How to Hire Someone With the Right Talents - Part I

Hiring the right people is a complicated process.

And a high-stakes one.

After all, you’re deciding who you’ll entrust to help make the vision for your business a reality. No big deal, right?

It’s not something to take lightly, yet I find that many managers rely on uninspiring job descriptions, generic interview questions and gut-based decisions to bring new team members into their organization. Best Case Scenario: They’ve identified specific job responsibilities and have a well-thought-out process for how they’ll interview candidates (Which may or may not be working). Worst case scenario: They schedule interviews with people that “seem qualified on paper,” ask a bunch of questions off the top of their heads, and go with their gut on who to choose.

And I’ve SO been there.

No one teaches you how to hire the right people…you’re just expected to know, once you’re a manager. I personally started out by reverse-engineering what I had experienced as a candidate and then Googling for ALL the templates.

But every time I needed to hire someone, the process felt like a crap-shoot.

It all came to a head when I was charged with making an important strategic hire for my team. Miraculously, I found a candidate who had worked for our biggest competitor in the exact capacity as my position for several years. Furthermore, this person was charming, funny, kind, and had a positive attitude. I was thrilled! How could I have such luck to have met this experienced-yet-available person who knew just what our competitor did to solve our problems?!

I happily hired him.

And then I found out I had made a big mistake.

Although he was experienced and charming and funny and kind and positive, he did not possess the specific talents this job required. Even worse, the situation was taking its toll on my team. I felt awful, but I had to let him go after only a few short weeks.

I knew I had failed him and my team by hiring without a plan.

And I vowed to never let it happen again.

I needed to get hiring right, so I dove into learning everything I could about the subject. Through my failures, I systematically developed a tried-and-true hiring process that, since implementing, has yet to fail me in finding the right fit. In fact, it’s brought me some of the best team members I’ve ever worked with.

My hiring system is based on combination of strategies: One from a book by Marcus Buckingham called, First, Break All the Rules, another by Tom Rath, called StrengthsFinder 2.0, and finally, a dash of some good-ol’-fashioned instructional design techniques. The basis of the system is sometimes referred to as talent-based hiring.

Here’s the truth…

When you approach hiring the way I did, without a plan and without a clearly-articulated vision for the type of person you want to join your team, you are putting your team and your business at risk. A bad hire, even a kind and well-intentioned one, damages your team and your culture and erodes your team’s trust in you as their leader. If you’re thinking you don’t have time to spend on all these details, I hear you. However, the time (and energy and money) you’ll spend to un-do your next bad hire will far surpass the time you spend up-front to get it right.

I invite you to give this step-by-step process a try. Even if you don’t use every piece, I think you’ll find that going through the process will be enlightening to you and your team as you discover what you’re really looking for in your new team member.

In this first post of a multi-part series, I’ll give the low-down on what talent-based hiring is, why it’s awesome, and how to write your very first talent-based job description.

Talent-Based Hiring: The Philosophy

Before we jump into how to do talent-based hiring, it’s important that we get on the same page with what it’s all about.

The American analytics and advisory company, Gallup, defines talent as “a naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that is productively applied.” The emphasis for me is on the “naturally recurring” part. I’m sure there are patterns of thought, feeling or behavior you have now that have always showed up for you - even if you look all the way back to childhood. For me, my drive to organize and optimize things was evident back to age 7 or 8, when I used to organize our kitchen cabinets “for fun.” It’s just always been part of me. These things that have always been true for us are talents.

Now, just because we have a talent for something, doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve fully developed it into a “strength.” That takes practice and hard work to achieve. Rath uses the example of someone being born with the potential for large biceps - if you don’t actually put in the work to build those biceps, they won’t develop. Similarly, those who don’t work on their natural talents, won’t see them develop into full strengths. So the recipe is to take your talent, invest time and energy in developing the related skills and knowledge to develop that talent into a strength. In Strengthsfinder 2.0, Rath writes it this way:

Talent x Investment = Strength

So, since we do have natural talents, it makes sense to hire employees who will mostly be doing tasks that fit within their areas of talent, because they’re already naturally-inclined to do these things well and enjoy them. Ideally, they’ve already developed those talents into strengths, but if not, at least they have the capacity to get there through investing time and energy in their development.

In Contrast: Skills-Based Hiring

Now compare the talent-based hiring philosophy to what many managers do: Focus on job-related skills and knowledge. They concern themselves with making sure the candidate has had experience doing the exact thing they’re hiring for, using the software they’ll need to use, or being able to rattle off a list of “the right steps” for the tasks they’ll need to complete.

Yes, it’s wonderful when candidates come into a new job knowing just what to do. And you should definitely assess for skills and knowledge, especially if you won’t be able to develop them in those areas. But it’s not enough to stop at skills and knowledge. Because what if the candidate has spent his entire career in a series of jobs he hates? He got the wrong degree, felt like he needed to stay in the field because he’d already invested all that time and money, and now he feels like it’s the only job he’s qualified to do. Sure, he can talk the talk and tell you everything you want to hear in an interview, but his talents aren’t aligned to his skills and knowledge. So he’ll eventually become disengaged with your awesome job, because the tasks don’t fit within his naturally recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

If you’re not explicitly screening for talents, you won’t find out you have the wrong fit until it’s too late.

