Go to Menu Forget Personnel Jockeys;
Hire Right

This article first appeared in the July 1995 issue of Tom Peters' On Achieving Excellence newsletter. Many thanks to Tom for boosting my visibility at a time when I needed it. This interview opened a new market for Ask The Headhunter by showing how companies can use these methods to recruit and hire more effectively. Since its publication, I've done recruiting and hiring workshops for Merrill Lynch, Becton Dickinson, AT&T, and other progressive employers.

In this month's On Achieving Excellence Inside Report, we speak with executive recruiter Nick Corcodilos, who sheds some of our most basic assumptions about the way to hire top people - or to get hired. No manager can afford to miss what he has to say.

Nick Corcodilos, president of North Bridge Group, Inc., became a headhunter in 1979 in one of America's most competitive job markets: Silicon Valley. His success as an executive recruiter has given him a first-hand, contrarian view of human resources management.

His book Ask The Headhunter (Penguin/Plume, 1997) is both a radical approach to help job hunters win job offers and a powerful hiring tool for employers. Corcodilos conducts job-hunting workshops for client organizations that are downsizing, speaks on the subject and runs Ask The Headhunter Online. He can be reached via email at North Bridge Group.

OAE: YOU SAY IN YOUR BOOK that the U.S. employment system is broken. How so?

NC: Make no mistake: There IS an employment system out there, an administrative behemoth with too much baggage hanging from it. Managers' business and the work they need to accomplish get lost in Byzantine job descriptions and organization charts. Good managers wind up spending more time defining jobs than making sure the work gets done. In a large company, by the time a manager has filled out all the forms required to justify a position, she has created a juggernaut that goes above, beyond and around the actual work. I'm convinced that traditional job descriptions are one of the roots of the downsizings we're seeing everywhere. Jobs don't last because the work changes. When hiring, an employer must keep her eye on the work that needs to be done - not on the job.

ARE YOU SAYING MANAGERS SHOULD do all hiring on their own?

NC: If a hiring manager can't find and select the right employees, he's not doing his job. He's got to be well-enough connected to his professional community to know where the talented people are. When a company wants customers, it doesn't send a customer service representative to find them. It sends out its toughest, most impressive sales reps. Why should any manager trust the future of his team to Personnel?

A lot of managers argue that finding qualified workers could take all their waking hours. Maybe it should. Somewhere along the line somebody made the mistake of thinking employee selection and hiring could be a routine, bureaucratized process performed in the bowels of the organization.

BUT DON'T JOB HUNTERS AND the managers who hire them need all the help they can get?

NC: So-called human resources experts and career counselors provide the help that's gotten us into the fix we're in now. What does a career counselor or HR manager know about computer architecture, microbiology, freight systems, telephony or charitable remainder trusts? Next to nothing. I've never met a personnel manager qualified to hire anyone except another personnel worker.

There's a wall that HR has built around corporate America, with job hunters on one side and hiring managers on the other, and the wall-builders are renting short ladders to everyone. And there's a back order!

WHAT'S THE BEST WAY FOR a job hunter to approach a job search?

NC: Approach your job search like the headhunter does: with the intent and ability to control any hiring meeting. Control comes from doing the thing you are good at in the interview. That's how a good headhunter prepares a candidate to win an offer. Learn the headhunter's approach, because it works. If it doesn't, the headhunter doesn't eat. It's as simple as that.

A hiring interview is about two things: the job and how well you can do it. Your mission in that meeting is to do the job, right there, where the employer can see for himself. The alternative is to talk about your past and your future. "Where do you see yourself in five years?" That's got to be the stupidest interview question I've ever heard, but it's always asked. Questions like that have little bearing on whether you can do a job and do it profitably. Hiring managers would be far better off giving candidates a live problem to work on during the interview.

HOW IS THAT DIFFERENT FROM giving a test as part of an interview?

NC: Hypothetical situations and tests are nonsense. Psychologists have been telling us for decades about test-taking skills. People can pass tests and interviews with flying colors and not know a damn thing. Annette Flippen, an organizational psychologist, read my book and said, "We already know the traditional interview has little or no statistical utility as a selection technique." Most people don't know it. Every manager I talk with about this idea agrees. But, they go on playing make-believe when qualifying a candidate. Give the candidate a live problem!

BUT ISN'T IT HR'S JOB to do the filtering, to keep the process from wasting the hiring manager's time?

NC: HR filters, but it doesn't identify. Why should we use this hiring process of eliminating thousands of candidates? Why not do it in a way that hones in on the right candidates? Stop inviting every Tom, Dick and Jane to waste your time. The HR process can't identify solutions, so it looks for people who match a profile. It has a template, and it needs tons of people to match against.

When you hire, you don't hire a person. You hire the person's work. The term "work for hire" is no accident. Time was when artisans and craftsmen proudly let their work speak for them. Today's personnel process focuses on the person and her history because the process is incapable of judging the quality of the person's work. Only the hiring manager can do that.

