Anyone who has hired and managed people has probably bemoaned the fact the people they thought they hired were not always the same people who showed up for the job. Too often, the new hire’s actual performance was not as expected and the manager discovered many things they wish they had known prior to making an offer.

Interviewing people is much like dating where both sides are getting to know each other, putting their best foot forward, and after a relatively short courtship period, the employer picks a candidate to “marry.” After a variable honeymoon period, the real person shows up, with both strengths and weaknesses, that may or may not be a fit for the company or the particular role for which they were hired. Managers often rely too much on resumes, cover letters and gut feel in determining who they think will perform the best, and the reality is these factors have little predictive value in identifying top performers. I know because I was guilty on all counts in my first startup.

I spent the first six years dismayed with my hiring batting average, despite the fact I went into it with three years of full-time recruiting experience. I thought I was an expert and assumed hiring would be the least of my concerns. Boy, was I wrong! I went in search of people who had solved this problem, although I was doubtful it could be done because I was already an expert, remember? Then I discovered a methodology backed by lots of proof it worked. I dived in, determined to solve my problem, and learned that consistently hiring top performers requires a much more disciplined, structured approach than mine at the time.

After about six months, I realized the shiny new penny candidate, the person who seems like a perfect fit for the job with no weaknesses at all, had “magically” disappeared. By the time I made someone an offer, I had a very realistic idea of how they would perform in the job, and that enabled me to make dramatically better hiring decisions and reduce the number of mis-hires, which are particularly devastating for small, early-stage companies, not to mention the candidates themselves.

In the interest of pulling back the curtain a bit, I can say definitively that there is no magic to consistently hiring top performers. It just seems like magic to those who don’t understand how it works. Just like you know 1 + 1 = 2, if you put the right hiring formula or process in place, you can predict the results with much better accuracy. Entire books can and have been written about each step in the process, but here is an overview of the “magic” formula to increasing your hiring success:

  1. Clearly define the job’s performance accountabilities through a thorough job analysis

In the words of Stephen Covey, start with the end in mind. Many early-stage companies are so busy fighting for their survival that they gloss over this step and decide to hire a “Ruby developer” or a “marketing manager,” without clearly defining what they need the person to accomplish. Ask yourself “If the person we hire is wildly successful in this role, what will they accomplish in the first 90 days? Twelve months?” If you can’t narrow it down to a handful of measurable objectives, you don’t know what you are looking for yet.

  1. Clearly define behaviors that indicate a good “culture fit”

This is difficult to do from inside the company because you are so close to your own culture, but try to identify the two or three behavioral characteristics that separate your highest performers from the average and low performers in your unique environment by asking yourself and others these questions:

  • Think of someone who truly represents the culture. Think about a specific instance where they did something that clearly demonstrates what you value. It can be big or small, but it should be something that impacted you. What was it?
  • Without naming names, think about someone who did something that does not embody the culture. Again, it can be something big or small, but it should be something that impacted you. What was it?

The examples need to be specific enough that two different people observing the situation could determine if the behavior was present or not. Then look for themes in these stories. Are your most successful sales engineers people who can quickly establish rapport with an enterprise client’s IT department? Do they display genuine and unwavering empathy with whomever they interact? Do they put their own system in place for juggling lots of balls without dropping them and keep details from falling through the cracks?

  1. Create structured list of interview questions that identify matches and create a scorecard

Based on what you discovered in the first two steps, create a list of interview questions that are designed to elicit information that determines whether a candidate is capable of accomplishing what needs to be accomplished and fits the behavioral profile of your top performers. For my clients, I propose about 15-20 questions, and with the hiring manager, we whittle that down to about 10 questions that are asked of every candidate. Then we use this information in the preliminary screening to decide who comes in for a face-to-face interview. The remaining questions can be asked by the hiring manager directly. Be careful when you craft questions that you do not lead the candidate to the answer you want.

For example, if you are trying to hire a senior sales executive to sell enterprise software and you want a “hunter” who will be able to fill their own pipeline, you might ask, “I want to understand how you have gone about generating demand for an enterprise software product in the past. Can you tell me in detail what you have done?” Don’t ask about the results. Just ask what they’ve done. Then look to see if they have done things that you know to be successful in your company or industry. Also, do they share the results of these efforts on their own or do you have to ask them what the results were? High performers can’t help but share the results of their efforts.

