Founders and hiring managers like to beat their chests and proudly proclaim, "we only hire rock stars here!" But this is a dangerously oversimplified way to view the hiring process. I know because I've made the mistake myself.

Successful hiring is not only about attracting top talent. While talent is important -- no one wants to hire b-players -- what is more important is vetting a large pool of candidates to find the one person that is specifically qualified to accomplish the objectives of the role, while also contributing to company culture. It's no easy task, but critically important.

How companies fall into the "we only hire rock stars" trap

There are two kinds of "rock stars" that are a recipe for disaster. The first is the rock star interviewee. This person is not more qualified for the position than other candidates, but he appears to be because he's the best interviewee. Sometimes these rock star interviewees shine because they are naturally charismatic, eloquent or able to build rapport with the team. Or even worse, sometimes these candidates have been through so many interviews that they know how to answer any question you throw at them. The key thing to remember is that you are hiring for proficiency for the role, not the interview.

The second kind of "rock star" is the rock star resume. This is the person that is truly excellent. She has a track record of succeeding. Her resume goes beyond including great schools and employers, it also lists specific and measurable results she has created. Her references rate her an A+. You assume she'll be able to continue her successful track record at your company. This might not be the case. Your company culture is likely a different environment from her current company. Since one's environment shapes one's results as much as skills do, a successful past may not be the best indicator for a successful future.

How I learned the hard way

I thought I had attained a high level of skill related to hiring because I had moved beyond the common mistakes of first time hirers, such as hiring people just because I liked them or because they were "smart hustlers that can figure it out." At Soma, we had developed a detailed hiring process with a number of fail-safes built in. So I was feeling confident when we found one candidate that seemed like the perfect fit for an executive role. Once hired, he would have the highest salary in the company's history and the highest recruiting fee, too. He was charged with bringing in the most revenue. If he succeeded, he would transform our business. If he failed, it would have a horrible impact on cash and be a very expensive mistake. Unfortunately, he failed. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that I failed to hire the right person.

So what went wrong? This candidate had served in the exact role we were filling, at similar companies, with similar products, in the same distribution channels as ours. Even more, he had achieved incredible results that were confirmed by his previous employers during reference checks. By the end of the interview process, we thought we had found the perfect match. But we eventually realized that his success at previous companies, despite being similar to Soma, had blinded our ability to see cultural nuances that were more important. It was like we had hired an indoor volleyball star and expected him to produce the same results on a beach volleyball court. Big mistake. But an important lesson about cultural fit vetting emerged that has helped us build an incredibly strong team at Soma since that hiring mistake.

Test for competency first, then cultural fit.

In truth, most managers make emotional hiring decisions; and then afterwards, they use data to justify their decisions. You can avoid this mistake by creating a data-first hiring process. The first step is to list the specific objectives you need a new hire to achieve in the first year of their employment. For example, "Close 12 new clients to generate $1.2M in incremental revenue by December 31, 2017." Next, we create an internal scorecard that lists the specific objectives and competencies of the role. That way, as we collect data about the candidate -- from their resume, interviews, homework assignments and reference calls -- we have an objective criteria against which to judge the candidate's competency fit.

Then, you have to test for cultural fit. There many understandings of cultural fit--and many of them are implicit and inaccurate. The most common, but least admitted, is whether the candidate looks and acts like the people she'll be working with. This is unwise because diversity brings with it new ideas, experiences and benefits that a homogeneous culture lacks. As I've learned from serial entrepreneur Joe Stolte, it's important to get clear on what kind of culture you want to build and then spend time to distill your values down into something everyone can memorize and understand.

At Soma, when we discern the cultural fit of a candidate, we are looking for three things: shared values, shared passions, and complementary work styles. Our values are design, health, sustainability and giving back. Our passions are personal development and hydrating the world. Once your company nails down its values, tailor your interview questions to discover candidates' values, passions and work styles. For example, we have three interviewers ask candidates on three separate occasions this question: "At this point in your career, what is most important to you in terms of your next job and your next employer?" If they don't reference personal development and having an impact at least once in the three interviews, that may be an indicator that they are not a fit for Soma. in addition to interviews, you can also discern cultural fit by assigning homework, calling references, including candidates on informal team outings. This will ensure that new hires will shine, regardless of their "rock star" status.

Published on: Oct 11, 2016
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