How to Write a Talent-Based Job Description

Now that you’re on-board with why hiring based on talents is so important, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how to do it.

Step 1 - Define Your Core Values

If you haven’t already clearly-defined your company’s core values, this is an absolutely required step before you do anything else. If you want to ensure your culture stays strong and vibrant for years to come, every single new-hire must be evaluated to make sure they are aligned to your core values. If you need some inspiration to craft yours, here’s an awesome list of core values to get your juices flowing.

Step 2 - Identify the Tasks and Responsibilities for the Position

The best way to show that you are a caring and thoughtful manager is to have clearly thought through (and documented!) the specifics of what you want your new-hire to do. If you can’t write it down, it’s not a thing.

You might be thinking, “But I need help from them to figure out how to do xyz!” Cool. Then “Define xyz process” just became part of their job responsibilities. Write it down.

Make your exhaustive list of responsibilities and then show it to some team members you trust to get their feedback. You’ve probably forgotten something.

Step 3 - Identify the Necessary Talents

Now that you are clear on your core values and the tasks and responsibilities of this position, it’s time to consider the talents this person will need to possess in order to be successful. Remember, talents are those “naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior” that can be applied to your position.

I love Rath’s 34 themes from Strengthsfinder 2.0 for helping me define talents for new positions, but even filling in the blank for the question “The new-hire must be naturally _________________” will usually get you what you need.

Start out by listing every natural-born talent that seems essential, and then share it with some trusted colleagues and ask for their feedback. Together, try to narrow your list down to no more than six talents that are absolutely essential for this position, given the core values and job responsibilities.

Step 4 - Write the Job Description

You’ve already done some great foundational work, so this job description should flow pretty easily. There are two keys to writing effective job descriptions:

1 - Match the writing tone and voice to your company culture and core values. For example, if you are a very formal organization, it should be written very formally. If you’re a bit edgy, the job description should be too.

2 - Your job description should attract the right people and repel the wrong ones. Your job description is not the time to make your company and job sound like Disneyland. Be real about the demands and challenges they’ll face. Someone who has the right set of talents will be excited by it and someone who doesn’t will run for the hills. That’s a good thing.

As far as job description structure goes, here’s how I do mine (in order):

  • Company Summary - Start with a paragraph that summarizes your company and core values.

  • Job Summary - An introductory paragraph that cuts to the chase of what this job is about and what you’re looking for.

  • Key Responsibilities - You already made this list! Just add it here.

  • Knowledge & Skills - It might seem funny that we’re emphasizing talents over skills in this approach, and then explicitly asking for skills instead of talents in the job description. Well, what we don’t want is for candidates to just parrot back what we tell them we want, from a talent standpoint. We’ll assess for those things during the application and interview phase indirectly, but we don’t want to come right out and tell them the answers to the test. So in this section, we’ll list any knowledge and skills that would be valuable for this person to have as they come into the position. Think technical skills and other knowledge one would acquire after doing a similar type of position. So if you’re hiring for a web designer, ability to create custom Wordpress templates might be an important skill. Or if you’re hiring a 5th grade teacher, you might want someone who knows how to differentiate instruction. Or maybe there’s a particular methodology you love to use…you can list it here. Remember, these may not all be dealbreakers, since you might be willing to train the right person on-the-job, but they’re skills the person will either come in with at the start or will need to acquire on-the-job.

  • Minimum Requirements - If there are any non-negotiables, such as required certifications, degrees, etc., put them here. But be sure to make sure it really is a non-negotiable…can you think of a scenario where someone without this requirement could be a good fit? You might rightly want someone with experience in a particular role if you don’t have someone to train them and need them to get up to speed quickly. Or you might want to give an opportunity to someone inexperienced, but with the right talents to grow into the position. Consider those factors carefully when defining your minimum requirements.

  • Summary - I like to wrap up my job descriptions with a bit of personality and an invitation to apply if they feel like the post resonated.

Step 5 - Flavor your Job Description with Your Core Values and Desired Talents

Remember what I said earlier about how this job description’s job is to attract your ideal candidate and repel people who aren’t a fit? Well, it’s time to take one last pass at your job description to overly insert elements of your core values or the desired talents you’ve identified for this job. For example, if you’ve identified one of your core values is “Always have a sense of humor,” you’d want to insert touches of humor throughout the post. If you have identified one of the key talents as “Takes charge,” think about what someone who would naturally “take charge” would love to hear in a job post and add that in. That might be something as simple as, “This is a new position, and we won’t be able to tell you how to do most of your tasks. We’re counting on you to figure out the best way to get xyz done.” Someone who likes to have step-by-step directions for tasks would likely be scared away by such a statement, which is exactly what you want in this situation. This last step in the process is all about making sure you’re scaring away the wrong people.

Stay Tuned for the Next Steps…

Congratulations! You’ve written a compelling, talent-based job description. The time you’ve spent putting the extra thought and effort into this description will shine through to the high-quality candidates you’re trying to attract and will likely intimidate anyone who’s not up to the challenge.

In the upcoming posts in this series, you’ll learn how to come up with a comprehensive application, how to decide who to talk to, how to conduct interviews, how to build a valuable sample task, and how to narrow down your candidate pool and ultimately choose your new team member. Be sure to subscribe to my posts so you’ll get the next installment straight to your inbox!

Happy hiring!