Talent is everything, period.

May 12, 2015

I have heard this debate many times, and it usually goes along these lines:

Mr X: “Without talent, any business is irrelevant.”

Mr Y: “maybe, but without technology the talent is rendered useless”

Mr X: “…but the technology wouldn’t’ exist if it was not for the talent!”

And so on…

That being said, I am not sure the debate will ever end (when machine learning evolves 100x maybe? But that’s a whole other topic) but in the mean time we can all agree talent is at least fairly critical to any business. Which leads me to the main topic I want to address here: Finding talent & the interview process. I am not the first, and I certainly won’t be the last, but as long as I hear stories along the lines of “…Then they asked me what my biggest weakness was” the war on bad interviews will not be over!

Over the last 4-5 years, I conducted 500-600 interviews. Well over half of these were in very aggressive growth environments. I have been very lucky to be in the right place at the right time in my career to live the reality of managing massive growth. At certain times, the rhythm was sometimes around 15-25 interviews a week. Doing this at such “high volume” taught me a couple of things that I want to share with you today – as part of the eternal quest to end bad interviewing techniques. When I first started managing teams, I used to have more of a traditional approach, and was relying on rational thinking and analysis towards which candidate was the best choice for the position. After quite a bit of trial and error, I finally refined the method which I still use today. Here are the 4 main pillars:

  1. Keep your eye on the prize

There is one ultimate “end-goal” in the interview process and it needs to remain a priority / focal point: getting to know who this person really is – think of it this way: everything else is only a way of reaching the end goal. It’s easy to get caught up in “everything else” (protocol, pre-baked questions etc.) and losing sight of what’s important.

  1. Be Agile

Do whatever it takes to reach the end goal and adapt to whoever is in front of you. Size up the candidate within the first couple of minutes (introvert? nervous? desperate? arrogant?) and adapt to make them as comfortable as possible (this was a tough one for me). If you want to have the slightest chance of really knowing who you are dealing with they need to drop their guard.

  1. Be yourself, yet read between the lines

Once you think you have their guard relatively down and you are having a real conversation, ease into questions that matter. Be true in the way you interact, it usually helps them do the same.


– “What kind of environment stimulates you the most in terms of pushing yourself / going above and beyond?” – The actual answer doesn’t really matter as much as how they interpret the question

– “You have been at company X for Y years, and now you are considering leaving. What could they have done to keep you engaged?”

– “What’s the biggest professional failure you have even been witness to?” — again, answer does not really matter, it’s how they answer and how they position themselves towards the situation

Obviously you can and should adapt some of them for the type of position. Examples:

– Product management: “Why do you think BlackBerry failed when it did, vs 3 years earlier, from a product perspective?” — Kind of a trick question, but you got to have fun right 😉

– UX Designer: “What’s the absolute best UX you have seen, on any platform, any device and any era? — This is always interesting. “uhhh.. Facebook on iOS” = FAIL. “The first touch tone phone, because pressing what you want is intuitive vs rotating a dial etc.” = WIN.

  1. Natural fit

Another very important thing to remember is that you are not hiring a resume, you are hiring a person. What looks good on paper might now fit in with the team, and in turn have a negative impact on overall performance. I have seen this first hand, and it’s not pretty. Ironically, you can break a high-performing team’s dynamic by adding what looks like a perfect fit on paper. In which case, the best thing to do is recognise your mistake and act quickly to prevent any permanent damage. I think most experienced managers would agree: A well-oiled team of 3-4 rock stars will put to shame a dysfunctional team of 8 any day of the week.

You get the idea, basically trying to slightly destabilize while being open to a very natural response. It’s a fine line, but once you learn how to stay on it you will reap the benefits. Personally, I never have prepared questions to an interview, I improvise and go with a natural conversation flow. However this particular decision is something everyone should adapt to their own style and personalities.

When all is said and done, I find the most important of all is trust your gut. The key is to obtain all the necessary information before the decision is made. These 4 tricks have helped me walk the line between gut feeling and analytical assessment, which in turn enabled me to assemble the right people in very challenging situations. Behind every great company, superstar team, rockstar performer is someone who knew how to choose the right talent.