Over the course of my time at Amazon, I interviewed over 1200 people. While I have several outstanding successes, I also have a few miserable failures: recruiting errors.
I am firmly convinced that building strong teams and effective hiring are levers to business growth. While your top performers increase your sales and improve your culture, bad hires drag down the morale of the team, reduce your team’s trust in you, and cost time and money to fix or fire.
With the stakes so high, how do you take hiring from a dice roll to an educated bet?
Hire for the team first
Interviewing and hiring can sometimes feel like a roll of the dice. Especially if you don’t hire very often, you don’t have the opportunity to practice reading people or asking good questions.
Before you start interviewing, ask yourself how well you know your current team. Many managers hire for a job (Can person X do these tasks?), but I prefer to hire for the team.
In other words… What are the current strengths, weaknesses, and goals of the current team? What kind of work do they do well? How do they communicate? Make decisions? What gaps exist?
Now, when I interview, I’m prepared to understand what the person I’m interviewing adds or how they complement the team. I can assess if they will fit well or cause negative conflict.
Meet the person, decide later
Go into each interview looking to understand the person, not whether they can do the job.
I view interviews as 45-60 minutes to gather evidence for a future decision of whether I should give this person thousands of dollars and depend on them for the growth of my business. The interview is the time for me to gather evidence and learn about the person, not decide whether to hire. The hiring decision comes later.
During the interview, I look for evidence of which tasks this person excels at, in what domain of knowledge and skills they are best, what conditions they perform well in, how self-aware they are, and how well they learn. Skills and behaviors are the best indicators of future performance, not previous successes and failures.
(Note that at this point I’m still not measuring their match to my current posted job; I’m just learning what this person is great at.)
Now, assess whether this person can help the company. Maybe the person can’t do the job you thought you were hiring for, but maybe you discover they are great at something else, something you didn’t even know your business needed. Is this person an asset to the team?
Someone still has to do the tasks you were hiring for though, right?
Remember, we were hiring for the team, not a job. Can you redistribute the tasks from the job across the team and eliminate a few low value tasks from everyone on the team?
Build a reliable interview method
As you collect your evidence, have a process.
First, be deliberate about whom you choose to interview. For example, at Amazon, I observed that people who had the greatest success had previously worked in multiple roles or varying types of companies and at different organization sizes (startup to global enterprise). They demonstrated success in multiple and different arenas. This shows likely ability for learning and understanding of first principles.
Next, do the work up front so you don’t waste anyone’s time. I liked to phone interview candidates who had these kinds of backgrounds to assess if it was worth the time of 4-6 people to spend a day talking with the candidate.
In my in-person interviews, I typically preferred to go deep vs. broad. I also recommend forcing the definition of terms. Just because we’re both speaking English, doesn’t mean we have the same understanding of a term. What does “big data” mean, anyway? Is that a large spreadsheet with 1MM rows or traffic data from Amazon home page on Prime day?
Structure your time to get the most out of the candidate. My teams invented the future and needed to build new methods of work. As such, they need to demonstrate not just what they’ve done before but also what they have the ability to do in the future, including building entirely new applications.
I followed a questioning pattern that took a person from known concept to a foundational principle to an unknown scenario. I would ask questions like the these:
Can you tell me about one of the examples from your resume or career where you identified a new opportunity to serve customers better and delivered on it?
What were the key learnings of this example, and what would you do differently?
We are facing a situation where our customer base is changing from X to Y. How would you think about opportunities we should consider?
Strategically select your interviewers
While you may be in the position to make the hiring decision yourself, take advantage of getting multiple points of view. For one, we all have blind spots. But more importantly, you can use this as an opportunity to get buy in from the team or internal partners with whom this person will be working.
Managers can also be tempted to hire “close enough” because they need someone now. Having another leader without that pressure adds objectivity and can help you determine if this is a good hire for the long term.
After all the interviews are concluded, gather the interviewers and review all the evidence. Have the group consider the risks and benefits of the hire. While you may wish to seek their vote on the person for the role, you should reserve the final decision to a limited set of people (perhaps the hiring manager and another company leader in a different group).
These directives will help you build your team with each hire. Improve your culture, the overall collection and quality of the skills on your team, and reduce your risk of bad hire.
Stefan Haney is a business and technology leader with over two decades of experience in e-commerce, software development, and supply chain. As a 15-year veteran of Amazon, with over 9 years at Accenture and internet startups, his experience includes building product, data, and engineering teams worldwide to drive innovation and business growth. Stefan is named in multiple patents for algorithms and processes built at Amazon.com after he joined in 2003. During his time at Amazon, his contributions scaled supply chain purchasing automation, drove massive growth of the Amazon Seller Marketplace business, and led the personalization of product display and purchase features in the Customer shopping experience worldwide. Stefan advises Sash and serves on the board of directors.