You want them to share lots of past experiences so you can look for patterns in how they respond to typical situations they will encounter in your job. One other note on crafting interview questions, you want to word at least one of them in a way that is like administering truth serum during the interview process, which is the topic of another blog post.

Make sure you are clear about what you are looking for so that you can score each candidate on each characteristic. As an example, you can score them on a scale of:

  • Strong evidence the candidate meets the criteria
  • Some evidence the candidate meets the criteria
  • Some evidence the candidate does NOT meet the criteria
  • Strong evidence the candidate does NOT meet the criteria
  1. Compile profiles of the top candidates’ answers

Whoever is doing the preliminary screening, whether it’s the hiring manager, an HR professional, on-staff recruiter or a resource like Top Candidate, it’s important to build a profile for each of the best-fit candidates so you can compare apples to apples. If you have an applicant tracking system, this can be a very efficient process.

You might consider having candidates respond to some of the questions via email. That gives you a sense of their written communication skills and responsiveness. It also gives more introverted candidates, who may not think as well on their feet, a better chance to accurately represent their qualifications, assuming thinking on one’s feet is not a critical component of performing the job.

The remaining questions can be asked in a phone interview, but the answers should be transcribed (or at least noted in detail) so that other interviewers can have access to all the same information and candidates can easily be compared to each other to identify the best matches.

  1. Have at least two to four people interview each candidate

When the final candidates come in for face-to-face interviews, you should have at least two but not more than four people interview them. Panel interviews are a great format because everyone presumably heard the same information, but may have put a different weight on various pieces of information. Include the hiring manager, other managers the role will interface with, as well as peers.

  1. Rate candidates by consensus to control for first impressions and personal biases

After each candidate’s interview, the group of interviewers should debrief about how well the candidate meets each criterion. By forcing the group to come to consensus, you are helping to control for first impressions and personal biases that we all have, which are proven to have zero correlation with how well someone will perform.

What typically happens when companies don’t use a structured, process-driven methodology is that the candidate appears and the interviewer makes a judgment based on first impressions, positive or negative. Then they start to find out they have things in common, like they both grew up in the Midwest, or in other cases, maybe the candidate is passionate about a hobby the interviewer doesn’t care for, and then everything the candidate says in the interview is used to back up these impressions and biases.

  1. Perform deep dive reference checks before making an offer

If you administered truth serum within the interview questions,  you already set the expectations you were going to check references. Don’t let candidates pick and choose who you talk with either. Insist on talking only with previous direct supervisors. By doing so, you are more likely to get information that is valuable to you, because face it — anyone can find three people to say nice things about them. You are not looking for nice things. You are looking for information that helps you predict how the candidate will perform in the job.

This is hard, but don’t expect perfection when you check the references. Approach it from the point of view that you have already decided to make an offer, and you’d like to get the perspective of someone who knows the candidate well on how to help them become as successful as they can be as quickly as they can be in your unique organization. Know in advance what questions you will ask and document the conversation so you can compare apples to apples and even be able to reference the information later if you need to.

Ask about specific examples the candidate gave you during the interview process and see what the manager thought about these situations. Was the candidate’s story in sync with the manager’s perspective? Tell the former supervisor about the expectations and performance accountabilities and ask them to project where the candidate will likely be a good fit naturally and where might they need a little extra help. Many times previous supervisors will respond with a description of things they wish they had done differently in managing the candidate, which is incredibly helpful information. Always end with something like, “What is the single best piece of advice you can give me on how to help this person be as successful as they can be as quickly as possible?”

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Once you onboard a new employee, track for yourself in 90 days, six months and 12 months, how well the person is performing the job. You may find that something comes up that was not as you anticipated and you can make adjustments during the next hiring round. Increasing your hiring batting average should be an iterative process that gets better with every hire as you learn to hone in on exactly what predicts success in your organization. The better you can define up front what you are looking for, the better job you will do of identifying a top performer when you find one.