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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

Look Back, Not Forward: The Surprising Way to Hire the Best People

Before the applications are reviewed, before the job opening is even posted, you know you need a special candidate. Why? Well, because of whatever previously happened with the position.

I’m not suggesting you need a miracle worker to rescue a program after a prior hiring fail (though, that does happen). Sometimes you need to revamp an earlier version of the job description because of a fabulous employee who doubled the scope of responsibilities. Or perhaps it’s an inaugural position, so you need someone who can work without a roadmap.

There are three instances when a position’s history can be just as important as other job requirements. Read on to learn how you can incorporate it into the hiring process and find the best applicant for the role.

1. It’s a Brand New Role

It’s kind of funny to start by saying it’s super important to include a position’s history when there is none—but in this case, it’s absolutely integral. We often think about how challenging it is when you have “big shoes to fill,” but what about when you have no shoes to fill? That translates to no predecessor to train you, no established systems and procedures, no one to tell you what has worked historically in a given situation.

In these instances, you must hire someone with an entrepreneurial spirit—someone who thrives on innovation and finding creative solutions. Additionally, you need someone who can manage up—a master communicator who can tell you when project A took twice as long as anticipated, when project B is a flop, and when project C bears further consideration.

So, be certain to include the words “inaugural position” in the job description. Then, throughout the hiring process, test candidates’ leadership and quick-thinking skills. If it’s a high-level position, consider a reverse interview (asking the candidate to lead the interview and ask the questions). For a lower-level position, ask situational questions that start, “Tell me about a time when…” (Then look for answers like these).

2. You’re Trying to Replace a Rock Star

“Rock star” is one of those cliché career words you know you’re not supposed to use. But sometimes, you just want to use it anyway, to describe someone who is just that awesome.

It’s not just that this employee does a superior job—he transformed the role. He used unique talents (think: a photographic memory, exceptional public speaking skills, or the ability to build strong relationships with notoriously difficult clients) to innovate and fundamentally change the position.

After watching the current employee be so successful, your instincts may be to hire someone with the same abilities. From the position description to the interview questions to the reference check, you look for someone who excels in the same areas as your exiting employee did.

But if the departing person brought something truly rare to the position, you may not be able to replicate how he or she filled the role—and therefore these “special skills” shouldn’t be your top priority. I witnessed a program almost fall apart after an incredibly charming candidate—who, like the exiting employee, had shining conversational skills—neglected to mention that she was easily overwhelmed and had zero organizational skills. Once she assumed the role, she did great in face-to-face meetings (as expected), but didn’t do her research beforehand and rarely responded to follow-up emails, leading the department to post record-low numbers.

Don’t be blinded by intangibles or bonus skills you think an applicant shares with the exiting employee. Instead, take a tiered approach, with the requirements to literally do the job and experience as the non-negotiables. After candidates pass that test, then you can look for those with special skills (or the potential to innovate in their own ways).

3. The Last Person Didn’t Work Out

You know what’s harder than filling a position previously held by a rock star? Hiring for the person who came after the rock star, flopped, and unceremoniously left.

Frankly, the stakes are higher this time around. You had prepped your major stakeholders for the fact that the person they’ve dealt with for the past few years was leaving, you made the introductions to someone new, and you now have to tell them there will be another new face. Lots of turnover can make clients and co-workers feel antsy (especially if the interim hire messed things up), so it’s important you get the next hire right.

You’re no longer looking for someone who can maintain the work of a stellar employee, now you need someone who can pick up the pieces after an employee who failed.

Before hiring for the position again, you need to do a 360-degree review of sorts—ask colleagues, supervisors, clients (and, if appropriate, the employee himself via an exit interview) what wasn’t working. What made the best applicant for the job fail?

Maybe it was something personal and unforeseen, in which case, you can run the hiring process the same way you’ve done in the past. But, if you realize that you ignored red flags (you let it slide that she was late to the interview, but then she was regularly late to client meetings and frequently called out), prioritized the wrong skills (yes, he was an expert coder, but he was beyond unpleasant to work with), or would be better off restructuring the role, it’s important you know that before you initiate the hiring process again.

It’s natural to be forward-focused when searching for a candidate to join your team. But, if you let the position’s history help guide the hiring process, you’ll have a better chance of finding the right person.

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