The first thing that strikes you about John Vlastelica is his ability to articulate a particular theme clearly and precisely. He talks fast and I have a sneaking suspicion that his mind works at an even faster rate. You may want to pause the video a few times for all the points to sink in. As part of Freshteam’s Leadership Series, John spoke to us on the theme: “How to Raise the Bar on Talent”

With over two decades of experience, John (founder and managing director of Recruiting Toolbox, a global recruitment management consulting and training firm) has worked with many of the big companies that you can name. These include Disney, Nike, PepsiCo, Amazon, Target, SAP, Salesforce, Autodesk, Bloomberg, ESPN, Starbucks, Nestle, Adidas, IKEA and Electronic Arts. 

This doesn’t mean John or his team hasn’t worked with the smaller companies - one of his team's biggest strengths is having the experience of raising the bar on talent in organizations of all sizes across the world. John co-created the Bar Raiser program at Amazon way back in 1999 when he was their head of tech recruiting. Amazon uses the Bar Raiser program to make all its hires even today.

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In this session, John speaks about:
  • How to define the hiring bar on talent
  • How to get great feedback from interviewers
  • How do you define What Good Looks Like
  • Is Culture Fit passé
  • The root of all evil in recruiting
  • Three decision-making models for hiring
  • A quick summary of the key takeaways

1. You can raise the bar only when you have defined it

Job postings in 2020 are as horrible as they were in 1995, says John. They talk about the job, the basic requirements, the required years of experience, and the desired educational qualifications but are not translated to actual interviewable hiring criteria. It doesn’t matter if someone has eight or 10 or 12 years experience, but what does matter is what the candidate has built, what they have achieved or delivered.

One of the biggest challenges is translating traditional job description language into a better-defined hiring bar. Interviewers or hiring committees should ask themselves if they are making the right kind of tradeoffs and decisions.

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A lot of the hiring professionals bring their own view of which aspects are trainable and which are not. For instance, should you hire someone who is a brilliant technologist but “is a bit of an ass”? Is that alright for your workplace culture?

How are the hiring committee members aligned on what they mean by diversity? Are they on the same page when it comes to defining someone who is seen as a “challenger”? They might think that such a candidate is unlikely to be good for an organization’s workplace culture but in reality, they could be exactly the kind of talent the company might need to be more innovative.

Transitioning from hiring one kind of profile to another is a huge challenge. “A lot of organizations that engage us are going through massive transformations. We have clients that are going to the cloud, clients that are moving to subscription models, clients that are having their entire businesses completely transformed. And as part of that, they're looking for very different kinds of talent profiles,” John says.

Since the top talent has so many choices, organizations must ensure that their decision-making models that define their hiring processes move quickly. Hiring managers and interviewers need to be aligned on what diversity is and with that as the context, they need to understand the kind of trade-offs they need to make in their hiring decisions.

2.  Ensure that your interviewer feedback is not vague

In John’s experience of having spoken with thousands of hiring managers across the world, “he/she is not a good culture fit” is among the most common comments made. But hiring managers/interviewers need to pause and think about what culture fit is and if they’ve defined it. 

Another common interviewer comment is on the seniority aspect of the candidates. How does one define ‘seniority’? Someone might have worked for over a decade but maybe really bad at their jobs, which doesn’t really make them “senior”.

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Hiring managers and interviewers often assume that where a candidate went to university defines how smart and good they are. Or they want to match their decisions with their bosses as the latter ultimately make all the decisions. Or they think that if a candidate has worked at a particular company, they must be good. Talk about hiring standards!

“Every company has a bit of a bell curve. Every company has some high performers, low performers. Companies make hiring mistakes all the time. So just because someone worked at a big brand company doesn't mean they're necessarily going to be great,” says John.

“So a lot of “What Good Looks Like” is not well defined in most organizations and even when it is, I would say 95% or more of companies don't really get prescriptive and teach their people how to hire, how to make good trade off decisions,” says John.

3.Define your WGLL - What Good Looks Like

One of the most critical aspects of interviewing and hiring is defining What Good Looks Like. If the members of a hiring committee are not aligned in their views of what they mean by “good”, it affects the hiring effectiveness and quality. 

