Hiring with intention: 3 tips for slowing down to scale up

After years of focusing on growth at all costs, it seems that leaders at some of the world’s fastest-growing companies realize the importance of putting culture first.

CEOs including Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi and Snap’s Evan Spiegel recently spoke up about the steps they’re taking to reshape toxic company cultures, and the broader conversation is beginning to shift. I recently attended the CloudNY conference and was struck by how many of my peers emphasized the importance of deliberately building company culture, even in the midst of rapid business growth.

Creating a great corporate culture requires many things. Perhaps first among them is thoughtful hiring. No matter the size of the company, you can’t build a great workplace without employees who embody your values.

The challenge is that it takes slowing down to create an intentional hiring process. Otherwise, you risk making snap judgments that can lead to missing out on great people or bringing on employees who aren’t the right fit long term.

My hiring philosophy is based on lessons I learned at a large organization, Salesforce, that I’ve applied to a growth-stage company in my current role as CEO of Invoca. Here are the main pillars:

1. Define what you measure and who will measure it

Earlier in my career, I tended to approach interviews without a lot of formal preparation or consistency. But through personal experience and observing industry trends, I've learned that the ideal way to get the best results is to be methodical in the hiring process.

Without clear criteria, interviewers will default to their own biases, whether conscious or unconscious. A growing body of research shows that unstructured interviews help you get to know someone on a surface level, but they’re highly subjective and don’t reliably predict job performance. People tend to prefer candidates who resemble themselves, but this bias is mitigated when companies evaluate candidates systematically.

Slack recently redefined its interview process to support a more diverse and inclusive company. The hiring team assigns each role a list of desired characteristics and skills. They write a list of behavioral questions that assess this information, ask every candidate the same things, and measure their answers against each other.

I highly recommend taking a page from Slack’s playbook and creating a rubric for each role. With a consistent set of questions and evaluation criteria, you can draw more objective comparisons between candidates. I find it’s a best practice to define roles and responsibilities for the interview team so that each person knows what they’re evaluating (e.g., technical skills, interpersonal/management skills, critical thinking) and can provide specific feedback about that area.

2. Evaluate adaptability as well as experience

Much has been written about the need for adaptability at both the organizational and individual levels. The capacity to learn on the job and transfer knowledge to new contexts will only become more critical in the coming years as technology advances and “hard” skills more quickly become obsolete. 

I value strong "intellectual athletes" who are adaptable and can take on new challenges — in part because I enjoy learning new skills. I learned the value of adaptability working in management consulting, an industry that by definition requires that you learn and adapt on the fly as you take on new projects with new clients in new industries.

During the decade that I spent at Salesforce, I also saw how successful executives were able to move between different roles in the company, taking on new challenges and strengthening their skill sets while continuing to make a substantial contribution to the company.

There are a few ways to optimize for adaptability. You might experiment with Zappos’ approach and meet with candidates before deciding what role would be the best fit. At Zappos, recruiters chat with applicants one-on-one, then invite promising candidates to company meetings and events.

You can also design interview questions that gauge how adaptable someone is, for instance:

  • Tell me about a time when you adjusted to a new role.
  • Describe a time you’ve had to navigate ambiguity — how did you approach uncertainty?
  • What previously held assumptions have you had to unlearn?

Pay attention to how often “learning” comes up in your conversation about a candidate’s previous roles and career goals. Talk to their references about how this person has tackled new problems and whether they’d consider them emotionally intelligent, intellectually curious, and self-motivated.

3. Assign a real problem with real data

As part of the interview process, ask candidates to solve an actual problem you’re facing. For example, if we’re interviewing someone for a product management role, we might outline a specific feature that we’re looking to build, and ask the candidate to do a 45-minute presentation outlining how they’d approach designing and building the first version of that product.

The process gives us a good sense of what it would be like to work together. In addition to evaluating the candidate's ideas, we can observe what kind of questions they ask and how they approach problem-solving. It also allows the candidate to step into the role and feel out the team.

My advice is to share actual data to the degree you feel comfortable. Give the candidate the same information your team can access and ask what they’d do differently. This real-world problem-solving scenario is particularly helpful if you’re considering a less traditional candidate. While their previous experience may not match up precisely with the job description, you’ll get a sense for how they’d approach the role. This reduces the risk associated with bringing them on and helps you understand their working style, motivation level, and approach.

For example, when we hire for product roles, I am always curious to see which candidates proactively sign up for our product, tinker with it to understand key features and come into an interview with an informed perspective.

Hiring has been a big part of my job for the past 10 years. But it wasn’t until I became a CEO that I truly appreciated the role of a deliberately designed plan in both hiring great people and building a long-term culture.

The hiring process often feels like a sprint, but it’s in your best interest to slow down. Give yourself the time and space challenge your own biases and snap judgments, and create a system that allows your team to do the same.

Gregg Johnson is CEO of call intelligence company Invoca. He also writes about leadership and the tech industry. Read more at Into the Deep End.

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