No matter what your employment history is, there's a good chance you've worked with one or more colleagues who were less than perfect at their jobs. Maybe they were unhappy with their position, or maybe just not cut out for it. Either way, the company wasn't getting what they were paying for

If you're an entrepreneur, there's also a good chance you've hired someone who you later had to let go for similar reasons. 

So the questions remain:

Why do the wrong people so frequently end up in the wrong positions? Is the hiring process broken? What's going on? 

For some jobs, it's not as important. Non-intensive skill requirements often have a high turnover rate by their very nature, so hiring the perfect employee becomes less of a priority. But when extensive training is required, or valuable information is being passed on, you want to make sure it's going to someone who is truly right for the job. 

So, how do we make that happen? 

Like many questions of the digital age, this one can be answered (succinctly, if not definitively) by looking through the lens of Amazon, one of the global economy's most powerful forces, and its leader, Jeff Bezos.

Let's start by rewinding a bit: 

Bezos got a lot of his inspiration and instruction on hiring from his experience with investment-management firm D.E. Shaw, where recruits were often asked seemingly random questions like, "how many fax machines are there in the United States?" 

Why? The goal wasn't to get precise answers but to identify the candidates who had the best problem-solving skills.

Moving on to Amazon, in 1998, Bezos brought it full circle, and explained exactly how he selects new hires in a letter to shareholders, challenging hiring executives to consider 3 questions about the candidate: 

  1. Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they're entering?
  2. Will you admire this person?
  3. Along what dimension might this person be a superstar? 

This sort of approach might be more common today than it used to be, but there's certainly no doubt that businesses continue to under-utilize the entire interview process as a way of finding employees who identify most with the company's core needs and values, while simultaneously challenging your hiring executives to think about the candidate's true potential in a way they most likely did not. 

Storytime: I know of one small-town movie rental store that's still in business, despite over 95% of similar businesses closing down in the last 10 years. Their resilience is multi-faceted, without a doubt, but one thing about them stands out to me: their paper application consists of questions like

  1. What is your favorite movie? 
  2. What is the Fermi paradox?
  3. Calculate the area of this triangle.

Is it peculiar? Sure. But there's more to it than eccentricity -- there is a clear attempt to employ only the people whom the management has determined are most likely to fit in with their business, and this type of outside-the-box thinking is a big part of Bezos' and Amazon's success. 

Whether it's during the interview or after, the lesson here is to peel the layers back even further about a candidate's potential, and challenge yourself to gauge their long-term fit & impact. During the interview, if you ask candidates those same, tired questions, 'what are your strengths,' or 'what are your goals for the next five years,' a huge opportunity is missed to ask them much more telling questions -- questions that will let us know whether they are going to be dead weight or visionaries inside our organization. Which do you want?

Published on: Aug 21, 2018