One of the obvious areas to start while defining What Good Looks Like is to think about what you call as ‘culture fit’ or the desired behaviors in potential candidates. John and his team have worked with many companies and helped them translate values or competency models into something that’s more specific and can be measured.

A lot of hiring managers have asked John’s team to hire “someone smart”. Hit the pause button and ask yourself - Who exactly is a smart person? Some people that are book-smart may not be street-smart. There's a lot of research and data to show that good grades in school are not a predictor of how effective people are in their jobs.

‘Smart’ has many bad proxies: where one went to school, your family background, height, gender, communication style and so on. John spent a lot of his early days at Amazon just defining what ‘smart’ means. You need to get into skills and knowledge while defining What Good Looks Like at the level of drafting job descriptions. You also need to think about which parts of the job roles can be categorized as ‘trainable’.

Based on a true story:

Hiring manager (interviewing candidates for a finance role): Which version of Excel has XYZ candidate used in the past?
John: How does that matter?
Hiring manager: Well, we’re using that version.
John: So, if they are using 4.0, they are not qualified because you use 3.0?
Hiring manager: I really want someone who can hit the ground running!
John: Oh my God! You’ve got to be kidding me! How hard is it for someone who knows a particular version of Excel to learn another version?

Often, views on a person’s pedigree (well-regarded schools and companies) has a huge negative impact on diversity in many organizations. Instead of focusing on pedigree, hiring managers and interviewers need to leverage the achievements of the candidates. It is effective to focus on behavioral interviewing techniques where candidates are asked about what they built or delivered or sold.

“Many interviewers just grab the CV, the resume off the laser printer, they grab the job description, they go into the interview and they just kind of compare the two. And if the job description hasn’t articulated what should this person have built already, what should they have sold, which kind of problems have they solved... If it's not translated into achievements, you get people that get hyper-focused on things like Excel and what version of Excel you've used,” says John.

Another keyword that’s used is ‘potential’ but what does it mean? If somebody tells you, “Jacob has great potential. He will do well in this role”, what does it mean exactly? Unfortunately, sometimes this term is used to discriminate against those over 40. 

One of John’s friends spoke about a concept called ‘distance travelled’. This allows hiring managers/interviewers to look at a person through a different lens: instead of looking at the pedigree of a person (education, employment history), they should look at where the person has begun their journey from and where did they get to.

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“You know, if this person you're interviewing is a first generation. No one in their family had ever gone to university before and they went to good school but not the best school. That's pretty impressive if you have someone who has pulled themselves out of poverty. And has worked in a company, even if they didn't have a big title, but they've worked in a company, they got in. They worked hard and had great reviews,” says John. “That's pretty impressive that might be more impressive than someone who is a fifth-generation top university candidate.”

‘Passion’ is another term that’s poorly-defined. There’s a preference for extroverts and those who are passionate during the interviews. It’s really interesting how often that’s misinterpreted, he says. Worse, hiring managers/interviewers often check if the potential candidate is in love with the company.

“There are a lot of organizations that think candidates are dying to work for you and they're dying to work on your product. You have an opportunity and obligation to sell to candidates. You need to tell a lot of the best candidates on earth they're already working in a great company, they're already passionate about their craft. That's why you're interested in them. So how do you get them interested in your company?” says John.

One of the things that amuses John is the number of companies that tell him they do not want to hire “asses”. A chief marketing officer at a well-known company asked John to hire someone who can challenge them and not someone who is a yes-man or a yes-woman. He also said he doesn’t want to hire “asses”. Someone who is challenging may be misinterpreted to be an ass and may be just the kind of profile the organization may be looking for.

Another term that isn’t defined well is “A Player”. Everybody wants to hire an “A Player” and a lot of times, people have a bias to hire someone like them because obviously, they think of themselves as “A Players”. If you’ve not defined all these, John says, “how are you hiring people to raise the bar; you haven't defined the bar”.

4. You might want to replace Culture Fit with Culture Add

One of the common discussions that comes up in interview debriefs is that a certain candidate is not a culture fit but if you actually go deep into it, the panelists are most likely not even aligned on what they mean by culture fit. John says he would argue that over 80% of the interviewing teams don’t have culture fit defined and there’s a lot of bias that creeps into hiring decisions.

“Common discussions that come up in interview debriefs is that a certain candidate is not a culture fit but if you actually go deep into it, the panelists are most likely not even aligned on what they mean by culture fit.”