CAN YOU REALLY JUST TOSS out your candidate's work history?

NC: No, that's not what I'm saying. A candidate's experience is important, but less important than the ability to do the work or ride a fast learning curve. A smart, capable person who lacks specific experience might be willing to take a job for less pay than her other skills would justify, in order to get into a new line of work and do a great job. Company "recruiters" ignore her because HR wisdom says she won't stick around. They might as well tell her there's no future at their companies. These guys are so stuck matching history to job descriptions that they have forgotten there's work to be done, and that the solution is staring them in the face.

LET'S SAY MANAGERS FOREGO THE traditional hiring process. How, specifically, do they go about hiring people?

NC: First off, ignore the pool of available workers. Ignore the resumes and the applicants. No one applying for the job really knows what the work is all about. They're just storming your castle. Most will die trying. Your job is to help the good ones make it through.

You can't find what you want in a field of noise unless you learn to effectively distinguish what's meaningful. The inability to recognize a candidate's fitness to do the work has caused the traditional employment system to fail. The question, "Can you do the work?" is the last one asked. It is the first one that matters.

Focus on the work you need to get done - on how it has to be done to ensure your success and profitability. Forget formal job descriptions, because the work will change. Figure out what your problem or challenge is, and write it down in simple English. Make sure there's something in there about being profitable, because if there's not, you will regret the position later, or you'll find you don't really understand your own purpose as a manager.

What you should worry about is whether you really have a bunch of organized, profitable tasks that you need somebody to do. And I mean profitable. Don't get lost in formal job descriptions. You are not creating a job. If you are, you should be fired. You either have profitable work that needs to be done, or you don't.

Now, I'd never hire a person who didn't fit in with my team any more than I'd hire someone who couldn't do the work. I want workers I can live with day in, day out, for the long haul. But don't even talk to me if you don't know my business, don't know my problems and can't do the work. That comes first.

To make sure you understand your own requirements, gather the core of your work team and figure out together what the work is that needs to be done. (You might find you can break it down and do it among yourselves.) Don't turn this into a committee problem. Remember, you're the manager.

To prepare to interview, structure a day's work for the person you think you need to hire - real tasks, be they tactical or strategic stuff, not hypothetical exercises. Pick two or three that are the main part of the job. These must be tasks that will make a material difference to your business. Candidates must demonstrate in the interview that they can do these tasks. If there's a learning curve, they have to prove they can hop up on it and not get killed riding it.

Put your whole team to work to identify good candidates because everyone will have to live with the hire. Have them call every good contact they know - vendors, customers, their professional community - to identify candidates. Don't just get names. If you get a good lead, do a full reference check on the spot. This will save time and avoid surprises later. Ask your contacts to have candidates call you. If they don't call, call them.

When you as the manager get a candidate on the phone, remember this is a business transaction. You have a problem. You need help. Be ready to state your problem and purpose. Acknowledge that you're the buyer and they're the seller. Offer a good potential for profit. Is he or she interested in talking about working together?

Here, generically, is a notice you can give to a potential employee, whether it's one you solicit or one who approaches you. You can put this in a letter or provide it on the phone:

"My team needs a capable, talented, dedicated worker to do this, this and this. The right person will be able to do this work profitably, for themselves and for us. Please be advised that we don't read resumes. If you're interested, I encourage you to learn all you can about us, because we don't use interviews to introduce people to our company or work. When we meet, it will be a hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves work meeting.

"In a nutshell, these are the specific problems and challenges our company and my team face. (List them, but be brief.) We ask that you be able to help us solve our problems and meet our challenges. We're interested in what you can do. If you can convince me on the phone that you can help us, I'll invite you to come in and show us how you work. That's what our interviews are all about: doing the work. I promise not to waste your time."

Expect a lot from candidates, and tell them so. A qualified candidate will show up with potential solutions to your problems. Don't waste time with the traditional Q&A. It's important to ask questions, but only if you ask the RIGHT questions.

The hiring manager and job candidate must address what I call The Four Questions:

1. Does the candidate understand the work that needs to be done?

This requires candidates to do research prior to the interview. If they can't meet this challenge, you don't want to hire them.

2. Can the candidate do the job?

Ahead of time, ask the candidate to prepare a presentation. Lay out a live problem to be tackled.

3. Can the candidate do the job the way you want it done?

This relates not only to performance, but to style, attitude and work philosophy.

4. Can the candidate do the job profitably for you and your company?

Most fail to understand profitability as a responsibility. My advice to all managers: Improve the talent pool by teaching all your employees what profitability means.

Let candidates show you their work ability. Treat them like employees for that hour or two. Help job hunters do the job in the interview. You'll find some real gems under all those bad job-hunting habits.

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