I try to keep my team lean, mean and scrappy. That means there’s no room for error in any of my hires. Think about it. If you have a team of 100 and one of your hires turns out to be a dud, you’re still at 99% effectiveness. But if you have a team of five and one of them craps out, you’re down to 80%.
So how do I screen for duds? How do I separate top talent from the liability hires?
Most job interviews get it backward. Hiring managers ask the prospective employee about their skills, their industry experience, the companies they worked for and how well they did. Standard stuff, right? What’s wrong with that?
The problem is, this stuff is easy to lie about. It’s essentially Scout’s Honor. Even something that is hard to fake, like what companies they have worked for, doesn’t account for how well they did at that company. Why are they even on the job market now if things went so swimmingly? Similarly, years of experience don’t necessarily guarantee competence. Lots of people fail forward.
Worst of all, these questions are predictable. They come up in every job interview. Applicants can anticipate them and come up with answers that frame themselves in the best possible light. This helps them but not necessarily you.
So if nearly every job interview gets it wrong, how do you get it right?
Lessons From Chefs
I’m a foodie, and for years I wondered what separated exquisite chefs from mediocre chefs. What did the superstars do differently? Was it some special knife technique? Just the right time in the oven? A superhuman sense for the perfect balance of ingredients, textures and temperatures?
The TV show Chef’s Table set me straight. Superstar chefs don’t vary significantly from other chefs in their technique. The difference is their obsessive pursuit of the best ingredients. They scour farmer’s markets, travel long distances directly to the farms themselves and even start their own farms and gardens with the best soil and nutrients, all in pursuit of the perfect ingredients.
In this way, the best chefs are collectors as much as they are technicians. They’re just relentlessly devoted to quality, because they know there’s no way to fake good ingredients. They personify the famous aphorism of computer coders: Garbage in, garbage out.
Forget The Outputs, And Go For The Inputs
What do chefs and their ingredients have to do with job interviews? It’s that “garbage in, garbage out” equation. In other words, great outputs depend on great inputs. Conversely, bad inputs make it extremely hard to produce great outputs.
You see this everywhere in life. For example, if you eat a terrible diet of McDonald’s and beer, all the exercise in the world won’t help you look better and have more energy. You’re putting in garbage; expect garbage outcomes.
Ditto with writing a research paper at school or a white paper for your company. You could be the most eloquent writer in the world, but if your sources are bad, the finished product will be useless.
This was the big insight in my hiring process: Most of the questions I was asking focused on outputs. Their current skills, their last job … all outputs, and all easy to fake. By contrast, it’s hard to fake inputs. And they tell me a lot more than questions about outputs.
The Most Important Question
In every job interview, I ask applicants what books influenced them the most or what books they are reading right now. One of the things I love most is that they usually don’t see it coming. It’s worth asking just for the look of surprise on their faces.
Plus, if the question takes them by surprise, they haven’t had a chance to be coached or prepare an answer. Most people can’t invent a credible-sounding book title or an author on the fly. They’re left with the only thing that is easy to remember: the truth.
If they tell me they can’t think of a book that influenced them, or if they mention a book or an author that I don’t think highly of, I’m wary. I see that as a sign that they’re filling their heads with garbage, which means I can probably expect garbage output.
On the other hand, if they quickly mention several respectable sources and indicate why those books influenced them in a big way, we’ve got something. If they’re inundating themselves with good inputs, I find that I can expect good outputs, just like a chef working with top-quality ingredients.
Books aren’t the only inputs to look for. You might ask them about their favorite blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, influencers, etc. You could even ask about their favorite TV shows. When I ask this, applicants often think I’m being chatty and looking for common ground. But if they can’t name a book and then proceed to rattle off the entire roster of Netflix new releases, that tells me a lot about their inputs.
But Does It Work?
How has this strategy served me? So far, so good. Since I have started prioritizing inputs over outputs in interviews, I have yet to regret a hire. I’m not saying this method is foolproof, but it’s an interesting paradigm shift. Stop focusing on your applicants’ output, and start focusing on their inputs.
In a way, this requires a leap of faith. You may find yourself seriously considering applicants who are less qualified on paper. Is it really a one-to-one correlation that you can depend on?
Considering how easy it can be for an unqualified employee to lie their way into the fold, I say it is at least worth a try. It hasn’t failed me yet. If nothing else, it arms your interview with a question that will take the applicant off guard, one that is hard to fake an answer to. And it will probably tell you more about the person sitting in front of you than either their resume or other standard questions.