The one question you need to ask of job candidates!

uncle meat

I’ve been a fan of Frank Zappa since seeing him play at Michigan State University in the late 1960’s. I immediately went out and bought his firm album – perhaps the first double album released, or second to Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, depending to who you believe – and many albums since then.

So what does Frank Zappa have to do with recruiting staff to your start up? Plenty! Zappa built and rebuilt the Mothers bands many times over the years as well as putting together other ensembles. He had vast experience judging and recruiting musicians, not only for their talent but for their cultural fit with him and his bandmates. That’s why I love this story about Ian Underwood, who despite or because of being a classically trained musician, still had to audition for Frank. Here’s the story courtesy of the Genius site as recorded live on stage in Copenhagen:

Ian: My name is Ian Underwood and I’m the straight member of the group
(Ha ha ha!)
Suzy: Wowie Zowie!
Ian: One month ago I heard The Mothers of Invention at the theater. I heard them on two occasions, and on the second occasion I went up to Jim Black and I said, “I like your music, and I’d like to come down and play with you.” Two days later I came up to the recording session, and Frank Zappa was sitting in the control room. I walked up and said, “How do you do? My name is Ian Underwood and I like your music and I’d like to play with your group.” Frank Zappa says, “What can you do that’s fantastic?” I said, “I can play alto saxophone and piano.” He said, “All right, whip it out.”

I was taught by the VCs never settle when hiring; A players hire A players, but B players tend to hire C players as they feel threatened by A players, and C players, of course, hire D players in downward spiral of mediocrity. As I’ve said elsewhere, hire slowly, fire quickly.

So what’s to learn from Ian’s story?

  • Ask your candidates to show you, not tell you, why you should hire them. Giving them a problem to solve – the HBS case method – is a great way to do this.
  • Give the candidate a chance to show off their talent – notice Frank asks the question What can you do that’s fantastic?  rather than telling Ian to play a piece of difficult music. What the candidate chooses to do or show gives you real insight which you don’t get by being more directive.
  • Frank wants and needs the best. That’s why the “fantastic” – you should be as demanding as Frank and seek out the fantastic as he did



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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: