Book Review-Who: The “A” Method for Hiring

In my work on knowledge management it’s become all too clear that labor costs are the costs that dominate most organizations’ budgets. Unless you’re in a particularly material cost intensive industry – such as manufacturing – most of your cost in an organization is labor cost. That drives the need to improve efficiency through knowledge management and training techniques – however, there’s a part of the equation which starts much earlier than how you retain the knowledge that you have – it starts with hiring the right people in the first place. That’s what Who: The A Method for Hiring is all about. It’s about selecting the right people to be a part of the team. The heart of this is a method created by Geoff Smart‘s father, Brad Smart and is described in more detail in the book Topgrading: The Proven Hiring and Promoting Method that Turbocharges Company Performance.

The “A” method for hiring is all about hiring “A” players. That is those employees that are going to help drive your business. It is in the context of a grading system, like a typical school. The “A” players are best followed by “B” players, etc. The assertion is that if you hire only “A” players then you’ll drive the organization forward – Who teaches you how to find and employ “A” players and separate them from the “B” and “C” players that most organizations will admit that they have on their team in at least some places.

I picked up the book because it was referenced in The Checklist Manifesto In connection with how people made their decisions. I knew Who was about hiring – and I have some hiring to do. In reading it, I learned more about how I’d been doing hiring wrong – and where I had seen it done right.

The Technical Interview

When I was working for Crowe Horwath (it was Crowe Chizek at the time), I was part of the team that was hiring new consultants. We had the hiring process down to a well-oiled machine. I would, along with a few others, review resumes, do phone screen interviews, and participate in a face-to-face interview set. Human resources would send a relatively steady flow of resumes and they would be sorted into a not interested and phone screen “piles.” The phone screen candidates would get a time scheduled for a 30 minute conversation. They were generally pretty quick and ultimately we screened out about 95% of the people we spoke to simply based on a lack of technical skills. I can remember going through some interviews wishing that I could make the half hour go by faster. But our screening rate was pretty good.

If they passed the technical screen they would be brought in and we’d ask them a set of standard questions. We’d coach them to be specific if they were speaking in generalities. Ultimately after a few of us would interview the candidate we’d huddle back together and put folks into a yes, no, and maybe pile. The maybe pile was really only a temporary holding spot, we moved them either to yes or no very quickly.

The process was very structured and very good. However, it felt pretty time consuming. It also felt like it was built on the need for highly technical positions. I didn’t think about using the process – or a similar one – when I started hiring for myself. Over the last several years I’ve hired and fired more than a few people. Sometimes my bleeding heart wanted to help someone in trouble. Other times, I didn’t understand what I was asking from folks. All the time I felt like I’m lousy at hiring people – but it was something I had to do in order to grow the business. What I learned from Who is that the same discipline we applied to technical candidates should be applied to every candidate from the CEO of a Fortune 100, multi-national corporation to the receptionist being hired to welcome guests in the corporate office. I also learned that there are ten different types of interviewers.

Discover the Truth

Ten Different Interviewing Styles

Who calls out ten different styles of interviewing that the authors have seen in their practice. They are:

  • The Art Critic – Gut instincts and the belief that he or she can read people guide the Art Critic to deciding whether they think that a candidate is good.
  • The Sponge – Believing in the wisdom of crowds – on really small sample sizes – the Sponge tries to get everyone to interview the candidate instead of them doing the job themselves.
  • The Prosecutor – Acting like a first year drama student the interviewer attempts the kind of interrogation seen on TV cop shows.
  • The Suitor – So preoccupied with whether the candidate will like them or not, they spend all their time speaking about how wonderful the company is that they forget to ask the candidate about themselves.
  • The Trickster – Using logic tests and quirky questions the trickster believes that anyone who can make it through their gauntlet of questions relatively unscathed must be OK.
  • The Animal Lover – Steadfastly refusing to let go of favorite questions, these interviewers like to ask questions that they themselves believe are illustrative of the candidate.
  • The Chatterbox – This interviewer loves to hear himself (or herself) talk so much they forget to ask the candidate the right questions and dig for the right responses.
  • The Psychological/Personality Tester – With the weapon of testing by his side, the Psychological/Personality tester seeks to be able to hire based on their DISC profile, Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, or some other test. The problem is that these tests weren’t designed for this and this still tells you relatively little about the person’s capabilities.
  • The Aptitude Tester – This interviewer seeks to determine a person’s aptitude for a specific position. The trick is in measuring the right aptitudes for the right roles.
  • The Fortune-Teller – Like the preverbal ground hog on ground hog’s day, the fortune teller likes to ask the candidate about how they see the future with them in it.

None of the interviewing styles are perceived to be particularly effective. Instead a structured approach with layers of interviews is recommended.

