Small business hiring: Hire for fit, not just for skills

I had enjoyed reading Brad Farris’ guest post 5 Innovative Businesses Talk About Their Hiring Process on the Big Ideas Blog, enough to re-tweet the link to those brave enough to follow me on Twitter.

Ever the astute community manager, Devan immediately engaged me in that forum along the following lines:

small business hiringThis interaction occurred during an extended family vacation on a lake in the remote Northwoods of Minnesota, and I – just like the bass my father-in-law so loves to catch – realized a split-second too late that the hook had been set!

As the process of riffling through the “story index” in my mind began, it slowly dawned on me that personal is perhaps best, especially for a guest post like this where nobody knows me from Adam…..or Devan!

The “Horror” Story

In 2006, the company I worked for announced that it was going to undertake a “merger of equals” with another firm.

Your average Finance person (of which I am one), once becoming aware of these types of announcements, generally has two thoughts that run through their head: 1) Finance departments are “low-hanging fruit” in the achievement of synergies, and 2) there is no such thing as a merger of equals.

And in this particular case our company was not the equal!

In this type of situation, as any person familiar with risk management will attest, the prudent course of action is to hedge your bets – perform at your absolute stellar best during the process, but “stick your toe in the water” all the same.

Thus, when I chanced across an ad for an Assistant Treasurer role at a top Chicago area firm, I dutifully filled out the on-line form and uploaded my resume.

While never one to “count your chickens before they hatch”, I figured that landing an interview with this firm would be likely if for no other reason than: 1) they were looking for an Assistant Treasurer….and I was an Assistant Treasurer, and 2) they were a Fortune 500 firm….and we were a Fortune 500 firm.

Well, if the punch-line were that I got the standard “ding” letter that would hardly be news and I wouldn’t be guest blogging about it.

The kicker is that, two years later, I got a “Job You May Be Interested In At …” message from them…

…for a non-paying intern position!

Long past the initial rejection (it had been two years), the merger issue resolved (having retained a role in the newly formed company), a whole host of exciting new challenges before me (we were still in the throes of “The Great Recession”), my reaction was to amusedly wonder “what line of thinking leads a company to conclude that a proposal to a Corporate Officer – one who has risen high enough within the firm where title, role, responsibilities and authority are mandated by the Board of Directors – along the lines of “we think you would really like to be a non-paid intern” is in any way attractive?

As Hamlet astutely noted: “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”!

Why, Oh Why, Did This Process Go Awry?

I like to follow the latest in leadership and Human Resources (HR) related items since it is relevant to the finance professional. An aspiring functional leader needs to understand how to lead and manage people within the discipline as well as others across the organization.

For this reason, from time to time I cover “people” issues on my Treasury Cafe blog, such as last Fall’s “A Life’s Worth of Leadership Lessons” In addition, I maintain an active dialog with a number of HR folks within my company, alumni groups, and social media sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn.

These insiders told me that one of the algorithms often used to identify potential job candidates is to reframe the position requirements into yes/no questions. For example, if the job requirements state “3+ years of experience in xyz“, the behind the scenes algorithm asks “Does this person have 3+ years of experience in xyz?”

Answer “yes” – go to the next round.

Answer “no” – round file.

In the context of my question, one of the job requirements for the posted Assistant Treasurer position was “Bachelor’s in Accounting, Finance or Economics; Master’s Preferred”.

Ah, there’s the rub.

The yes/no question, phrased as “Do you have a Bachelor’s in Accounting, Finance, or Economics?”, is a “no” in my particular case. While I have a Masters in Finance from a Top Ten business school, my undergrad degree is in Communication (long story for another post). One can see that an algorithm, intepreting a “no” response to the posited Bachelor degree question, might logically assume that an internship role is the perfect match to the candidate’s profile, because as far as it’s concerned they have not yet completed their education.

Why “Jagged Resumes” Will Give You an Edge

My story illustrates the fact that the algorithms and automated decision criteria we use are still relatively crude evaluation tools. This may be conveniently overlooked due to the scale involved. If a crude tool can whittle down 10,000 possibilities to 100, perhaps it need not do anything more than that for those who use them.

Yet there are many in that 9,900 who might be better.

George Anders, in his Harvard Business Review blog post “Spotting the Great but Imperfect Resume” , introduces us to the concept of the “Jagged Resume” – essentially a work history that does not fit the proverbial mold.

What is telling in his research is that these people with jagged resumes, when hired, are often better performers than those who take the traditional path. Anders discusses a university computer science professor who attracted students with these jagged resumes, often having already switched majors three or more times, who later went on to found the likes of Pixar, Netscape, and Adobe.

He notes that “The lost opportunities can be excruciating. Imagine the remorse of a venture capitalist unwilling to back Steve Jobs in 1977, because the personal-computer pioneer never finished college. For that matter, consider Apple’s fate in the 1990s, if the company hadn’t invited Jobs back for a second turn at leading the company, even though his first run ended in dismissal.”

The existence of these jagged folks spells o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y for the small business owner and entrepreneur!

Why? For a number of reasons:

  • The talent pool is large - The average person is going to change careers 3 times during their lifetime, and with the recent economic disruption, many others have recently been displaced as well
  • Large companies cannot compete - given their scale and volume, larger companies are forced to used highly algorithmic, “yes/no” selection practices in order to cost-efficiently manage their workload.
  • It bucks the trend - with more at stake, larger companies need to play conservative. This often means sticking to common, ‘check the box’ practices. If everyone else is using “yes/no” processes, so will they!
  • They are hard to identify - years of experience, college degrees, etc. are easily measured, yet what gets measured might not be what needs to be managed. Character strengths, personality traits, attitude, and aspirations are not easily measured, but can be critically important to the jagged resume candidate’s success.

These reasons suggest that the entrepreneuer / small business owner can position themselves to take advantage of this untapped supply of quality talent when hiring. What’s required is to think a little differently about the role you are trying to fill.

As the reasons above suggest, focus on the “hard to measure” items that define how candidates are evaluated for the role.

For example, a great finance candidate is one who is curious. The trait of curiosity leads these folks to learn more about an item, figure out ways to evaluate it, and “close the loop” on understanding.

When this type of individual is presented with an investment proposal – perhaps a new capital project or small acquisition – they do not stop at what they are told, but use their “curiosity drive” to dig deep into the idea. Exactly the type of thing you want to occur when performing analytical evaluation, due diligence, and other finance activities.

The mathematics of finance are easily teachable, curiosity is not. By identifying what’s truly important, we can make use of the “jagged” candidate, and greatly increase our probability of success.

Congratulations – you’ve got hiring to do!

david k waltzDavid K. Waltz is Assistant Treasurer at Integrys Energy Group and creator of the Treasury Cafe blog. You can find him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Google+.

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