job. You still want to create mechanisms to observe the speed and quality of work they actually do on the kinds of tasks critical to their job performance. So design work sample interviews specific to the roll. Don’t be afraid to require a half day or a full day of assignment-based work, at your offices, and then grill interview them on the output. Consultants and investment bankers do case study interviews to test problem solving ability and communication skills. If you’re hiring a coder, the best way to decide if they’re great at coding is to see them coding. For a general management role, set a range of small assignments common to the role and see how they prioritise, make judgment calls, communicate, and how much of a dent they make in a big pile of stuff. If possible, kill 2 birds with 1 stone and use an assignment that you need to get done anyway.


The top 2 predictive processes for interviewing strangers are structured interviews and psychometric tests. Use both, together. In particular, do chronological career review interviews where you unpack their role, achievements, failings, and boss ratings for each role. Build a complete picture of the person and push and probe for a balanced view of strengths and weaknesses. And don’t forget the truth serum: ‘So when I speak to your boss, what do you think he’ll say about your performance, strengths and weaknesses?’


It sounds expensive, but really! The cost of doing recruiting well vs. a hiring mistake is on the level of 1 : 1000. Just suck it up and make sure that for at least 2 of the interviews, you have a colleague with experience hiring and firing as your wingman in the interview. It’s remarkable how having 2 people actively engaging the candidate reduces the flow of hubris.


Not just to underpin ‘the Truth Serum’. What would online shopping be without customer reviews? Do you even believe product marketing anymore when you don’t get to read customer reviews? Likewise, you need to counter-balance candidates’ self-portrayal with the perspective of those who’ve sampled the goods. Human beings typically have inflated self-perceptions (really. Its been empirically proven): C-players don’t know they are, and B-players think they’re A-players. Plus interviews are designed to extract ‘promotional material’. It’s a double whammy. Notwithstanding use of the Truth Serum, you still need to hear from those who’ve had to live with candidates, warts and all, before making a final hiring offer.


Most new managers have not had the opportunity to learn from hiring mistakes. Most experienced hiring managers have not learned how to avoid them! Institutionalise world class hiring practices at every level, and don’t let it slip. You’ll need to do 4 things to achieve that.

  1. Put it in scorecards – sounds odd; but hiring performance is as important as P&L performance. Measure success rates; reward it.
  2. Make it a core management competency – Institutionalise 2 ‘non-negotiable’ reads on hiring so they get up the learning curve fast. ‘Topgrading’ (Brad Smart), and ‘Who’ (Geoff Smart);
  3. Boot camp them – its amazing how having the whole team in a boot camp with independent experts for a day shifts mindsets and makes this a cultural priority;
  4. Coach – build coaching into your recruiting process. Get experienced hiring managers who do all the right things to go through the process with younger hiring managers.

Power to you. Happy hunting… For help institutionalising world class recruiting practices, join us for our ‘Scaling Talent’ 1-day boot camp. Share your recruiting hacks with others and comment below.