The Plan

The process laid out for successful hiring has four key steps. They are:

  • Scorecard – The record of what you want in a candidate.
  • Source – How you’re going to get a steady stream of candidates into the system.
  • Select – The heart of the system is the set of interviews that the candidate must go through and the process the interviewers should follow.
  • Sell – Once the candidate has been located, selling the candidate on the company so that they’ll take the offer that is provided to them. After all, you’ve got a substantial investment in interviewing the candidate, you want to make sure that they accept what you’re offering.

Let’s look at each one of the steps in turn.

The Scorecard

While most folks are familiar with creating a job description, few people have created a scorecard for a job that they’ve not hired someone for yet. If scorecards are used (and according to Who, that’s not frequently), they’re usually developed after someone has been hired. As a result, the idea of creating a scorecard can be a radical departure from how things have been done in the past. The scorecard is, however, not complicated. It contains just three major sections:

  • The Mission – The summary statement of the job’s core purpose.
  • The Outcomes – The specific, measurable, outcomes that the role must achieve.
  • The Competencies – What a successful person in this position must be able to do.

One of the interesting biases that the scorecard is supposed to address is the tendency to hire someone with a wider range of – necessarily shallower – skills. By focusing on the specific competencies required for the position you can eliminate the desire to find someone who can do everything – but not do it extremely well. I’ll say that this is an area where I see the focus of Who clearly. Who was written for larger organizations. There’s even an admission in the book about having not hired a nanny with the process (with poor results.) While most of what is written is solid on both ends of the scale – sometimes it’s hard to realize that small businesses require a greater degree of flexibility in employees. So the idea that you should hire for specialties is somewhat counter intuitive.

I’d refine the statement for smaller businesses to say that you have to get sufficient depth in the specialty that you’re hiring for – while having a broader set of skills to make it easier to adapt to changing market and organizational needs.

Who also speaks of a set of critical competencies for “A” players: (The descriptions are direct quotes)

  • Efficiency. Able to produce significant output with minimal wasted effort.
  • Honesty/integrity. Does not cut corners ethically. Earns trust and maintains confidences. Does what is right, not just what is politically expedient. Speaks plainly and truthfully.
  • Organization and planning. Plans, organizes, schedules, and budgets in an efficient, productive manner. Focuses on key priorities.
  • Aggressiveness. Moves quickly and takes a forceful stand without being overly abrasive.
  • Follow-through on commitments. Lives up to verbal and written agreements, regardless of personal cost.
  • Intelligence. Learns quickly. Demonstrates ability to quickly and proficiently understand and absorb new information.
  • Analytical skills. Able to structure and process qualitative or quantitative data and draw insightful conclusions from it. Exhibits a probing mind and achieves penetrating insights.
  • Attention to detail. Does not let important details slip through the cracks or derail a project.
  • Persistence. Demonstrates tenacity and willingness to go the distance to get something done.
  • Proactivity. Acts without being told what to do. Brings new ideas to the company.

There are several different CEOs quoted, each with a slightly differing views on what makes a top performer. For instance, Bill Johnson – The CEO of Heinz, had five characteristics:

  • Chemistry – Does the person fit with the rest of the team?
  • Commitment – Are you committed to making it work for them and are they committed to making it work with you?
  • Coachable – Are they able to be coached into more effective behaviors?
  • Ego Control – Do they have their ego under control?
  • Intelligence – Do they have the requisite intelligence? (This might be stated as aptitude as well.)

This reminded me of Bill Hybel’s thinking in Courageous Leadership. (Which I’ve still not fully read.) Bill believed that a candidate needed to have:

  • Competency – The ability to get the job done.
  • Character – A strong sense of who they are and who they want to become.
  • Chemistry – A strong fit with the team.

No matter how you define the scorecard for the position and how you frame the right answer for your organization, the next step is building a sourcing system that works.

Sourcing

It used to be that you would place an ad in the newspaper for a position and a few days later you would watch for the avalanche of resumes from job seekers. My friends in HR used to hate this process because they knew that they would have hundreds of resumes to sift through. They might get two hundred applicants, of which, maybe twenty were even worth forwarding to the hiring manager. Of that, the hiring manager might interview two or three. Today the process isn’t all that different. We post jobs on automated job boards which then force people to provide their information into a database for us and we use tools to keyword search to sift and sort through resumes. If they don’t have the requisite degree they’re out. If they have the requested certifications they’re in the pile to be reviewed by the hiring manager.

In the end, the process of advertising to the general public to find someone is an approach of last resort. With so much overhead in the filtering process and such a low success rate, it’s no wonder that HR managers want to use this option last. Who says that 77 percent of industry leaders cited referrals as their top recruiting technique. They’re not interested in delivering an avalanche of resumes – they’re interested in delivering candidates that match the organization and the organization’s needs.

Referrals can come from professional networks, from employees and their networks, or even from friends of the firm – those who like the organization. Of course, you can also hire recruiters to do some of the screening for you or researchers which can identify potential candidates – without interviewing or substantially filtering them.

The final way to source represents a fundamental shift in the way of thinking. That is that large organizations are always looking for good people. One way of thinking about it is a semi-active approach where there’s continuous recruiting of top talent whether there’s an open position or not. This creates a great network of people who can be tapped when an opening happens.

The Selection Process

Imagine for a moment that you go out on a blind date. Your friends have looked at you and another one of their friends and believe that you are a good match so they “set you up.” (The fact that it’s a setup should be a clue.) You meet the person for an hour and they seem OK so you set a wedding date and send out the invitations. As ludicrous as this sounds we do essentially this when we hire someone after a one-hour interview. Perhaps the stakes aren’t as high, however, we don’t know any more about a candidate after a one-hour interview than we know about someone after the first date. Steve Karr, the Chief Learning Officer at Goldman Sachs, said the common interview processes are “almost a random predictor” of job performance. Of course they are, how could you possibly know in an hour if someone is a good fit or not? That’s why the “A” method is different. In the Select Phase, it layers four steps together to try to ensure a better understanding of the candidate.

The four interviews are:

  • Screening
  • Top grading
  • Focused
  • References

The first three are with the candidate, the fourth is a set of interviews with the references provided by the candidate.

Screening

The purpose of the screening interview is to quickly get to the point of determining whether the candidate is worth going through the rest of the process with. Interviewing in this process is a fairly intensive process, with the Top grading and Focused interviews taking a full day’s worth of time for the employer.For that reason, it’s important to filter folks before they get to the next step.

It’s recommended that screening be done via telephone – but it could also be done at a job fair or some other situation where the cultural norms and expectations set that the screening will last 30 minutes or less. The recommendation is that you ask four questions in the screening interview:

  • What are you career goals? – Ideally the candidate will discuss goals that are aligned with the organizational direction – or opportunities that the organization can provide. Good candidates know where they’re going and what they want.
  • What are you really good at professionally? – This is generally easy as people love talking about their strengths. Talented people know what they’re good at.
  • What are you not good at or not interested in doing professionally? – This is more difficult as people don’t like discussing their weaknesses or have been coached to couch their strengths as weaknesses. You have to pull these out of folks to understand their strengths and weaknesses to have a complete picture.
  • Who were your last five bosses, and how will they each rate your performance on a 1-10 scale when we talk to them? – The key here is to ask how others would rate them and encourage them to be honest since you will be calling their bosses to ask.

My experience with a technical screening interview – which was similar in purpose to the screen interview in the Who method – was that less than 10% of the candidates would pass through this step.

Presuming that you believe the candidate is a reasonable match to the organization, you can schedule time to do the Top grading and Focused interviews. These are often scheduled together and can take most of the day. The Top grading interview on its own can take three hours. The Focused interviews will take a few hours – depending upon how many areas you need to get focused on.

Top grading

The Top grading interview is a review of the candidate’s career from the oldest relevant job up to the most current position. The process walks through a set of questions for each job that the candidate had:

  • What were you hired to do?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What were some key low points during that job?
  • Who were the people you worked with? Specifically:
    • Boss
      • What was your boss’ name and how do you spell it?
      • What was it like working with him/her?
      • What will he/she tell me were your biggest strengths and areas of improvement?
    • Team
      • How would you rate the team you inherited on an A, B, C scale?
      • What changes did you make?
      • Did you hire anybody?
      • Did you fire anybody?
      • How would you rate the team when you left it on an A, B, C scale?
  • Why did you leave that job?

The recommendation is that you do the Top grading interview with a colleague if you can, so that one of you can take notes while the other asks questions. It’s easy for an interviewer to get overwhelmed by trying to take notes and keep the conversation moving. The more support the interviewer has the better the results will be.

As was stated above and should be obvious by now, the process can take a long time. Who says that CEO candidates can take five hours and even entry level positions can take 90 minutes. It’s time to settle in and get comfortable before you start the process. The next step is shorter increments but can be just as lengthy. So Who offers a few tactics for keeping the interview flowing:

  • Interrupting – You have to interrupt the candidate – tactfully – so that they have time to talk about the relevant things. If they don’t get to share the things relevant to the job it’s their loss.
  • The Three Ps – Focus the candidate on three Ps:
    • How did your performance compare to the previous year’s performance?
    • How did your performance compare to the plan?
    • How did your performance compare to that of your peers?
  • Push vs. Pull – Look for whether the person was pulled to the next job (the characteristic of an “A” player) or pushed (the characteristic of a “B” or “C” player).
  • Painting a picture – Keep asking questions until you have a mental picture of what they’re saying.
  • Stopping at the Stop Signs – Look for changes in body posture that may indicate discomfort. Where there are inconsistencies between body and spoken language, be curious.

