In 2022 I set out to build a new ServiceNow development Team for my department. This is the story of how I found 6 developers, a business analyst and two product owners in 7 months. In case you are wondering why two product owners, one product owner left after four months.
The principles behind the search
I learned a lot from executing the hiring process repeatedly. These are the principles I used throughout the hiring process.
Take the stress out of it. There is a good chance you’ll make a hiring mistake. You spend about 3-5 hours with a candidate before offering them a job. That is not enough time to learn everything there is to know about a person and how they work. Would you get engaged with someone after taking for 5 hours? That is basically how this process works. Do everything you can to have a solid process. But don’t expect the process to deliver perfect results.
To get people to apply for the positions I need to fill, I write a love letter to my new teammate. Yes, a love letter. I try to make that job description sound as exciting, interesting and accurate as I can. If I am looking for someone to do it, the job matters. It’s not about overselling and underdelivering. In fact, speak as bluntly as you can about the context, the horrible politics and the lack of know how in your organisation. If your candidate is hungry and confident, they will be excited by the challenge.
While interviewing, keep it light. Work is fun, getting to know people is fun. And if it is not, that is a sign maybe you and this candidate won’t work well together. I focus on three things when interviewing:
1. Can they do the job? Do they have the skills? Can they acquire missing skills quickly enough? I spend time figuring out ways to test for skill in an interview. Because I work with knowledge workers where clear communication is key, I personally focus on structured thinking and communication.
2. Will they love the job? If they don’t love the job, there is a good chance they won’t be great at it. I want to work with great people. I bet you do to. Do you see your candidate’s eyes sparkle when they talk about their work? That’s usually a good sign.
3. Will I love to work with them? This is about the person and not just whether I think they are good or bad. I go deeper. If I must teach them, will I like doing it? If I must do their work because they are on vacation, will I do it willingly? Chemistry is an important factor.
I learned these three focus points from an article a while ago. I don’t have the reference and google could not help. For the record.
The last thing I pay attention to is speed. You must be fast in the recruitment process. This can be the difference between getting and not getting a candidate. During my search I stopped the recruitment process for a few weeks to focus on other tasks. That cost me a fantastic young candidate that decided to not wait for my offer. Good for him. My bad. He knocked on my door and I took too long. Being fast means that, from the moment your candidate submits their application, you have at least one touchpoint with them per week until you hire them or remove them from the selection pool.
The Curriculum Vitae Screen
I tend to focus on two things: aesthetics (presentation) and content. What I am looking for is evidence that the candidate can succeed in the job I have open.
Let’s talk about aesthetics first. How does the CV make you feel? Did it catch your eye, seemed structured and easy to follow; or was it cluttered and confusing?
Communication matters for knowledge jobs. The CV is the first work example of how a candidate communicates. That said, sometimes you cannot get picky and sometimes writing a great CV doesn’t translate into star performance in the job you have open.
How relevant are aesthetics, design, and clarity for the job you have open? If the job is customer facing (via email, text, and face to face) and their CV is unclear and unstructured, it’s a first sign that they might not be the right person for the job. If the job is not customer facing, perhaps you can overlook some deficiencies in communication.
I too filter out CVs based on how they look and feel, sometimes. If there is an abundance of candidates, I will focus more attention on those that made it easier for me to assess their relevance. If there are few applications, I am less picky. Especially if the CV writing skill does not transfer into a relevant skill for the job.
In summary, I try not to judge a book by its cover, if the cover is irrelevant for the job. But I am human, and if I have a bunch of nice covers in front of me, they will draw my attention more than the less interesting covers.
Now let’s talk about content. The CV should showcase skills and experience that are relevant to the position. Most CVs achieve that. But how the CV tells the story can tell you a thing or two about your candidate.
Does the CV communicate that the candidate strives to deliver business value (Achieved X as measured by Y by doing Z), a coachable individual hungry for learning and growing that has consistently been promoted? Or does the CV suggest the candidate executes tasks but is unaware of their impact. This might be a sign of a passive candidate. It can also be a sign of someone that has been poorly managed.
Then I look for expertise in the job I want to fill. If a candidate has been 5-10 years doing something, it might be a sign of expertise or it might be a sign of someone struggling to master a skill. Full disclosure, I tend to optimise for learning. Knowledge workers must learn and grow consistently. I prefer people that learn quickly because I expect and need them to change quicker than the world around them. I need them to be a step ahead.
The Intro Call
Some might call it the screening call, but this call is meant to save the candidate and myself time. Think of it as speed dating. It’s twenty minutes long and intense. I pitch the candidate the job, I ask probing questions, and let the candidate ask me questions.
When I describe the job, I tell it like it is and share, the good, the bad and the ugly. Yes, I share the dirty laundry. I share the potential and the risks. I also paint the vision of where we could go together.
I am searching for missionaries. People that will bring everything they’ve got and focus it into their job. People that celebrate Mondays! If they faint when they see blood, it’s probably not going to work out.
