I have been in tech recruiting for the best part of 25 years now, and I can safely say it’s an industry that systemically overrates technical ability and underrates behaviour. Invariably, issues that arise within technical businesses – and, really, in any business – don’t come down to technical competence (i.e. what people know) but have everything to do with behaviour (i.e. what people do).
The reason why businesses, and especially scaling businesses, find hiring so challenging is not that they’re not measuring stuff, but that what they’re measuring is wrong. At Chemistry, we’ve been profiling high, mid and low performers in every geography in the world, in a myriad of industries and roles, and our data set runs into 100s of millions of rows. In all of our analysis, we’ve consistently found that previous experience is the least reliable predictor of future performance. Yep, that’s right – experience (i.e. someone’s CV) is an appalling data point for predicting whether your shiny new employee will be any good or not.
But let’s start with some good news. Initially, start-ups instinctively get it right. That’s because their first hires are typically well known to the founders, so you understand their behaviour, their motivations, and their experience. They’re a good fit because you know them intimately; you’re still small, so lines of communication are good; and, generally, you’re working to a single motivation. Hiring at the early stages is relatively straightforward – you don’t need science, you just need concentration. It’s as soon as you journey out of your immediate network that things get complicated, but for start-ups and fast-scale businesses, there are no new mistakes – the pitfall is a consistent one…
While I’ve already said that experience is the least reliable predictor of performance, it’s crucial to note that I didn’t say experience is not important – it absolutely is. Take, for example, Chemistry’s search for our first CTO. We were growing fast and frankly everything about our platform sucked. What’s that famous quote? ‘If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.’ If that’s anything to go by, we were ahead of the game.
So, of course, I wanted a CTO who knew what the hell they were doing. We looked and found ‘on paper’ some fantastic candidates. They all had the experience, and simply against my role requirements, I could have selected any of the six candidates. But the trick is understanding which one would perform in our culture, within our systems and processes, alongside our leadership and their colleagues. At Chemistry, we call this defining What Great Looks Like. It’s our core methodology that’s supported by our unique IP and is powering the recruitment of some of the largest companies in the world.
Whenever we work with an organisation to define What Great Looks Like, we start with some sticky notes – literally! We ask our clients to write down, one per sticky note, everything they believe the people who thrive in their organisation do, that others, who don’t thrive, don’t. What is it that makes these people different? Often, we’ll find different words used on different sticky notes to describe the same thing – ‘high work ethic’, ‘hard-working’ and ‘committed’, for example. In cases like this, we encourage them to choose one label and stick with it. Multiple ways of describing ‘talent’ is a common problem in companies, but our approach encourages a Pantone-like approach to the traits of high performing people – it’s not just ‘red’, it’s specifically this Pantone.
With all the sticky notes ready, we ask them to think about where each sticky note falls in Chemistry’s 5-Box Model:
Intellect – the speed at which they take in, retain and process information
Personality – the inner dispositions that shape their behaviour at work
Motivations – the external factors that meet their internal needs
Behaviours – something they do and is observable
Experience – something they know
I can guarantee, every time, that once the sticky notes have been mapped out across the categories, most will be sitting in Personality, Motivations and Behaviours, with the fewest (if any) sitting in Intellect and Experience. But despite the fact that everyone automatically links high performance to these areas (whether knowingly or not), they are rarely measured recruitment processes, which is precisely why hiring can be so hit and miss.
By understanding more about the Personality, Motivations and Behaviours (and Intellect, to a degree) of the people who thrive in your environment, you can find more people who will thrive. You can also – because there is no such thing as a perfect profile – understand where someone might need a little extra help to be brilliant in your environment. Hiring in this way, for your context, will ensure you make great hires. And – get this! – it’s also the route to diverse hiring. Using this methodology, technology organisations around the world are rapidly hiring more people from different socio-economic, ethnic, and gender backgrounds.