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 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 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…