Are you recruiting for the right attributes?

engineers poets

If you are recruiting staff for simply domain knowledge and experience you can check their resume, their references, and their knowledge via interviewing. But is domain knowledge all you need to check for? From what I’ve seen over years of recruiting domain knowledge, whether it’s programming, marketing, sales or finance is necessary but not sufficient, especially in a startup.

Startups need to recruit for the team, not just the position. It’s small, well coordinated and highly focused teams that can win over large legacy companies with, as Bill Gates famously said of IBM, “Masses of asses.” Domain expertise is necessary, but not sufficient. What else is there you might ask?

My friend Art Bardige, lifetime math educator and founder of WhatIfMath, maintains that industry is hiring for what some would term “soft skills”: communications, collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving. As those of us who have spent our careers in education it is to our regret that neither K – 12 nor college education focuses on these skills and attributes.

Today’s New York Times articleEngineers Sprint Ahead, but Don’t Underestimate the Poets, by makes clear that these soft skills are rated highly by employers:

According to a 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the three attributes of college graduates that employers considered most important were written communication, problem-solving and the ability to work in a team. Quantitative and technical skills both made the top 10, alongside other “soft” skills like initiative, verbal communication and leadership.

When you do your reference checking – especially those references you find through the company’s network, not via the job candidate – make sure you are asking how the candidate worked in teams, what was the quality of their written communications, and what types of problems were they faced with and how well did they do in solving them?

Back when I was a hiring manager I used to assess written communications by reviewing the candidate’s resume and their accompanying cover letter. The latter usually told me a lot about their written communications ability. But times have changed; both the resume and cover letter are probably better indicators of the quality of help the candidate got in writing these documents than in their own skills. Therefore you might want to give your candidates a written assignment as part of the interview process. Just don’t create the appearance that you are trying to get work done for free by doing so.

I did what I called “two-pass” interviewing. The first pass was a detailed run through of the candidate’s educational and job history, with many questions, including why they chose a particular college to attend and jobs to work at. These answers can provide valuable insights into how a candidate makes decisions and what they value. The second pass was based on Harvard’s case method: put the candidate in the job they are interviewing, say product manager. Then pose a typical problem a product manager would face, such as having to ship their product by the the date of an upcoming trade show. The gotcha was that the product was far from ready. How would they approach this problem? Cut features? Cut back on testing? Punt on delivery for the trade show? And most importantly, why did they make these decisions. This type of role playing can reveal a great deal about the candidate’s oral communications skills and problem solving ability. (It also can give them a taste of what working at the company would be like.)

For positions where I lacked domain expertise I would rely on the interviews by my staff, each of whom was also prepped to test domain expertise.

I’ve found that recruiting is all about fit – job and candidate fit, candidate and company culture fit. Checking for domain expertise is absolutely necessary, but don’t neglect those so-called soft skills which make for a successful team player. And great startups are all about great teams, not just great individuals.


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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