Why assigning homework works



It’s a truism that you should judge people more on their actions than their words, but it continually surprises me that founders interviewing employees, bus dev execs working with prospective partners, and others in the startup ecosystem tend to focus far more on talk than action.

Just in the past week I’ve read two articles mentioning how hard it is to judge job candidates based on a half-hour interview. This appalls me! No one should hire anyone based on a half hour interview! First of all, best practice is a series of interviews: hiring manager, potential colleagues, HR (assuming you have such a person), and those known in the company for their interviewing and personnel judgement skills.

But interviewing tends to be just questions and answers. What I have found works far better are two types of exercises: stand and deliver and homework exercises.

Stand and deliver and the case method

For me sales people are the hardest to evaluate. After all, if they can’t sell themselves, how could they ever succeed in selling anything else? But one way to judge them is to actually ask them to pitch you on a product, exactly as if you were a prospective customer. And like a prospective customer you should interrupt them with objections, to see how they both handle being interrupted and how they address the objections. You can ask them to pitch you on any product or service they have sold in the past. If they can’t convince you to buy their pitch, why should you hire them? An even better test is to ask them to pitch you on your product. That way you’ll see if they have done their homework on your company, product and competition.

The stand and deliver technique is not limited to sales candidates. I’ve used it for product managers, marketers, and others. For example, with a product manager I’ll give them an actual case from the company, where, for example, we have to meet a deadline to demo a product at a trade show, but we are running behind schedule. What should they do? Cut features? Limit testing? Forget about optimizing performance? There is no right answer. But the goal is to put them into the shoes they are expected to fill and see how they walk in them. Again, you should pepper them with questions, just as they would be if in fact they were the product manager explaining to an engineer that his favorite feature had to be cut in order to meet a deadline.

By having a series of experiential interviews with various different people across the company one can gather valuable perspective on the job candidate. And that helps the candidate as well to understand the job they will be expected to perform.

Stand and deliver is a technique that isn’t limited to interviewing job candidates. It works equally well with mentees and prospective partners. I base my approach loosely on the Harvard Business School case method. I developed one of the first interactive business school cases with HBS and in the process learned enough to be dangerous about the case method. By while HBS uses it to educate I have used it to test the abilities of people to think on their feet and react to a real world problem, not a hypothetical situation nor something from their past experience.

Pioneered by HBS faculty and one of the highlights of the HBS experience, the case method is a profound educational innovation that presents the greatest challenges confronting leading companies, nonprofits, and government organizations—complete with the constraints and incomplete information found in real business issues—and places the student in the role of the decision maker. There are no simple solutions; yet through the dynamic process of exchanging perspectives, countering and defending points, and building on each other’s ideas, students become adept at analyzing issues, exercising judgment, and making difficult decisions—the hallmarks of skillful leadership.

The best results I’ve seen is where the mentee has stepped up to the whiteboard and diagramed his approach to solving the problem. Again, while words are important, actions and visuals are equally important. Make a whiteboard and markers available and see how many prospects make use of them when addressing the business case you drop them into.

Assigning homework

I’ve found that asking people – job candidates and prospective partners, even investors – to do some homework after a meeting to be a good test of at least two things: one, their level of interest, and two, their ability to understand what’s needed from them in the relationship, be it as employee, channel partner or investor.

Obviously people are busy and you can’t assign the equivalent of writing the great American novel, so make sure you assignment won’t take more than and hour or so and set a short deadline for it. Another thing you’ll learn – can this person make a deadline?!

I stole this idea from Forrester Research. I still remember how Josh Bernoff, one of the few people who have survived working for me in two different companies, told me how he had to prepare a presentation as part of his interview process at Forrester. Needless to say he got the job and became one of the most successful analysts at Forrester.

It can also be quite illuminating to see how people react to being given a homework assignment. For example, ask a prospective investor for the names of three CEOs of companies in their portfolio whom you can call to talk about their experience with their firm. What you’re looking for is, of course, an enthusiastic response, such as, “Glad to, we’re 100% referenceable,” as Bill Kaiser of Greylock once said to me.

As they say “talk is cheap” – so go beyond just talking to prospective candidates, partners, and investors, to stand and deliver, the case method, and assigning homework.

Best yet is actually doing something with people you intend to work with besides going out to dinner! For example, I’ve learned a great deal about people by traveling with them – how they handle the frustrations and boredom of travel, how they treat service personnel, and much more.

While traveling isn’t very practical, attending a local trade show, seminar or even a ballgame to see how your prospect behaves outside the office can often be a valuable supplement to an in-office talk session.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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