These techniques help you clearly understand a person’s history and job circumstances – and the techniques keep them moving through the interview –but you still don’t know how the candidate’s competencies line up with the competencies of the job. That’s the role of the Focused interview.

Focused

The scorecard for a position lists a set of core competencies that every candidate should have for the job. The Focused interviews – yes there can be one for each competency – are designed to provide a clear picture of how the candidate does – or doesn’t have – a competency. The specifics of how to determine whether or not a candidate has a competency will vary, however, it’s recommended that the interview include three components:

  • Explanation by the interviewer about the scope of the interview
  • The question, “What are your biggest accomplishments in this area during your career?”
  • The question, “What are your insights into your biggest mistakes and lessons learned in this area?”

When I was interviewing developers, I’d ask a series of questions about how they would solve logic problems – related to the kinds of software development they were going to do. We assumed that we would be filling in some skills because that’s the nature of learning, not everyone learns the same things. We wanted to know, however, if the person was comfortable with most of the concepts and if they were good at decomposing problems.

The limited structure of the Focused interviews is designed to ensure that every competency gets its own time for evaluation so that none of the core competencies for the position are overlooked.

By this point, you should have a good sense for how the candidate did in their various environments over their career as well as the competencies (skills). The next step is to calibrate the candidate’s responses with what other people say about them.

References

For the most part, I assume that references are a formality. Having been on people’s reference list very frequently, I realize that for every ten times that someone asks for permission to list me as a reference, I get called maybe once or twice. Clearly, most organizations ask for references, but very few actually follow up on them. However, the Who approach has you not only asking for references, but even asking candidates for specific references and for actions on those references.

The recommendation is for three past bosses, two peers or customers, and two subordinates – a total of seven references. Typically I’ve seen candidates provide three – upon request. Those references typically all cluster into one type. They’re frequently all peers. In addition to the variety and number of references, the method also asks that candidates prepare the references that they’ll be receiving a call. While it is common practice for people to ask permission to list you as a reference, it’s not always done. By the candidate talking to the reference they often make the reference more open to discussing the candidate. For instance, in the US most employers are limited as to what they can say about an employee – even though, as the book notes, there are sometimes messages encoded in the limited set of responses. By the candidate requesting that the reference talk to you, the doors are opened up for the reference to say more.

The outline for the reference interview is:

  • In what context did you work with the person?
  • What were the person’s biggest strengths?
  • What were the person’s biggest areas for improvement back then?
  • How would you rate his/her overall performance in that job on a 1-10 scale?
    • What about his/her performance causes you to give that rating?
  • The person mentioned that he/she struggled with _____ in that job. Can you tell me more about that? (Fill in with one of the weaknesses they mentioned during their Top grading interview.)

Obviously, the goal is to understand how others’ perceptions of the person match with that the person said in the interviews. The structure of some of the questions are chosen carefully to elicit the right response. For instance, when asking for areas of improvement “back then” you’re encouraging the person to be honest about how they were without feeling bad about saying something negative about them today. (Even if the assumption is that people really don’t change that much.)

Presuming that you like the reference checks, it’s time to sell the candidate on the organization.

Selling the Candidate

It’s impossible to get to this point in the process without offering some information about the organization to the candidate. However, that information may – or may not—be a complete picture of the organization. The goal of the final phase isn’t just to get them an “offer letter” or even an “offer package.” The goal is to make sure that they’re as sold on you and your organization as you are on them.

There are five things that candidates look for in an organization. They are:

  • Fit – Do they fit into the company’s vision, needs, culture and direction?
  • Family – Is the family onboard with the change? Will they find that the new organization is an extended family?
  • Freedom – Will the candidate get the freedom they want? (See Drive and Who Am I? for how people are motivated)
  • Fortune – Is the company financially stable and how will they be compensated for their efforts?
  • Fun – We spend half or more of our waking lives working, it should be something that the candidate will enjoy.

The goal of the entire – intensive – process is to separate “A” player candidates from the rest of the pack. It would be an absolute shame if you got to this point and realized that you weren’t able to get the candidate because they weren’t sold on the organization.

Using the System

The results of using the system seem clear. There are fewer employees hired that aren’t a good fit and then leave the organization. Those that do stay seem to perform better than a normative group. However, we’ll often shortcut or bypass steps because we believe that our particular method of doing the process is better. As The E-Myth demonstrates, there are some things where systemization is important. The consistency and rigor in hiring people is key to organizational success. Who shows you how to do that. Try it and reap the rewards.