Monthly Archives: December 2013

Three Hiring Mistakes in Innovation-Based Businesses

It’s a tougher job to hire for a business built around innovation.  If you approach it like you would for a retail clerk or a Queue_151142factory worker, you’ll be in for problems.  There are dramatic differences between hiring for a pure development role versus an R&D role as well. Mistakes are costly.


Here are three big mistakes that appear to be common today:

  1. Matching Resumes to Current Role Activities
  2. Ignoring Both Ends of the Experience Spectrum
  3. Hiring by Committee AKA Covering Your Ass

1. Matching Resumes to Current Role Activities
Shocking? This is counter-intuitive, but think for a moment about what your business does.  As an innovation-based business – you have roles that probably didn’t exist 5yrs ago, let alone 10yrs.   You are likely to have roles then that will dramatically change over the next several years too.

Now you aren’t going to hire a plumber to write software for you, so keep things in perspective. But consider two types of candidates that you are likely to consider for a role.

a) those who are an exact match for the tasks of the role you need to fill now
b) those who don’t directly match, but have skills that are transferable, and have a history of adapting to new things.

In the first case, you may find someone who has only done the thing you are looking for.  Perhaps twins_328371straight out of school into your field, and five years of doing that specific role.  Five years of experience directly doing an identical job. Looks great to HR, no?

In the second case, is someone with a base of skills who has adapted to the changing landscape in your general field (marketing, engineering, administration, media – whatever).  As the business changed, they adapted – maybe even led some of the change. They understand the space in which they’ve worked from its origins. They’ve witnessed the mistakes made by players in the space, and the best-practices.

This second candidate is working in an adjacent area, and does not match your job description directly, but has a track record of learning roles of similar complexity from a similar knowledge base.

Now you may (and most managers do) exclaim that you want someone who can hit the ground running.  But given a dramatic shift in your dynamic business in the coming year or two, which candidate do you think will be better able to not only adapt, but lead into the next phase?  Which one will fight change, and want to hang on to the only skill-set they’ve developed?

2. Ignoring The Experience Spectrum.
A lot of managers will hire for a role seeking someone with three-to-five years of experience.  The thought is to find someone with ability in that space which is already developed, and avoid the expense of training. More senior workers may have salary expectations which are higher too.

This propensity to ignore both ends of the experience spectrum can short-change the organization.

Novice managers without experienced people-management or hiring skills may not have developed the instincts to recognize transferable skills that someone more experienced has.  There is great Shinykeys_790873value and potential in a new graduate, or early-stage entrant to your space who may fall under your experience expectations.  The important element is being able to recognize the transferable skills with-in previous experiences.  Often this means a careful analysis of non-employment based interests and out-of-field experience as well.

There are some interviewing strategies that can help.

Interviews of less-experienced candidates often need to be longer, and some task-based evaluation is often warranted.  This can happen at two stages.  Have those candidates who do well in a brief phone screening interview prepare and bring something for their in-person interview.  Maybe a half-page summary of what’s going on in your field.  Maybe a test for creativity? For example, have them make something – anything – maybe bounded by the size of a regular envelope, to illustrate their creativity.  The results may surprise you!

After the short-list is made, have those remaining candidates write for you a ‘plan of attack’ for a job-related task prior to the second interview.  Maybe a task you’ve already solved, or one you’re thinking they will need to address. This specific ‘plan sketch’ approach is good in that it is not a ‘Google-able’ task, requiring actual candidate insight. Have them describe how they came up with it, to illustrate that they understand that, and their brother didn’t do it for them.

At the other end of the spectrum, candidates with extensive experience are often ignored as well.  There are three main contributors to this behaviour.  First, young, new managers may be intimidated by the thought of someone with a couple of decades in their space working for them.   The second is oldkey-1251855the fear that older contributors will expect higher salaries.  Third, there is a bias that older workers may not be creative.

In the first case, the challenge is in the inexperience of the young hiring manager.  Diversity in the workplace is our friend, and a breadth of experience, just like a breadth of gender, culture or skills is fuel for creativity.   Worried about jaded attitudes, stodgy approaches? Well, that applies to all candidates and your interview skills need to be able to look for personality challenges of all kinds.
In the second case, there is certainly a ‘you get what you pay for’ mantra applicable here.  There are excellent cases of an unstable work-team becoming grounded and enhanced by an older contributor being added to the mix.  As well, as a young manager I’ve seen experienced contributors pull out hugely-valuable insights from past experience when we’ve most needed them. This ability to jump over an iceberg toward which you are headed more than makes up for any additional costs.

On the second point, for the topic of salary there is an easy solution – discuss salaries in the telephone screening interview process to avoid any over-investment of time on either your part or the candidates.  Often older candidates have evaluated income against work-value and have seen that an interesting job counts for more than a high salary, and what is better than someone working a role because they enjoy it.

For the creativity question – simple interviewing skills should draw that out.  Look too towards general interests and hobbies.  Or try the creativity test mentioned above!  Creative, innovative people tend to buck the trend, so you’ll find them in all sorts of places, and they’re like gold when you do.

3. Hiring by Committee – AKA Covering Your Ass.
This is a disturbing trend, perhaps borne out of fear of failure from inexperienced managers, and maybe the culpability-avoidance instincts of the modern politician are creeping in too.  The thought goes that if I have enough other people involved in the hiring decision, I can disavow any responsibility when the new-hire turns out to be a total dud.

There is a lot to be said for having others participate with you in the interview, to provide some perspective and diversity of opinion. In many cases this has been taken to extremes.

Mostly gone are the days when candidates were hired on the spot.  I can attest that it was an meetingRoom_112426invigorating experience to have someone say “Okay, you’re hired” twenty minutes into an interview.  But that’s probably a good thing to have moved away from.

It certainly seems that the pendulum has swung too far the other way as of late.  It is not unusual to hear about hiring processes involving three or four rounds of interviews, and many weeks to close.  In government roles where often the fear and bureaucracy are at their peak, it can take months.

Does this sound like your process?  Here are some strategies to rein that in.

a) Ensure the candidate criteria for the role is captured before interview selections begin.
This does not mean the job description – often you want to write a job-description strategically to avoid disclosure of product plans or other details to competitors, or to position the company in a certain way in a public forum.  Keep it short – half a dozen skills perhaps that are of interest.  Think most importantly about characteristics as well.  Remember the valuable ‘transferable skills’  rather than identical experience.  These are not your interview questions, but what your questions will get to.

b) Include other people in your hiring process, but limit the number.
If you are a sole-proprietor, or in a very small company, consider bringing in a trusted ex-colleague or advisor to give you at least on other opinion.   In a larger operation, a parallel manager, a senior team-member or someone from HR is a good idea.  Even if their skills are not in your field, a lot of what you’re looking for is personality and approach.scoreBoard_165335

c) Score candidates against your criteria initially from resume/screening process and from interviews.  Don’t get too elaborate with fifty different factors – just six to a dozen points will work better.

d) Make it clear who owns and thus makes the final decision. Make sure that ownership is established up front to avoid  a wishy-washy “yeah, I guess so” hiring process.

The hiring process is challenging for any organization, and particularly so in innovation or R&D based ones.  In conclusion, it’s important to be thoughtful about soft-skills too, and remember that attitude and approach are as important as technical knowledge when it comes to engaging effective contributors and building strong teams.

When directing inexperienced managers in the hiring process, coaching and leadership are very important.  A young manager with excellent day-to-day skills can often be a complete neophyte in effective hiring, and some structure and guidance can go a long way to ensuring your hires are an asset rather than a liability to your operation.