Book review: “Who – The A method for hiring” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street

Almost everyone I speak to complains about how hard it is to hire good product people. We talk about the low return on investment of lengthy interview processes and those product hires that “didn’t work out”. I’ve written about hiring product managers previously and shared my lessons learned about recruiting good product people. Who – The A method for hiring, published back in 2008 by Geoff Smart and Randy Street has been a very welcome addition to my learnings about hiring:

  1. It’s about “who” not about “what” – In the book, “who” refers to the people you put in place to make the “what” decisions. Who’s running your sales force? Who manages your product? Who engages with your customers? In the book, Smart and Street stress the importance of making the right hiring decisions, and how as a manager your success is largely determined by the quality of the people around you.
  2. When ‘who’ mistakes happen – Smart and Street list a number of instances where “who” mistakes happen; when managers end up hiring the wrong person for the job. They also talk about “voodoo hiring” (see Fig. 1-2 below). Their book aims to help people make better “who” decisions, and provides a proven method, dubbed the “A method” to help readers on their way.
  3. The limited value of CVs – There’s only so much candidate CVs will tell you as a hiring manager. In my experience, a CV can be a useful snapshot but often not more than that. Smart and Street describe a CV as “a record of a person’s career with all of the accomplishments embellished and all the failures removed.”
  4. Finding A players – Smart and Street define an A player as “a candidate who has at least a 90 percent chance of achieving a set of outcomes that only the top 10 percent of possible candidates could achieve.” To help find A Players, Smart and Street and their colleagues at ghSMART have developed the “A Method for Hiring” or the “A Method” for short. There are four steps to the A Method: (1) Scorecard (2) Source (3) Select and (4) Sell (see Fig. 3 below). Naturally, the hiring manager needs to feel confident about having A Players around him or her, which might not always be the case. Equally, I’d argue that it pays off to look for good B (and perhaps even C) players too. These candidates might not have achieved their A game yet, but still stand 70 percent chance of achieving key outcomes (and can learn as they go).
  5. Scorecard – The idea of having a predetermined scorecard for each role is a valuable one, since a scorecard describes the mission for the position, outcomes that must be accomplished, and competencies that fit with both the culture of the company and the role. What do you really want the person that you’re hiring to accomplish, and why? What’s the phase that your company is in, and which the person you’re hiring needs to adapt to? The scorecard consists of three parts: (1) the job’s mission (2) outcomes and (3) competencies (see Fig. 4 below).
  6. Source – The idea of sourcing is all about constantly looking for talented people, irrespective of whether your company has an imminent hiring need. As some of the people interviewed for the book explain, ‘source’ is all about constantly asking people we know to introduce us to the talented people they know and maintaining a relationship with high-potential candidates (see Fig. 6 below). You thus build up talent pool which you can use as your first port of call when hiring, thus increasing the overall velocity of your hiring process.
  7. Select – The ‘select’ element of the A Method comes down to interviewing well. Smart and Street recommend doing structured interviews in order to avoid what they call ‘voodoo hiring methods’ (see Fig. 2 below). They suggest the following steps for selecting the right candidate:  (1) Screening Interview (2) Who Interview (3) Focused Interview (4) Reference and (5) Skill-Will Bull’s-Eye (see Fig. 7 below).
  8. Sell – In their book, Smart and Street stress the importance of putting yourself in the candidate’s shoes as the key to successful selling your candidate to join your company. Care about what they care about. The book explains how candidates typically care about five things, and encourage you to make sure that you address each of these five areas until you get the person to sign on the dotted line (see Fig. 12 below). Selling doesn’t happen just at the end of the process. Instead, you ‘sell’ throughout: When you source; When you interview; The time between your offer and the candidate’s acceptance; The time between the candidate’s acceptance and his or her first day and The new hire’s first one hundred days on the job.

Main learning point: Hiring good people is easier said than done in my experience. “Who – The A Method for hiring”, however, does a great job in offering every hiring manager with key considerations to make and techniques to apply when look for  new people.

 

Fig. 1 – When ‘who’ mistakes happen – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

Who mistakes happen when managers:

  • Are unclear about what’s needed in a job;
  • Have a weak flow of candidates;
  • Do not trust their ability to pick out the right candidate from a group of similar-looking candidates;
  • Lose candidates they really want to join their team.

