Jan 12 2021

Top Practices Great Leaders Use When Hiring Great Talent

Ben Marcovitz

Remember how that second-grade teacher electrified a room of disinterested children in reaching high-octane goals — and the self-sacrificing habits required of herself? 

Imagine if she could do that, and select all those second graders herself. Even more helpful: imagine if she could select them based on how much they wanted what she had to offer.

At the very least, then, we could call hiring a luxury most team leaders take for granted. At best, however, it is the single most strategic lever for turning meager resources into outstanding results.

That’s why executives must own it, not the HR or recruiting manager. We are the most accountable to the success of our respective organizations. We have built the vision and mission, and named the identity of our most successful team members: radical growers. 

There may be some football coaches who set out for a state championship, write playbook sand practice schedules that achieve it, and then leave tryouts to someone else—but we’d probably think they were foolish for doing so.

Great leaders, therefore map their hiring processes to the key behaviors and mindsets critical to their team’s identity as growers.

Two talent recruitment principles that great leaders should focus on: 

Number One: Behavior beats words

Interviews are essentially useless. Ever walked away from an interview thinking, “Wow, that person said everything I hoped she’d say! I’m excited!”? Makes sense. Anyone competent enough to get the job is competent enough to tell you exactly what you want to hear in your hiring process, and the majority of your data on a candidate is, therefore, tainted.

I hired an instructional leader once who knew everything I wanted her to know. Her interview was so strong, I upped her salary offer by 10%. Two months later, I realized that knowing is different from doing. And doing, well, she did not do. Every time I asked her for a curriculum plan on deadline, she gave me thorough reasoning as to why it had to be delayed. When the new deadline neared, same old song. It took a mentor visiting the school to tell me, “You realize that, on the list of everything on her job description, she’s checked off virtually nothing, right?” Even in the days before I did my first firing, I couldn’t help second-guessing myself: “But she still tells me all the right things!”

I was actually making good sense. Her “telling me the right things” was the only behavior I measured in her hiring process, so indeed it was the only behavior I reliably got. I should have paid attention to additional behaviors and measured the ones she needed to do the job well, like producing and aligning curriculum, and making sure teachers were nailing it in the classroom.

Instead of words, you have to rely on a much more solid set of evidence: the way candidates behave in the hiring process. We know that the biggest predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  This book tells you how to identify the most important behaviors for achieving results in your organization and how to use the hiring process to prove an applicant can master them.

Number Two:  Informed candidate beats informed you

Ok, I lied about interviews being useless. They offer just one critical opportunity: give the candidate the good, bad, and ugly information about the company and the role. Then ask them to opt in or out.

Those who opt in are thereby “inoculated” to the major landmines of your work and committed to tackling its toughest challenges.

Clara, a friend of mine, runs a mid-sized family foundation, The Marion Trust, which primarily supports civic engagement initiatives for young voters. An adamantly nonpartisan organization, the Trust struggled with media during election season. The anti-Marion stance typically accused the group of being partisan, despite its claims not to be. This season, Clara committed to hiring a media liaison who could soothe some of the hostility. After swiftly combing through a few dozen candidates, Clara landed on Alvin, a superstar former local news anchor with powerful friendships and influence in all the media circles that mattered.

You can imagine, then, that I was surprised when she called me a few weeks later, saying, “I’ve got to fire him—he’s making everything so much worse! But I’m worried firing him is going to make it doubly worse…”

Because of the wide berth she’d given her rock star new media chief, Clara hadn’t been noticing that the quotes he was giving, and the issues he was putting in front of reporters, were the very ones causing backlash. The weekly journal that had called Marion “a shill for whichever candidate the family backed” he’d invited to lunch at the fanciest restaurant in town. With his own former news broadcast team, who’d given air to the same narrative, he’d joked over “off-the-clock” drinks that so far, he’d felt like it actually was true. When Clara confronted him soon after, he pushed back, saying that he didn’t actually believe that civic engagement could be non-partisan, and that who was allowed to believe what he believed about Marion in his “off-time.”

How could she have prevented this? For starters, she could have shown him all the negative press in his hiring process and said, “You should apply for this job if this makes you furious and you want to put a stop to it.” She could have said, “Just so you know, we believe a spokesperson is never ‘off the clock,’ so you must actually deeply agree with us (and our nonpartisan approach) to excel at this job. Don’t take it, otherwise.” She could have ended the conversation with, “I know I’ve said some strong things, so please take a day and get back to me if you’re still excited about this opportunity.”

Not only does this save weeks and weeks of time in micromanaging staff complaints and low morale, but it creates a culture of commitment to high expectations. 

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