In many of the organizations that John has worked with, there’s a focus on sports. These are well-known companies that hire great people but there are teams in these organizations that may have a bias for the gender of a person. They might think of hiring only men under the assumption that women probably aren’t involved in playing soccer or baseball. But the good news, says John, is that this view is shifting.

In many major technological corporations in the United States, culture fit is being replaced with this notion of “culture add”. So, people are starting to look at things like - What does this person bring that we don’t have? “The basis of culture fit is still a problem. And for a lot of organizations, if they have, maybe a competency model, we try to help companies pull from what exists already. What are the behaviors that you reward? What are the behaviors you punish in your company?” says John.

While working with companies, John ensures that the interviewers don’t use generic terms such as culture fit as they go through the interview process and he would force them to break that down into defining what makes someone successful in their organizations. 

One of the behaviors that candidates are judged on is adaptability. It’s common for interviewers to say that they aren’t sure someone is a good culture fit because they are doubtful if they can move at the same pace as the organization. Such a view is usually formed on the assumption based on where the candidate has worked earlier/is currently working and their age. Instead, candidates should be given questions to evaluate whether they can adapt quickly or not.

“If you're asking if someone does not understand what culture fit is, going into an interview, it's a little late to ask them about it at the end of the debrief - in the conversation we are making a decision. They need to go in knowing that they're focusing on adaptability or collaboration or customer focus or learning agility or the ability to build an inclusive, diverse environment,” says John.

These aspects need to be well articulated early on in the hiring process so that the interviewers are focused on it. So, the question in the debrief shouldn’t be - Do you think she's a good culture fit? It should be - What specific evidence do we have that she wouldn’t be able to adapt to the pace of the organization?

In a nutshell, replace culture fit with culture add, break down the desired qualities/behaviors in the potential candidates into specific interviewable hiring criteria, build your interview questions around those and judge the candidates based on such an evaluation process.

5. Misalignment is the root of all evil in recruiting

Of the organizations John has worked with and helped build competency models for hiring, he says that around 70-80% of those companies look for the same characteristics/behaviors such as adaptability, flexibility and the ability to deal with ambiguity in their potential hires.

One of the most heavily-weighted characteristics that companies most often look for is people who have problem-solving skills. This is how “smart” shows up in a non-academic, practical way where candidates are evaluated on their ability to come in and help solve the problems that an organization is trying to solve.

“So the bottom line is that when we have misalignment, we have major problems. Like to me, this is the biggest problem in recruitment. It’s not having people aligned on What Good Looks Like, (it’s) not having people aligned on terms like culture fit, on diversity, on potential, on “an ass”, you know, some of these things. This to me is really the root of all evil in recruiting,” says John.

There are two kinds of decision problems while hiring people: 

False positives: You hire someone thinking they are good but they turn out to be bad.

False negatives: You do not hire someone thinking they are not a good fit but may actually have been good.

Many organizations do not build their interview processes around these. Also, many companies while focussing on diversity and inclusion, have this notion that hiring people from a different background or those with a different point of view would help the cause but the risk of false negatives is really big.

One of John’s clients, a VP of talent acquisition at a well-known company, told him she was concerned about false negatives and that she thought they were missing out on really good talent. One of the things she did was track where some of the people they had said ‘no’ to had ended up going to work and she found out that almost all of them had gone to the company from where hiring managers were asking them to source. 

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She did not have a big sample size and tracked only some candidates who were being considered for director-level positions. “She identified that there is a really strong bias, pedigree bias for people coming out of certain companies. She identified that we were not necessarily making evidence-based hiring decisions. And she also identified the fact that we did not have a really good mechanism in place to avoid bad hires,” says John.

Since we don’t really have a way to measure false negatives effectively, companies don’t realize how big of a problem it actually is. “So, for any process you're building around hiring, you want to make sure you're optimized for making great hires, but you also want to make sure you're avoiding making bad hires. And, you want to make sure that you're avoiding missing out on good hires,” says John.

Another common thing that happens while making hiring decisions is that people are afraid of taking risks. Companies need to define their risk tolerance for hiring processes. In the above example, there could be a possibility that those people they had said ‘no’ to probably gelled better in the companies they ended up working.