Fig. 2 – Voodoo Hiring – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

Top ten voodoo hiring methods:

  1. The Art Critic – Hiring people based on gut instinct.
  2. The Sponge – A common approach among busy managers is to let everybody interview a candidate, with the risk of interviewers asking candidates exactly the same questions.
  3. The Prosecutor – Many managers act like the prosecutors they see on TV and aggressively question candidates, attempting to trip them up with trick questions and logic problems.
  4. The Suitor – Rather than rigorously interviewing a candidate, some managers spend all of their energy selling the applicant on the opportunity. Suitors are more concerned with impressing than assessing their capabilities.
  5. The Trickster – Then there are the interviewers who use gimmicks to test for certain behaviours. They might throw a wad of paper on the floor, for example, to see if a candidate is willing to clean it up.
  6. The Animal Lover – Many managers hold on stubbornly to their favourite pet questions – questions they think will reveal something uniquely important about a candidate.
  7. The Chatterbox – This technique has a lot in common with the “la-di-da” interview. The conversation usually goes something like this: “How about them Yankees! Man, the weather is rough this time of year. You grew up in California? So did I!”
  8. The Psychological and Personality Tester – Asking a candidate a series of bubble-test questions like “Do you tease small animals?” or “Would you rather be at a cocktail part or the library on a Friday night?” is not useful (although both are actual questions on popular psychology tests), and it’s certainly not predictive of success on the job.
  9. The Aptitude Tester – Tests can help managers determine whether has the right aptitude for a specific role, such as persistence for a business development position, bit they should never become the sole determinant in a hiring decision.
  10. The Fortune-Teller – Just like a fortune-teller looking in a crystal ball to predict the future, some interviewers like into the future regarding the job at hand by asking hypothetical questions: “What would you do? How would you do it? Could you do it?”

Fig. 3 – “The ghSMART A Method for Hiring” – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

 

  • Scorecard – The scorecard is a document that describes exactly what you want a person to accomplish in a role. It is not a job description, but rather a set of outcomes and competencies that define a job well.
  • Source – Finding great people is getting harder, but it is not impossible. Systematic sourcing before you have slots to fill ensures you have high quality candidates waiting when you need them.
  • Select – Select talent in the A Method involves a series of structured interviews that allow you to gather the relevant facts about a person so you can rate your scorecard and make an informed hiring decision. These structured interviews break the voodoo hiring spell.
  • Sell – Once you identify people you want on your team through selection, you need to persuade them to join. Selling the right away ensures you avoid the biggest pitfalls that cause the very people you want the most to take their talents elsewhere.

Fig. 4 – The three parts of the A Method scorecard – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  • The mission – The mission is an executive summary of the job’s core purpose. It boils the job down to its essence so everybody understands why you need to hire someone into the slot. You’ll know you have a good mission when candidates, recruiters, and even others from your team understand what you are looking for without having to ask clarifying questions. A good mission statement could for instance read: “To serve as a visionary leader who helps the bank capture market share from the competition by analysing the market and devising successful new strategies and product offerings.” Mission statements also help you avoid one of the most common hiring traps: hiring a generalist over a specialist.
  • Outcomes – Outcomes, the second part of a scorecard, describe what a person needs to accomplish in a role. If you are hiring for a sales person for instance, the scorecard should read” “Grow revenue from $25 million to $50 million by end of year three.” This is a clearly defined outcome which a sales person either can or can’t achieve. An outcome is something which a person must get done.
  • Competencies – Competencies flow directly from the first two elements of the scorecard. The mission defines the essence of the job to a high degree of specificity. Outcomes describe what must be accomplished. Competencies describe how you expect a new hire to operate in the fulfilment of the job and the achievement of the outcomes. The book lists some critical competencies for A Players (see Fig. 5 below).

Fig. 5 – Critical competencies for A Players – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  • Efficiency – Able to produce significant output with minimal wasted effort.
  • Honesty / integrity – Does not cut corners ethically. Earns trust and maintains confidences.
  • Organisation and planning – Plans, organises, schedules, an 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 and process qualitative and 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.
  • Ability to hire A Players (for managers) – Sources, selects and sells A Players to join a company.
  • Ability to develop people (for managers) – Coaches people in their current roles to improve performance, and prepares them for future roles.
  • Flexibility / adaptability – Adjusts quickly to changing priorities and conditions. Copes effectively with complexity and change.
  • Calm under pressure – Maintains stable performance when under heavy pressure or stress.
  • Strategic thinking / visioning – Able to see and communicate the big picture in an inspiring way. Determines opportunities and threats through comprehensive analysis of current and future trends.
  • Creativity / innovation – Generates new and innovative approaches to problems.
  • Enthusiasm – Exhibits passion and excitement over work. Has a can-do attitude.
  • Work ethic – Possesses a strong willingness to work hard and sometimes long hours to get the job done. Has track record of working hard.
  • High standards – Expects personal performance and team performance to be nothing short of the best.
  • Listening skills – Lets others speak and seeks to understand their viewpoints.
  • Openness to criticism and ideas – Often solicits feedback and reacts calmly to criticism or negative feedback.
  • Communication – Speaks and writes clearly and articulately without being overly verbose or talkative.
  • Teamwork – Reaches out to peers and cooperates with supervisors to establish and overall collaborative working relationship.
  • Persuasion – Able to convince others to pursue a course of action.

