Friday, February 20, 2015

Eliciting Candor from References

Most references will not intentionally give you negative information. Yet, when you are considering hiring someone onto your team, the candid feedback of people who have worked with the candidate is one of the most valuable sources of pre-hire insight.

How do you get this candid feedback?  By asking questions that give the reference permission to share candidly without putting themselves in the position of saying something that can be perceived as directly negative or critical.

I always start by asking questions that invite the reference to speak positively about the candidate, before asking those few questions that may potentially be less comfortable for the reference to answer.

Here are some of the questions I ask in reference interviews that seem to elicit candid responses:

  • We don’t expect to hire the perfect person, but if Jen was hired, we would like to be prepared to reinforce her where needed – we would be committed to her growth.  What do you see as an area of growth for Jen?  In other words, what could she change with coaching or professional development that would make her even more effective?


  • What type of work environment would be the wrong setting for Peter? 

  • What is the most important thing the person hiring James should know about him?

  • On a scale of 1 – 10, how effective was Tanya’s work? (What would have made her rate higher?)

  • Most of us perform more effectively with certain types of support in place.  What type of support did Rachel need to be most effective?


My new favorite reference question generally comes at the end and the response to this question supersedes anything else the reference may have said about the candidate

  • On a scale of 1 – 10 how does Rohan rank compared to others you've known in a similar role? (If less than a 9 or 10, I ask what would have made him a 9 or 10.  If a 9 or 10, I may also ask what made him stand out from the crowd.)

Depending on whether I have time, I may ask one or both of the following:

  • Is there anything that I should have asked you and didn't?
  • Is there anything you were hoping I would not ask you?

These last two questions generally elicit little more than a chuckle – but the few times the questions have been answered, the information has been crucial.


What is one especially effective reference question that you always ask?


Note:  I wish I could claim credit for all these questions.  I've borrowed along the way, in particular from my previous employer The Dingman Company.  The "new favorite" is borrowed from Scott Cook, Co-founder of Intuit.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

An Outstanding Approach to Hiring... well, except for one thing...

I just came across a well-thought out post by Preet Anand, CEO of BlueLight on how his company hires.  It is well worth the read, and better yet, as a launching point for designing your own hiring process:

How We Hire: An inside look at our process

The only exception I would make to this process is the timing of the pre-interview survey, described here:

Before meeting, we send a candidate a quick 10-minute survey. This has two purposes:
1) It gives us context on the candidate before we meet. Why are they interested in our company? Why join a startup? What questions do they have for us?
2) It’s a pretty clear sign that someone isn't that excited about your company if they won’t spend 10 minutes to take your survey. This stops us from wasting time and lets us focus on folks who are very interested.

I would argue that at this stage it is fair that someone isn't that excited about your company.  You may not be getting "folks who are very interested" so much as people who more open to a new opportunity -- for whatever reason. 

Asking a prospective candidate to complete a questionnaire before they have had any live interaction with a member of your team may weed out some of your best prospects -- someone who is happy in his/her current role and very busy succeeding at it.  Too busy succeeding that they don't really have the time to complete a questionnaire for an opportunity that has mildly piqued their interest.  

The questionnaire may feel like jumping through a hoop; something you are asking them to do for your convenience rather than for their benefit.   

If the prospect is that appealing, offer to have a 15 minute conversation allowing the person to ask questions.  To best understand how to approach the conversation, start the call with "Why did you think it might be a good idea for us to talk?"

You may decide that you don't want to invest time in wooing candidates and are satisfied with the lower hanging fruit.  This may be a realistic concession for where you are in your business and the time that you have to invest in recruiting, and can still result in great hires. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Caring About Customer Care

I owe an apology to the owner of the upscale pizza franchise located a few miles from my home.  Well, it used to be. I drove by this evening and noticed that it had closed down.  I wondered if the inept customer service I received was representative of the factors that caused this restaurant's demise.

Three times in the past several years, they messed up my takeout order and I never complained to the owner.  After the second of two orders where the wrong items were prepared or items were missing, I stopped frequenting this restaurant for about a year.  When I decided to give them another chance, it did not take long for the errors to resurface and for me to abandon them as a lost cause.  It wasn't just the errors that were made, but the nonchalance of the staff.  No sincere apology or offer of compensation (a free salad?) for my trouble.  Rather than merely voting with my wallet, I should have complained to the owner.

I recently had the opportunity to help a client add three people to the Customer Care team, including the VP.  It was a grueling search for a very selective startup CEO.  This company is one of the leading startups in LA and the CEO's acute commitment to outstanding customer service is certainly at the heart of the company's success.

Seeing this CEO's example makes me wonder about the owner of the pizza restaurant. If he was fully committed to a high level of service, would he have more proactively ensured this?

As a consumer, I have complained bitterly about the demise of customer service in our culture.  But the aforementioned search was eye opening. Poor customer service, in the end, is not due to hiring inept people. It is due to a lack of commitment by management.  If customer service is truly a value, it will be evident in the company's culture and in its practices.  And this will include how the customer service team is hired and compensated. As I interviewed candidates for my client's Customer Care team, I was pretty shocked at how low some of the customer service professionals were being paid. I also met many frustrated customer service leaders who felt that their desire to offer outstanding service was not in complete alignment with the priorities of the company's leaders.  This was often one of the key reasons I was able to engage them in a conversation about leaving.  I came away from the search with increased appreciation for how committed many customer service leaders are, but often without the support of their senior management.

I am encouraged by several of the startups I work with, that represent a new breed of company where customer service is taking a front and center stage role in the company's value system, with the CEO leading the charge.  As a result of this trend, the demand for top-notch customer service leaders is growing.

Perhaps, it should not have come as a surprise in reading a recent article in the Harvard Business Review that a company's identity and culture are strongly intertwined with the company's strategy for creating value for customers. Not only this, I have also seen from my own behind-the-scenes peek into companies by attempting to recruit from them that a company with happy team members is more likely to have happy customers.

At Techweek Los Angeles last month, I sat in the audience as a local startup founder and CEO talked in glowing terms about his company's culture.  I nodded along with him because I had recently spoken with several members of his customer care leadership team whose experience matched what he described.  And, not surprisingly, this same team has won numerous customer service awards in recent years.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Anticipating the Other Company's Counteroffer

“I’m doing the happy dance!” the candidate wrote to me in an email shortly after receiving an offer from my client.  Within a week, the candidate sent an email to the client, reneging on her signed offer letter.  Bias aside, my client offered the better job opportunity, the most promising upside potential, and the more progressive culture with happier team members – all the reasons that the prospective employee had been excited about the new opportunity to begin with – and yet the loyalty the person felt to her current executive team had a strong hold over her.  
They made promises that from the outside-looking-in seemed questionable.  They apologized for neglecting her and promised to be more attentive to her career progression.  But, old habits die hard and I will not be surprised in the least bit if her situation returns to the level of dissatisfaction that first prompted her to respond to a recruiter’s inquiry.*
When you extend an offer, realize the precarious nature of the period following the offer acceptance while waiting for the prospective team member to finish her or his final weeks at the current company.  Proactively find ways to stay connected.  Keep in front of him or her a vision of the brighter future that awaits.
I can think of a particular situation that illustrates this point.  When I shared with a client, shortly after she extended an offer, that I strongly suspected that her prospective team member would receive a compelling counteroffer, the initial response from this very rational and clear-thinking CEO was "But he signed an agreement and this is clearly a better opportunity.  He's a big boy.  I don't need to hold his hand." 
Yet, a decision to change jobs, no matter how rational, will have emotional and relational implications.  Even in a less than ideal job situation, you can’t underestimate the potency of the shared history and relational equity the current employer can leverage.  Add to this, the natural human tendency to trust the known over the unknown.
After decades of helping to connect companies with the most attractive talent in the marketplace, and making some mistakes in the meantime, I can say with certainty that if you are hiring away a superstar from another company, assume that the current employer may go into overdrive in their efforts to convince the person to stay.  
It didn’t take much persuading for my astute client to figure out what she needed to do. This CEO stuck to her convictions about not “hand holding” but, in the weeks following the offer, she did begin to actively engage the prospective employee on different levels and in ways that were completely natural -- sending a welcome gift and congratulatory champagne, meeting over dinner for a preliminary strategy session to plan out action steps, soliciting his input for upcoming decisions, inviting him into the office to select his new laptop and a few office furnishings, and so on.  Other team members also kept in touch, expressing their excitement that he was joining the team.  The team at the new company did an outstanding job of helping the soon-to-be team member feel vitally connected before his official first day on the job. 
Meanwhile, his current company extended an unbelievable counteroffer including a title and pay increase that he had not anticipated in his wildest dreams.  However, during these last ditch efforts to keep him on board, guess who the superstar prospective hire used as a sounding board?  You may have guessed – his soon-to-be boss, based on the relationship that had begun during the interview process and that continued to be carefully nurtured during the transitional stage. 
As a recruiter, I also played an instrumental role, but what won out in this situation was the very clear match between the opportunity offered by my client and the candidate’s goals and aspirations and – equally important – the culture that the candidate was being invited to participate in, and the relationship that had begun to develop between the new team member, his new boss, and the rest of the team. 
Successfully withstanding a counter-offer doesn’t just begin after the offer is extended.  This starts during the recruiting and interviewing process.  The process must include transparency, full-disclosure, and laying the groundwork for a relationship of mutual trust and respect.  This goes a long way. 
Some questions to ask in the interview conversation:
  • What do you value most in your current role?
  • If you could change anything about your current job/company, what would that be?  Have you tried to initiate any of these changes?  What happened?
  • What are the three main criteria that you will use in determining whether to accept an offer?
  • If you decide to join our team, what could your current employer do to change your mind? 
*Within three months, this person contacted me to let me know things had gone awry and that she was actively looking.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Make the Reference Call Count

