How to Hire Someone With the Right Talents - Part II (Writing the Application)


When we last met, I shared the low-down on why I love talent-based hiring, and exactly how to define your ideal candidate and write a killer job description to lure them right to you. We built the foundation for the hiring process you can use again and again and again. Because that’s what we Process Mentors do.

Oh, but there’s more. So very much more.

So this time, we’ll dive into the next step in the process: Creating a killer job application that gives the right person a chance to shine and sends the wrong person packing.

But before we even start, I want you to take a minute to ask yourself what this application is for in the first place. As Seth Godin asks, “It may very well be that this programmer or that cleaning person or this animator is absolutely terrible at the things that make it easy to get hired. Is there anything wrong with that?”

Well, is there?

Our goal here is not to make a generic application that has candidates jumping through the typical BS hiring-hoops to prove they’ve mastered the skill of...filling out a job application. Instead, we’re trying to assess their ability to actually do the job well and love it. That “why” should inform absolutely every choice you make as you build your hiring process. Give yourself permission to make your application read nothing like any you’ve ever read before.

OK...Let’s not waste anymore time...here we go!

How to Write a Job Application that Actually Results in Useful Information

In Part I of this series, you did a lot of hard work to identify the core values of your organization and the talents (Remember...not just the skills!) that would be required to do the job. You also used those two nuggets of information to write a breathtaking job description that strategically used those core values and talents to entice those who fit the bill and hopefully scare away ones who don’t. Cool.

Next comes the application. What many managers do at this point is request a resume and use the application as a place to torture the candidate by making them basically re-type their entire resume all over again in application form. Not cool.

Instead, the application phase is an opportunity to save yourself precious time by eliminating people who “look good on paper” or are great at selling themselves, but are actually a poor fit for your organization or role.

But you have to be strategic about it. Here’s how…

Step 1: Filter for Deal-breakers

Remember back in the job description phase when we added the true non-negotiables to the “minimum requirements” section? You should have a “yes/no” question to correspond with each of those non-negotiables at the very top of your application. For example, if you have to be a Montana-certified biology teacher to get the gig, one of the first questions on the application should be, “Do you have a current Montana biology teacher certificate? (Yes/No).” Since this is an actual requirement for the job, anyone who says no is an automatic bye-bye. Some software will even automatically disqualify people who don’t answer certain questions “correctly.” This can save you a ton of time doing initial screenings.

You’ll also want to make sure to ask for a resume, so you can check up on the details of the candidate’s job history and check for any other deal-breakers you might see.

Step 2: Get Them “Real-Talking”

Most job applications are boring and an exercise for applicants to see who can be the most generic-yet-professional in their response. And this tells a hiring manager exactly nothing useful, because everyone’s just saying the words they think the hiring manager wants to read. We can’t do that, because we’re trying to uncover the actual core values and talents of this applicant. So we’ve got to get them talking. Real talking. That is, you want them to write like they actually talk and to reveal a bit about their personality through their responses.

The best way to generate some real-talk-inspiring application questions is to brainstorm a list of questions you’d ask someone if you were first getting to know them at a party.

Questions like…

What’s your story?

What do you love doing most?

Who inspires you?

Who/what drives you most crazy?

Who is your hero? Why?

What was the last book you read? What did you think?

What do you most enjoy doing on vacation? Why?

What’s weird about you?

I recommend including at least two “real-talk” style questions that don’t explicitly have anything to do with the candidate’s work history in the application, but that will generate some interesting and potentially polarizing responses. As long as the question itself is aligned with your core values, feel free to ask it. Nobody said job applications had to be fancy.  

Step 3: Ask them to Brag

Since you’re screening for just a handful of talents for this position, it’s essential that you get laser-focused on plucking out the candidates who show strong evidence of them. So you need to ask them, straight-out, what they’re awesome at. You can get at this answer in an endless number of ways, so the only thing that’s important is that your question sounds like you and your company.

Here are just a few ways you can get someone to declare their talents…

What would your last boss say about you?

What do your friends love most about you? Give an example.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

What kind of non-work projects have you enjoyed and been most successful at?

What kind of advice do you usually get asked for? Can you give an example of some advice you’ve given?

Notice that each of these examples gets the person to reveal their talents in the context of a real-world situation, instead of just saying, “What are your strengths?” They’re reflecting on how they show up in the world in real-life and how that looks to others around them. And you’re fishing for specific evidence of said things. This is important.

Step 4: Give Some Scenarios

You’re going to want to get a glimpse into how your candidates will think and make decisions on-the-job and there’s no better way to do that on an application than to give scenario-based questions.

A simple way to do this is to ask your team for a list of the problems they’ve solved in the last 48 hours that this new-hire might encounter. Find a few simple-yet-compelling ones, and turn them into scenario-based questions.

For example, if this person would be handling customer service requests, perhaps you would write a question like this one:

A customer has sent an angry message requesting a refund for a course they've purchased because they can't log in. How would you respond? (Please include the email you would write in the space below.)

This provides an opportunity to assess their decision-making, empathy, writing style, formality, attention to detail, and probably about six other things. Like, do they write like a human or a robot? It’s a simple task. It doesn’t take long. But it has the potential to reveal a whole lot about the talents and skills of your potential new-hire. As an added benefit, it also gives the candidate a taste of what they’ll do day-to-day.

I’d include at least one, but no more than four scenario-based questions in your application.

You Might Not Get it Right the First Time

If you follow the steps above to generate your application, you’ll definitely have a unique application that stands out from the crowd and will likely deter any slackers who prefer the resume cut/paste style of application they’ve grown accustomed too. However, I will tell you a bit of bad news.

It might not be perfect. (gasp!)

The hiring process is an iterative one and you have to constantly reflect on what’s working and what’s not and tweak the process for the next go-round. This knowledge gives you tremendous freedom because you can let go of trying to make your job description or application perfect. You already know it’s not going to be! Instead, come up with some interesting questions you’d actually like to know the answers to if you were getting to know another human and see what happens. You might even enjoy it.

So to recap, when designing a job application…

  1. Filter out people who don’t go against your “deal-breaker” criteria by asking some simple yes/no questions.

  2. Ask some fun/personal questions that you might ask someone at a party to snap people out of the “business-speak” and get them sharing a bit of their personality.

  3. Try to make people brag about what they’re most proud of.

  4. Provide examples of real-life scenarios they’ll deal with on-the-job and ask how they’d handle them.

  5. Don’t be a perfectionist! Experiment with different questions and see what happens...you can always adjust them as you get better at this.

In Part III, I’ll show you exactly how to evaluate the responses you’ll get from your application, so you’ll have a deep understanding of whether or not your questions are “working” so you can adjust them for next time.

Until then, it’s time to write that imperfect application and get it posted! Just promise me you won’t start calling or emailing candidates until you read the next post in the series. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it…

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!