Fig. 6 – How to source – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. Referrals from your professional and personal networks.
  2. Referrals from your employee
  3. Deputising friends of the firm
  4. Hiring recruiters
  5. Hiring researchers
  6. Sourcing systems

Fig. 7 – Select: interview steps – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. Screening Interview – The screening interview is a short, phone-based interview designed to clear out B and C Players from your roster of candidates. In the screening questions you can ask some of the following questions: What are your career goals? What are you really good at professionally? What are you not good at or interested in doing professionally? 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 whole point of the screening interview is to weed people out as quickly as possible.
  2. Who Interview – The Who Interview is designed to give you more confidence in your selection because it uncovers the patterns of somebody’s career history, which you can match to your scorecard (see Fig. 8 below for a sample Who Interview Guide). The Who Interview is a chronological walkthrough of a person’s career.
  3. Focused Interview – The Who Interview is comprehensive and will get you most of the way toward the right answer of who to hire. In the Focus Interview, you can gather additional, specific information about your candidate. In essence, you’re turning the magnification up another notch so you can give would-be hires one last look with a finer degree of granularity (see a sample Focused Interview Guide in Fig. 10 below).
  4. Reference Interview – There are three things you have to do to have successful reference interviews. First, pick the right references. Second, ask the candidate to contact the references to set up the calls. Third, conduct the right number of interviews; you personally do about four and ask your colleagues to do three, for a total of seven reference interviews (see sample Reference Interview Guide in Fig. 11 below).
  5. Skill-Will Bull’s-Eye – The goal of the “Select” step of the A Method is to gather the facts you need to decide if somebody’s skill (what they can do) and will (what they want to do) match your scorecard. This is a person’s skill-will profile. When a candidate’s skill-will profile matches up perfectly with the requirements outlined on your scorecard, your candidate hits the the skill-will bull’s-eye.

Fig. 8 – Who Interview Guide – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. What were you hired to do?
  2. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  3. What were some low points during that job?
  4. Who were the people you worked with?
  5. Why did you leave that job?

Fig. 9 – ‘Master Tactics’ for the ‘Who Interview’ – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  • Interrupting – You have to interrupt the candidate. If you don’t, he or she might talk for then hours straight about things that are not at all relevant. The bad way to interrupt somebody is to put up your hand like a stop sign gesture and say, “Wait, wait, wait. Let me stop you there. Can we get back on track?” The good way to interrupt somebody is to smile broadly, match their enthusiasm level, and use reflective listening to get them to stop talking without demoralising them.
  • The Three P’s – The three P’s are questions you can use to clarify how valuable an accomplishment was in any context. The questions are: (1) How did your performance compare to the previous year’s performance? (2) How did your performance compare to the plan? (3) How did your performance compare to that of peers?
  • Push Versus Pull – People who perform well are generally pulled to greater opportunities. People who perform poorly are often pushed out of their jobs. Do not hire anybody who has been pushed out of 20 percent or more of their jobs. Push: “It was mutual.” “It was time for me to leave.” “My role shrank.” Etc. Pull: “My biggest client hired me.” “My old boss recruited me to a bigger job.” “The CEO asked me to take a double promotion.” Etc.
  • Painting a Picture – This is all about empathic imagination, which helps you move away from generic answers that don’t mean anything and toward specific details that give you real insight. You’re really trying to put yourself in the candidate’s shoes and get curious to truly understand.
  • Stopping at the Stop Signs – One of the advantages of the Who Interview in person is that you can watch for shifts in body language and other inconsistencies. The idea isn’t to gather dirt. Think of yourself instead as a biographer interviewing a subject. You want both the details and the broad pattern, the facts and the texture.

Fig. 10 – Who Interview Guide – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. The purpose of this interview is to talk about _______________ (Fill in the blank with specific outcome or competency such as the person’s experience selling to new customers, building and leading a team, creating strategic plans, etc).
  2. What are your biggest accomplishments in this area during your career?
  3. What are your insights into your biggest mistakes and lessons learned in this area?

Fig. 11 – Reference Interview Guide – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. In what context did you work with the person?
  2. What were the person’s biggest strengths?
  3. What were the person’s biggest areas for improvement back then?
  4. How would you rate his/her overall performance in that job on a 1-10 scale? What about his or her performance causes you to give that rating?
  5. The person mentioned that he/she struggled with ________________ in that job. Can you tell me more about that?

Fig. 12 – Five Things Candidates Care About – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  • Fit ties together the company’s vision, needs, and culture with the candidate’s goals, strengths, and values. “Here is where we are going as a company. Here is how you fit in?”
  • Family takes into account the broader trauma of changing jobs. “What can we do to make this change as easy as possible for your family?”
  • Freedom is the autonomy the candidate will have to make his or her own decisions. “I will give you ample freedom to make decisions, and I will not micromanage you.”
  • Fortune reflects the stability of your company and the overall financial upside. “If you accomplish your objectives, you will likely make [compensation amount] over the next five years.”
  • Fun describes the work environment and personal relationships the candidate will make. “We like to have a lot of fun around here. I think you will find this is a culture you will really enjoy.”

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