One of the misconceptions about checking references is that the sole purpose is to determine whether or not to hire someone.  Sure this is a reason, but references are also a valuable source of information about how to help the new hire succeed in your company.  References done right can help you know which strengths to maximize and where reinforcement may be needed to offset weaknesses.  If you take this attitude and tone, this will change how you approach the reference interview and may even elicit more candor from the reference.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Axcient CEO Justin Moore on Culture (from First Round Capital Review)



As an external recruiting consultant, I have a particular vantage point on the signficance of culture. I see how many job moves occur because a company with a great culture is appealing to a top-performer who is currently in a mediocre or poor culture.  Among other reasons, but this is very often a key decision point.

There is an excellent post on First Round Capital's website titled Culture Isn't Kumbaya Stuff that addresses the issue of culture, representing the thoughts of Justin Moore, CEO of Axcient.  Most of the founders I know are in survival mode in the early days of building a business and culture is not necessarily top of mind, but Moore says that culture is too important to relegate to the future. 

Here is an excerpt from the article, but I recommend reading in entirety: 

Culture is one of those things in Silicon Valley that has become nebulous. Everyone wants to have a great culture, but few really understand what it means and how to build it, outside of ping-pong tables and weekly happy hours. Justin Moore, CEO of Axcient, believes that culture, more than anything else, is the key defining attribute of success in tech and must be built starting on the very first day of a company’s life. “This is not about fuzzy, holding hands around a campfire, kumbaya stuff. That’s not what values and culture and mission is about. This is about building an organization for success. This is about winning. This is about doing the tactical things to make sure your organization and your people are aligned around the same thing,” Moore shares.
When you’re small, it seems like great culture should just create itself. You hire people that are like-minded, you interview everybody in the same way and you work hard. You think outstanding culture will be a byproduct of those choices. Moore is adamant that this isn’t true: “Start-up founders often say, “Look, when I’m five employees, I don’t need to invest in that culture stuff. I need to focus on product. I’ve got to get the product right. Then, I need to focus on sales strategies. This stuff can come later.” However, Moore argues, “the problem is that, even at a start-up, you do have a culture and a values system, but you may not be in control of it.” 
If the CEO doesn’t set the tone for the company’s culture, someone else—or some other factor—will. It can easily turn into dysfunction. Moore explains that it’s best to “lead from the front,” to be intimately involved in setting the tone of ethics, work focus, hiring and personal integrity. He compares a company with a strong common culture and sense of purpose to a well-captained sculling team: everyone rows in the same direction, with similar intensity, with a deep bond of mutual trust to bind the group’s interests together. 

In another section, Justin Moore states something that I think is crucial even though it takes effort and intention  to build this into how a company functions day-to-day: 

Another key challenge with culture is consistency. You need to communicate your company’s values to employees early on and often; it should be a constant drumbeat. 

I don't pretend to think that this is easy.  But nothing about building a successful business is.