How to avoid voodoo hiring

By Elli Sharef , written on August 8, 2013

From The News Desk

Hiring the right people is one of the most important parts of a CEO's job. Even if you and your co-founder are all-stars, your company will fail if your team consists of B-players. You are who you hire, so making wrong bets is among the worst mistakes a founder can make.

In theory, most founders and CEOs of startups aspire to hire great contributors who will push their company forward. In practice, though, most founders don't have any type of process in place to figure out who the right hire is. Many fall into what Geoff Smart calls "Voodoo Hiring." They resist having any sort of orderly approach to hiring. Smart has many examples of "Voodoo Hiring" but my favorites (and the ones I see most among startups are):

  1. "The Art Critic" -- Managers who hire in the same way they decide whether they like or dislike a painting (pure gut).
  2. "The Sponge" -- Managers who ask multiple teammates to conduct interviews to vet a candidate but everyone asks more or less the same questions and it all comes down to "did everyone like him or her."
  3. "The Prosecutor" -- Managers who ask a hundred difficult questions in an interview and never really let the candidate talk.
  4. "The Suitor" -- Managers who just try to sell the candidate on joining without really interviewing him or her. ("He's an engineer from Google, we have to get him to join.")
  5. "The Chatterbox" -- Managers that spend their whole time on small talk ("Oh, you like skydiving too!") instead of really delving into what the candidate would be like in their job.
The problem with these approaches is that they assume that it's easy to figure out whom to hire. We're all good at assessing people right? Nobody would want to be told that they're not good at making people judgments.

And in practice, many of these Voodoo approaches actually work quite well in the very early stages of a company when you are hiring your friends or former co-workers whom you've known for a long time.

But many founders continue to use Voodoo Hiring techniques even as their companies grow. They don't have a structured process or set of rules that they apply each time they hire. Instead each hiring manager just willy-nilly does a half-baked assessment. My big advice to founders is this: It's never too soon to start implementing processes that will make your company great at hiring. Hiring is a skill -- the sooner you start honing it in yourself and your team, the better.

The first step is to figure out a process that you'll always follow. Make a blueprint and a set of steps that your team always goes through, regardless of whom you're hiring. You don't need a book or a manual; just sitting down for an hour and drawing out a clear process based on your company’s unique culture is enough. For inspiration, the process I suggest is below. (You should also read Geoff Smart’s book "Who: The Method for Hiring."

The next step is to really enforce this process and make it a priority in your team. As the founder, you have to be a role model and keep reminding your team of each step. For example, I recently talked to a founder that had a rule that for each non-technical hire, his team had to hire one technical hire. (He wanted to make sure problems got solved through automation, not by adding more bodies.) If that's your rule, then make sure that you enforce it. In another instance, I spoke to a founder who insisted that each engineer had to do a code-test regardless of how prestigious his or her last job. Again, enforce your own rules.

Finally, keep improving on the process. I am continuously impressed by Y Combinator's vetting process. Each time I talk to one of the partners they tell me about a new change they're making to their interview and selection process based on the experiences they had with their last batch.

Hiring great people will make a bigger difference than you ever thought possible. A great hire can have an idea for a new way to grow revenues, can design a product that becomes your hit or can becomes the sales-machine you never knew was possible. But to hire well, you need to have a process. Hire carefully, and you’ll be surprised how much easier building a great company becomes.

My suggested process:

  1. Decide what type of person you really need to hire (eg, decide whether you want an SEO person or a sales person -- you won't get both in one even if in your mind the goal is simply growth).
  2. Make a list of attributes the person needs to have before you start interviewing. This list should also include day-to-day tasks the person will do.
  3. Circulate this list with your team and make sure everyone agrees a priori.
  4. Source from a broad set of places. Don't just rely on one source and take time understand candidates before inviting them to an interview.
  5. Study each resume before the interview and make sure you know which aspects you need to probe on (eg, if they worked only at large companies, you'll need to ask about their start-up fit).
  6. Give each interviewer a different task so you're not all asking the exact same questions.
  7. After the interview, go back to the list you made in Step 2. Did the person have all the things you wanted?
  8. Check references that the candidate did not give you (e.g., find people the candidate worked with before but that he didn't tell you to talk to. Use LinkedIn for this).
  9. Make an offer within two weeks of first starting to interview the candidate. So many companies I see lose candidates because they are indecisive.
  10. Always get back to candidates you decided not to hire.