Bruce McAlpineEvaluationHiring ProcessInterviews

A Second Look at Lou Adler’s “Hire with your Head”

I first wrote about Lou Adler’s book “Hire with your Head” almost 5 years ago.  The title clearly promises a hiring methodology diametrically opposed to “gut feel”.  Now, a decade after the book was published, it still stands as a seminal guide to “systematic hiring”, in an employment environment that has not kept up with the need for more a more rigorous, successful (and legally defensible) method of candidate assessment.

“We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship.” This quote of Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google appearing in an article in the New York Times demonstrates the clear need for a better way to hire.

Thus, it is time for a “second look” at Adler’s book.

Adler lays out a complete strategy for all the major components of the hiring process:

  • Define what you are looking for
  • Candidate sourcing
  • Interview preparation
  • Interview questions
  • Candidate evaluation
  • Selection
  • Offer negotiation

In the pivotal chapter on interviewing entitled “The Two-Question Performance-Based Interview” Adler builds a case for focusing on the two traits of results orientation and critical thinking/problem solving. His first question is “Of all the things you have accomplished in your career, what stands out as the most significant? Tell me about it.” The second is “If you were to get this job, how would you go about solving ________ (describe a typical problem).”

I agree that it is vitally important to:

  • Analyze what you are trying to accomplish in the position in terms of outcomes.
  • Identify the traits (skills and character) necessary to drive those outcomes.
  • Focus on the top 2 or 3 traits, at least at the initial stages in the interview process.

However, interviews can devolve into an acting job for your candidates if the questions are not based on past performance but are purely hypothetical. Questions like Adler’s second one (“If you were to get this job, how would you…”) allow candidates to take a flight of fancy and answer the way they feel the interviewer wants.

A much stronger approach would be along the lines of “One of the major challenges you will face here is _________. Tell me about a time you faced a similar challenge, and how you handled it.”

To avoid this common trap of asking hypothetical questions, present them in a way that forces them to answer from their actual experience, and not by guessing what you are hoping to hear.

I also strongly agree with Adler that in order to eliminate “gut feel” and to assess all of your candidates fairly and impartially (i.e. objectively and quantitatively) you need to:

  • Develop a scorecard (see Chapter 5 of Adler’s book, or my previous article on scorecarding).
  • Ask each candidate the same series of questions, using the scorecard to evaluate their answer.
  • As Adler states, consciously “wait 30 minutes and measure the impact of first impressions at the end of the interview.”

Since the strength of our teams is our only sustainable competitive advantage, it behooves all of us in positions of leadership to make sure we hire (and retain) the best talent we can.  And we can’t do it without a better candidate assessment process.

About the Author: Bruce McAlpine is President of Fulcrum Search Science Inc., a Toronto-based Executive Search firm, as well as President of the Royal Military Colleges Club of Canada and Past President of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment & Staffing Services (ACSESS).  He can be reached at 416.779.8505 or by email at bruce.mcalpine@fulcrumsearchscience.com.

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