Consensus, as a decision-making model, where you require all interviewers to say ‘yes’ has a much higher probability of leading to false negatives. A leader of another client of John told him that it was an opportunity and an obligation on her part to be a role model around risk-taking. From the early stages, the leaders had made a case for that.

She had hired some people who didn’t get a ‘yes’ from all on the interviewing panel. She said she was using good judgement and not taking risks for the sake of taking risks. According to her, this was a great leadership opportunity to demonstrate to her team that it was okay to take risks while hiring people.

6. The How - 3 decision-making models

In this session, John discusses three decision-making models for hiring:

1. Hiring Committees - This involves taking hiring decisions away from an individual hiring manager and puts it into the hands of a more objective committee.

2. Pipeline Interviewers - In this model, you’re not really hiring people for a specific requisition but are hiring for a specific job category in the company.

3. Bar Raiser program - This is a program John co-built in 1999 at Amazon where a strong interviewer (called the bar raiser), who has veto power, has the ability to ensure no hiring mistakes are made and is the champion of a high hiring bar, which is embedded into the hiring process. 

All three models share these common needs: 

a) A tremendous amount of work to define What Good Looks Like:

There’s a huge opportunity in many companies to define some commonly-used terms (such as what ‘senior’ or ‘customer-focussed’ or ‘adaptable’ mean), to align their teams and get some calibration work done. Companies can ensure they have a mechanism to align people on subjective terms and this is often something that doesn’t happen well in traditional interview training.

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The hiring manager can sit with the recruitment team, take a requisition for an engineer or salesperson and break it down. They can take the job descriptions and convert them into hiring criteria. The hiring managers could write down which skills are important for their potential hires to have and which ones are nice to have but it’s not a big issue as training for those skills are quite easy. 

They could pen down the critical behaviors necessary to fit into the organizational culture and also, how they put their skills into practice. That takes a lot of work... to kind of pull that out of traditional job descriptions and it takes leadership from a hiring manager, but it's probably the single most important work a hiring manager can do,” says John.

b) A culture of written feedback and discussions:

Rather than have interviewers do a quick thumbs-up or a conversation or filling in a rating scale after the interview process, the idea is for companies to have a mechanism to ensure their hiring decisions are evidence-oriented.

Interviewers cannot get away with generic statements such as - “She doesn’t have the leadership potential we’re looking for” or “He doesn’t seem motivated enough”. They need to provide evidence in the form of a detailed feedback. If companies are building their culture around these decision-making models, then they’d be using debriefs as a way to calibrate to align, to coach, to make the final decision.

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c) A big need to sell the change, sell the problem/the why, and get buy-in:

It’s much easier to put one of these models into place when the company is still small. Bigger companies find it difficult to get the buy-in from employees. An organization cannot just copy-paste another’s hiring mechanism and have the confidence that it would work.

“It takes a tremendous amount of leadership to make these things work. And you have to be solving a real problem. You can't just kind of put something like this in because you've used this in another company,” says John.

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What kind of hiring mechanism should you put in place? The hiring committee model, the pipeline interviewing method? Or will Amazon’s Bar Raiser program work for you? Here’s what John has to say:


A brief list of key takeaways to raise the bar

                                                     PS: You may want to take a printout of this and keep it at your workstation

  • Define What Good Looks Like. 
  • If you haven’t defined the bar, you cannot raise it. Ask yourself where you need to be prescriptive and where you can be flexible.
  • You can employ a federal-way of looking at things. How you think of the number of years of experience and pedigree can probably be the same across the board. But, keep in mind that there will be some differences between two different functions at the state or regional levels or between different countries. Be smart about what can be uniform across the company and where you can be flexible to include localization aspects.
  • If you're interested in a quality control mechanism, be really clear about what problem you're solving and be aware that a lot of these mechanisms create problems. They create problems because they can feel very disempowering to a hiring manager who thinks she is held accountable for delivering results but doesn’t get to decide whom to hire.
  • Find a friendly leader, someone who's maybe in pain, someone who says - “You know, I'm concerned my bar isn't high enough, I'm concerned we're not making quality decisions, we have false positives, we have false negatives”. Find a leader like that to start. 
  • Don’t roll out something globally.
  • Put in a quality control mechanism to find out if you’re actually making quality hires and if some of it ties back to defining What Good Looks Like.