What the Best in Business Look For When They Hire

September 24, 2013


For those seeking a job, the rigorous application and interview process can be harrowing. But spare some sympathy for the hiring managers. Sifting through resumes and coaxing out revealing insights in interviews is its own exhausting grind. And what’s at stake is a company’s most important asset: its talent.

More than 80 of LinkedIn’s Influencers -- thought leaders and experts across industries who write original content for LinkedIn -- had lots to say about this topic in “How I Hire,” a feature series that launches today. We also teamed up with the New York Times to pull together the best hiring advice out there, including Q&As with career experts.

Through these blog posts, we get a firsthand look at the hiring philosophies of industry giants like Richard Branson, Deepak Chopra, Sallie Krawcheck and dozens more.

The series confirms that building a great team is arguably the most important thing to get right when running a company or department, and also one of the toughest. The interview process can also be painful: We quizzed 43 Influencers on their hiring habits, and a full quarter of those we surveyed have gone so far as to fake some type of emergency to end a bad interview.

Most Influencers have achieved extraordinary success not only on the strength of their own skills, but their talent at evaluating and attracting the best people to fill open roles. As a result, the “How I Hire” series is a goldmine of hiring tips and tricks. Read closely and you might even learn the key to getting a job with an Influencer. Below are a few key takeaways:

Go with your gut -- or ignore it

A strong majority of the Influencers we surveyed say that instinct is more important than data for hiring decisions. But there’s a vocal minority that disagrees, arguing that following your gut can lead you astray.

  • Tom Bedecarre, chairman of AKQA, collects hundreds of data points on potential hires, saying his most successful hires were the ones he had the most information about.
  • On the other hand, AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes takes just 10 seconds to make his decision. He looks for a glint in the eyes that signals passion, hunger and heart.
  • Expert recruiter Lou Adler tells a cautionary tale that illustrates the dangers of relying on intuition or first impressions to make hiring decisions.

Level the playing field

As attractive as trusting your instincts might seem, many managers instead rest their hiring decisions on diagnostics that compare different candidates according to the same criteria. Depending on the role, those criteria vary widely.

It’s not about getting the answer right

Good interviewers ask lots of smart questions. But again and again, we heard Influencers say that specific responses were less important than other factors like the quality of the conversation and the way candidates thought about questions. In other words, don’t fret if you don’t have the perfect response to an interview query. Your questioner might be testing you for something else entirely.

  • DJ Patil, VP of product at RelateIQ, asks two deceptively similar questions and makes a judgment not just on the answer, but the speed of the response and its tone.
  • Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, conducts technical interviews with an in-depth programming and problem-solving exercise to closely mimic a workplace interaction. He has found that people with the "right" answer to the problem off the bat end up performing worse than those who are open to creative solutions.
  • Steve Stoute, co-founder of celebrity ad agency Translation, says he talks about things besides the position he’s filling, including what an applicant’s parents do for a living. He’s trying to get a feel for the candidate, not just the dates and locations on their resume.

Hire teams, not individuals

Many Influencers made the point, in different ways, that it’s as important, if not more, to hire a team that works well together than it is to hire a bunch of great individuals.

  • Sallie Krawcheck of 85 Broads and formerly the president of Merril Lynch, notes that you can't have a basketball team with all point guards. Diversity of roles and backgrounds has been proven to make teams better.
  • GE CMO Beth Comstock reminds us there are no “lone geniuses,” and it’s teams that do the real work. To create diverse teams she looks to fill roles including the well-balanced employee and the fish out of water.
  • James Caan, CEO of Hamilton Bradshaw, auditions shortlisted employees byhaving them sit in with his team and seeing what kind of fit they are.
  • Jen Dulski, president and COO of Change.org, cites six must-haves when she’s bringing new people on board, including a diverse team.

Know what you’re looking for -- and name it

For many, the hiring process is built around identifying very specific traits. Influencers don’t just hire for broadly defined character traits like cooperation or persistence. Many have been building teams for so long that they’ve given names to the unique skill sets or combinations of traits that the perfect hire must posses.

  • Diego Rodriguez, partner at IDEO, looks for what he calls informed intuition,” a highly developed sense of what is awesome and what is not, what will work and what won’t.
  • Chopra Foundation Founder Deepak Chopra goes so far as to create a "soul profile,” a portrait of each candidate that includes questions about their life’s purpose and what they look for in a friend. Chopra argues that technical skills can be outsourced, but “what makes an organization or business successful are core values, qualities of character, vision, purpose, camaraderie, and joy. And these cannot be outsourced.”
  • Management guru and former GE CEO Jack Welch also looks for something singular in addition to qualities like energy and edge. He defines it as the“generosity gene,” a trait belonging to people who get joy out of seeing those around them do well.

Keep in mind what you don’t want

How do Influencers get so good at hiring? By learning from their mistakes. Nearly all of the Influencers we surveyed said at some point they’ve regretted a hiring decision they made. From that, many have taken lessons about how to screen out candidates who won’t work out.

  • Neil Weinberg, editor-in-chief of American Banker magazine, has a list of pet peeves that get applicants struck from consideration, from spelling errors in a cover letter to unprofessional clothes or attitude. (Incidentally, wardrobe gripes aren’t as common than they once might have been: Only six out of 43 Influencers we surveyed say wearing a suit to an interview is an absolute must.)
  • Lesley Seymour, editor-in-chief of More magazine, resists the idea that hiring from a pool of younger candidates means bringing spoiled brats on board. She says you just have to know how to weed out the entitled millennials.
  • Bruce Kasanoff, CEO of Now Possible, sifts what he calls “givers” from “takers” and keeps "takers" -- people who are mostly self-interested -- away from customer-facing roles.

To peek into the minds of dozens more who have mastered staffing (and to learn from their mistakes), check out the full series here. For more strengths to look for and flubs to avoid when hiring, log on to LinkedIn at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Sept. 26, when I’ll be moderating a live chat on hiring with New York Times columnist Adam Bryant and human resources expert Josh Bersin. Finally, tell us on our LinkedIn Company Page or on Twitter using the hashtag #HowIHire: What do you think is the most important thing to think about when hiring?

Photo: Bill Strain/Flickr