In preparation for the call, I screen the CV and look for three things that worry me or catch my attention. I use this to develop at least three probing questions. Why do you want to change companies after 15 years? Why do you want to change if you just started a job three months ago? What piece of work are you most proud of? What do you want to achieve here that you could not achieve somewhere else?
I try to ask probing questions out of curiosity and use a tone that conveys that. I don’t want to add to the stress of the situation, and I want to convey genuine interest in the candidate. I am trying to make friends. It’s the same tone that will be used when working together, curiosity. Why did this horrible thing happen? It’s a hard question and will generate some feelings of “I need to defend myself”. Using the wrong tone, can make it worse.
How does the candidate respond to the probing questions? Are they shaken, or do they respond openly and give a persuasive answer? If something doesn’t click, I ask follow-up questions until I get it or I realise, that the explanation is not going to get better.
It might be scary to ask probing questions so quickly after meeting someone, but you have no time to lose, and I think these questions also help to becoming friends with your candidate. The book ‘Happier hour” talks about the ‘Relationship closeness induction task”. It’s a protocol in which two parties ask each other three sets of questions. The initial questions are superficial (why did you do X?), the questions at the end are more personal (what is something you are really scared of?). The task is shown to help people become closer, even friends.
Probing questions can give a candidate the feeling that you are really interested in them and gives you valuable information about the candidate. If it does not work out in this occasion, the candidate had a good experience and this feeling of “that didn’t work out, but that was a good talk, they really wanted to know about me”, is worth the twenty minutes invested in the call. It is a branding opportunity for your company, your department and for you.
Lastly, I give the candidate the opportunity to ask me their most pressing questions. This puts them on the spotlight and gives me the chance to see what motivates them, what interests them, what worries them, how curious they are and how much research they did.
If by the end of this call I have a sense that it is or is not going to work out, I share this information on the spot. Last year I spent a lot of time trying to fill a position. I say trying because the position was closed unfilled. There were a handful of exciting candidates. There was just one problem, their German was not good enough and being able to communicate in German was important for that role. At the end of the call, I would tell them how interesting I found their profile but explained that, without German, they would not be able to succeed. I also encouraged them to get in touch once they had improved this skill. In all cases, candidates, although disappointed, seemed to appreciate the candid and quick feedback.
The skills interview
This is the first ‘real’ interview in the process. The goal is to answer the question “Can they do the job?”. The process to find out is not perfect. You are going to ask questions, do brain teasers and case studies in 45 minutes, maybe an hour, and use that to predict whether a candidate will be able to do the job.
Let’s start by setting expectations. The best answer you can provide to the question “can they do the job?” after the interview is probably “I believe they can do the job”. It’s not certain, but you believe there is a good chance.
In preparing for the skills interview, you must make decisions. How much time can you invest? How much time do you think a candidate is willing to invest? Which skills are key for your role? Which skills are nice to have? There is no formula to answer these questions.
I’ll share with you how I answer these questions for the roles I was searching for. The most important skill that I look for is structured thinking and communication. It doesn’t matter if I am looking for a developer, an architect or a business analyst. In my mind, first and foremost, these candidates are knowledge workers. I design the interview to make their thinking and communication skills visible.
I prize structured thinking because the world is very complex. Someone that structures this complexity is better equipped to move in it. I prize communication skills because knowledge without action is useless. Someone that thinks well but cannot share it with the team is less effective than someone that can. I prize the combination of structured thinking and communication because I believe it is the foundation to produce better work. Someone that can create good ideas and share the logic behind them, allows a team to evaluate the logic and improve the logic.
You might be asking yourself, what if they are structured thinkers and can communicate, but they don’t execute? Well, you should have caught that in the CV screen and the intro call. If you still have doubts, ask for a few references and make some calls. If you have no doubts, you should still ask for references and make some calls.
In terms of length, I have chosen 45 minutes for the last year. It’s a 45-minute interview for the candidate, but it is a one-hour commitment for the interviewers because after the interview, we meet for 15 minutes to debrief. The agenda for the interview is a 10-minute introduction, then 25 minutes of questions and exercises for the candidate and, finally, 10 minutes for questions from the candidate.
It’s short and intense. They say the human mind can maintain focus for about 20 minutes. The distribution of time in three section tries to account for that. All interviewers ask at least one questions. Everyone is a participant in the interview. No spectators allowed. This is intended to give the candidate a feel for how it will be to work with each of the interviewers. You are evaluating the candidate and you are selling your team.
At the end of the interview everyone exchanges what they saw. Where do they see strength and weakness. Each share how they came to that conclusion. In 5 to 10 minutes, a picture builds with recurring themes and some unique ones. After we’ve exchanged views, I remind the team to not make compromises. Does the candidate raise the bar? Do they believe that our team will be better if they would join our team.
Then we vote, thumbs up or thumbs down. It must be unanimous for us to continue into the next round.
The behavioural interview
Once several people in the team feel confident that the candidate can do the job, we must address the question, will we like to work with this person? I need to trust this person to make decisions, do I trust their judgement?
