Starting from the days of written tests followed by technical, role-specific interviews to the world beyond the “Microsoft interview” and the “Google interview”, hiring for talent has come a long way. Given the dominance of platforms such as LinkedIn, instead of the Descartes version of “I think therefore I am” we are sadly in a world of “I can be searched on 250 attributes, so I am”. And this is one of the big issues that recruiters face today.
Human behavior gravitates towards optimizing along the variables that we are measured on or compared against. If it is for undergraduate or graduate school admissions, then people now have the mandatory set of instruments they have played since childhood, the international humanitarian visit and lessons learnt from it, and the non-profits that they either started or played a key role in for some period of time. A fantastic article I read on this several years ago is one by David Brooks from April 2001 titled “The Organization Kid”, where he outlines among other things conformism to the majority view while playing the system to meet all of its checklists to get into the best of the best schools and be well placed to be the leaders of tomorrow. In the hiring world, this means that our resumes become a collection of technical keywords for engineering roles, partially meaningless revenue or performance improvement numbers for business roles and other standard “templates” that recruiters scan for when they evaluate resumes. There are even studies that purport to know where recruiters look the most, such as the one from The Ladders which has several real issues in terms of its validity as highlighted in articles such as this blog post.
Given this, how does one go about detecting a signal in the middle of all the noise? Some studies such as the one by Feltovich and Harbaugh looked at homogeneous classes of high-achievers and showed how “counter-signaling” might play an important role in signaling value. Other fields of research have focused on behavioral interviews and how they say more about a person than just a skills verification. Some companies also ask you to take Myer-Briggs Type Indicator tests to look at match between your personality and the job requirements. Very often, in addition to these verification mechanisms, companies fall back on anecdotal data – recommendations from current employees or known contacts in a candidate’s company.
But the problem is that all said and done, this is a one-shot optimization problem. This hardly guarantees that the talent you pick will be optimal over a period of time, even assuming that the tools you have at hand for the one-shot optimization are doing their job. In other words, how do you make sure that the talent you hire becomes the best talent for the job that you hired them for, and remains so over time? Many rigorous processes such as the Google and Microsoft interviews try to incorporate some elements to detect how open a person is to new ideas and how they seek to answer problems, as indicators of success at their roles. In “The Innovator’s DNA”, Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen talk about how asking questions is an important indicator of an innovator, a quality that most jobs in today’s ever-changing world need. Another important aspect to this, in my mind, is how cross-pollinated an employee can get within the organization. One great example of this is the Associate Product Manager role within Google, something that Marissa Mayer championed and led during her time there. Giving a person rotations through different business units, and responsibilities above what their resume was hired for is a great way to identify the outliers in terms of talent and leadership and reward them quickly, rather than have them languish in traditional corporate growth ladders. It also helps foster non-traditional thinking to solve problems because you have atypical folks attending meetings where the problems are discussed.
In summary, in today’s world, most successful companies have already tweaked and optimized the one-shot optimization problem of hiring a resume and doing some basic “culture” match detection. What will distinguish the winners in this hiring and retention race of tomorrow, both at startups as well as large firms, will be how they handle the talent they have in-house and help them grow into their jobs and progress in ways that they feel satisfied. Time to dust off those books on Needs Theory and theories on motivation and job design and see where the next competitive advantage in hiring and retaining talent comes from!