To get a feel for the candidate’s judgements, I created a list of questions that shed light on whether the candidate shares our corporate values: curiosity, dependable, value-adding and collaborative.
The structure of the interview is identical to that of the skills interview, 10 minutes interview, 25 minutes for questions from us to the candidate and 10 minutes for questions from the candidate to us. By keeping the format consistent, we can focus better on the content.
The debrief of this interview is executed in the same way as the debrief form the first interview. However, this time the stakes are higher, the debrief can lead to an offer. For this debrief I have a dedicated set of questions for my team, the decision makers, that I use to help make the importance of the decision visible.
I aim to hire people that I want to share life with. We are going to spend forty or more hours together per week. Sometimes it’s going to be fun, sometimes it’s going to be stressful and sometimes it will be dull. We will disagree, probably even fight. Hopefully, we will push each other and, in doing so, bring the best out of each other.
You are probably telling yourself, “Yes, I would love to work in a team like that”. But how do you know after speaking with someone for two hours if this is going to work out?
You don’t. You cannot. Not after two hours. The process you have been through is like watching a movie trailer. You have not seen the movie yet. The movie might disappoint you. In fact, there is a good chance the movie will disappoint you, at least in a few aspects. But, after watching the trailer, do you want to spend the money to watch the movie?
I want to see my team excited about hiring this person. If I feel the lightest inkling of “I just want to finish the search”, if it just looks like they have gone tired of doing interviews and are about to lower the standards to finish the search, I ask the following questions.
Are you willing to do this person’s work when they go on vacation or are ill? Are you willing to have a conversation when they screw up and help them get back on track? Do you like them so much that you want to see them succeed with you?
If necessary, I’ll make it more graphical with a warfare analogy. We are in a battlefield. Do you trust the candidate with your life? If the candidate was shot behind enemy lines, would you go back, lift them up and carry them back to safety while bullets are flying over your head? It’s extreme, I know. The goal is the same. Do you like this person enough to give it all you’ve got and help them succeed.
You’ve gone through the whole process. Now you must close the deal. Hopefully, you knew from the beginning what the candidate’s salary expectations are, or the candidate should know what the salary for the position is. If you have not discussed this yet, you might want to consider adding it into your process. If not, you risk wasting too much of your time and your candidates time in interviews that are doomed from the start.
The good news is, if you and the candidate have gotten this far, there is mutual interest in making this work. Both parties know more about what it will be like to work together. This is the point where you can 1) have a coaching moment if you think their salary expectations are too high for where the candidate currently is in their development journey or 2) convey trust and welcome the candidate into your team with an offer that matches or exceeds their expectations.
If you need to make an offer that is lower than what was asked, have good reasons. You should have done your market research before you went shopping. You should be able to have a conversation about the candidate’s deficiencies and have an idea about how and in what time frame you believe these can be mended. I do this to be fair to the candidate and the current employees.
If the candidate has everything you want, pay them at least what they wanted, if it fits your budget. Yes, they might ask the question, would I have gotten more if I had asked for more. Who knows, maybe you would have, maybe not. The point is, if you reach this point and you just pull the price down because you want to try to save yourself some money, you risk creating resentment. Worse, you risk all the work you’ve done so far.
I saw this first hand with two fantastic candidates. They were both great for their positions and still had ample room for growth. They were full of potential. The recruitment manager decided it was their job to try to get people into the company for as little money as possible. Because both candidates wanted to get a paycheck as soon as they could, they both said yes. Five weeks after joining the company, each of them quit their respective positions for a 20-40% better paid position.
Maybe this approach works on average in large organisations. I argue that this is a great approach to hire and retain people that cannot get a job somewhere else. You want to hire and retain your candidates. The hiring process is costly, but your investment in the hire does not end when they accept the offer. You will invest in onboarding and in integrating the person in your team. There is time and emotional energy that will be invested. By lowballing the candidate in terms of salary, you may be planting the seed of resentment, you may be giving them a reason to leave.
You might be thinking, that’s how business works. Everybody does it! Yes, and most people suck at management. That doesn’t mean you have to follow their example. Treat people how you want to be treated. If you haggle over the candidate’s value as if you were in a flea market, how do you think that will affect your relationship? I am not saying that you don’t make salary adjustments, up or down, in the final negotiation phase. I want to make you aware that, if you do have to take this route, you should be careful.
Motivation is like a nuclear reactor of productivity. Try not to break it before the candidate even started.
You’ve just read through a design of a recruitment process. It is the best I could come up with by bringing different ideas together to fit the constraints of my work environment. It is a process that I could execute in my current context. You’ve read about many of the constraints and ideas that shaped the design.
It is just a design. It’s not the best design for all contexts. It may not be the design that you can execute best. If I had to continue executing it, I would continue to tweak it and try to improve it. If I had to build a recruitment process for a different work context, I would love to start from scratch and design a process that best fits the constraints of that context.
The last thought I want to leave you with is, think like a designer. Go and design your own recruitment process.