Monday is the day we set aside for new hires. All the new hires spend the morning learning about the company, figuring out how to create accounts, and becoming indoctrinated in company culture. When lunch time arrives, managers pick up their new employees and take them to lunch.
Their morning starts at 9am, and at 9:15 I got a call from HR: “Jesse’s not here”.
Bad traffic, miscommunication, there were a dozen good reasons he wasn’t there, but I instantly felt a rock in my stomach: “Jesse walked”.
A quick call to my recruiter and the mystery began to unfold, “Oh, yeah, he called just before 5pm on Friday and said he wanted to chat. I was off Friday, should I call him now?”
Yeah, call him. Tell me what I already know.
The recruiter discovered that Jesse was firmly ensconced in a cone of silence because his Friday call was his cold feet call. After three months of phone screens, interviews, offer negotiations, and acceptance of said offer, Jesse was calling to tell us that while he had resigned two weeks ago, a last-minute counter-offer had shown up, and he’d decided to stay… at 4:45pm on his last day.
As I sat at my desk, lightly tapping the phone headset against my forehead, I thought how simple it would be to be pissed. In terms of respect, trust, and professionalism, Jesse had screwed me in just about every manner possible, but, in this case, the fault would be mine.
I had not explained to Jesse that he was wanted.
The Requisition Situation
This article is going to talk about the beginning and the end of the hiring process. I’m going to make sure you know two things. First, that you understand how urgent it is that you hire, and second, how to make sure those you hire actually show up. There’s a huge pile of work in the middle of this process involving phone screens, interviews, and offers, but for this article, we’ll just focus on the beginning and the end.
Let’s start by understanding where this whole hiring process starts. We need to talk about requisitions.
In many companies, jobs are ruled by requisitions (“reqs”). These imaginary pieces of paper give you, the hiring manager, the permission to hire, but they serve two other purposes. First, they document and formalize the process of hiring a new full-time person, and more importantly, they give executives visibility into the state of the company’s growth.
It varies by company, but reqs, specifically open, approved reqs, is one of the more popular organizational levers the execs have to control the growth of the company. In software development, one of your larger corporate expenses is base salary, which means the moment uncertainty appears on your company’s horizon, reqs (read: potential large expenses) are one of the first things to vanish.
This leads to the most important rule regarding requisitions:
Reqs vanish randomly, often without notice, without reason, and at the least convenient time.
In larger companies, the bureaucracy involved in actually getting an approved req is impressive. When the req is finally approved by the 17th person you don’t know, you have a false sense of accomplishment. You believe this req is yours, but there is really only one way to make it yours — make the hire.
It’s not just corporate nervousness that causes reqs to vanish. Your boss, who you love, is a likely req stealing culprit. Anton’s got a guy right now who is perfect for his team and we’ve only got one req. He can hire him right now and I swear we’ll get you a req when you find someone.
You believe your boss. You trust your boss, so you give him your req and Anton’s a happy guy and you feel like you’ve done the team a solid. Except when you actually find someone, guess what, you don’t have a req. Neither does your boss because some time between when you gave your req and actually found someone for your position the first rule was invoked: every single req in the company was frozen.
I’m guessing 50% of the reqs I’ve managed to get approved in my career have resulted in a hire. Meaning, a flip of a coin would as accurately predict whether or not I’d be able to hire someone.
From the moment there’s a hint of an idea of a req in your future, you need to work on improving your chances that you’ll be able to hire. And that means, as quickly as possible, you need to: find the person, phone screen them, interview them, interview them again, negotiate an offer, get that offer accepted, and get them in the building. Think of that as you’re staring at your shiny new req. Think that the industry average for hiring against an approved req is 90 days — three months — and each of those days represents a day that someone, somewhere can steal your req. This is why you need to…
Spend an hour a day on each req you have
We’ll talk about how to make sure they’ll show up in a bit, but to start you need to get the pump primed. A former boss helpfully suggested, “Spend an hour a day on each req on your plate”.
If you’ve got an approved req, you have approval to grow your team. To add new skill sets. To build more stuff. In your role as a manager, I ask: “What’s more important than growing your team?” No, this isn’t a draconian hour; this is a daily reminder that you need to grind away at this req until you’ve hired someone.
Rands, I have no candidates yet. The req was just approved. I…
Again, reqs vanish. Randomly. At the end of each workday, you need to think, “Phew, no one stole my req.”
Here’s how to start:
- Search the web for candidates. — Show me a stranger who will be perfect.
- Mail friends who might know the perfect person. — Know anyone? How about you?
- Annoy your recruiter. — Where are my resumes?
- Ping folks who have turned you down in the past. — Are you ready now?
- Scan your inbox and sent folders for folks you need, but may have forgotten. — Really, are you ready now?
- Read your job description for additional inspiration. — Do I actually know who I’m looking for?
But isn’t this why I have a recruiter?
It’s terrific that you’ve got a recruiter. They’re going to streamline your entire hiring process, but you still need to spend an hour a day for each req. A quality recruiter is going to find candidates, do time-saving phone screens, and they can keep in-flight candidates warm. When it comes to offer negotiation, they’re great at providing you essential compensation telemetry and they’re good at playing bad cop, but as we’ll see, it’s your job to demonstrate that the candidate is wanted.
I found them! I’m done!
No, you didn’t, and no, you aren’t.
No really! He verbally accepted, he starts in two weeks. It’s a done deal.
No, it’s not. If randomly vanishing reqs are painful lesson #1 of hiring, painful lesson #2 is: people lose their flippin’ minds during job transitions.
Think back to your last job transition. Think about the mental turmoil. When did you actually fully believe that you were going to accept the new gig? For me, it’s about two months after I started.
You keep recruiting; you keep searching for the perfect employee until your new hire is sitting in their office. It’s not common for an accepted offer to be declined, but it needs to happen once for you to learn the lesson, to suddenly realize, “Oh, I need to start over. Crap.”
Until he’s sitting in the seat, in the building, badge hanging from his belt, you haven’t hired anyone.
Michele’s team was embarking on a new technology direction and while she had the basic talent in place, she needed two more hires and we had the reqs. In a recruiting brainstorm, I sketched out the type of person we needed. “Ok, we need Alex. He’s the Sr. Architect at this other company, but he’s the right combination of technical brilliance and architectural jerk. We need someone with that technical ability and the will to enforce it because we’re starting from the ground up.”
Her: “Why not hire Alex?”
Me: “He’ll never leave his start-up.”
“Have you asked?”
She did, and while it took six months, Alex, the perfect fit for the team and for the project, joined the team. Halfway through the recruiting stint with Alex, when it looked like he might not budge, I threw another perfect candidate on her plate and said, “Maybe ask him, too?” Sean was on the team a month after Alex.
Two hires I thought we had absolutely no chance of hiring. Both on the team in a matter of months. Your question is, “What’s her secret?” and the answer is dangerously simple – deliberate, consistently expressed and reinforced want.
Both of the positions we had were attractive. Senior engineering gigs working on a 1.0 product in a name brand company. But these guys were the top of the field. Recognized names. There were any number of opportunities across the Valley that would be attractive. How’d we win?
We continually and consistently explained that they were wanted.
The idea of a new gig, a fresh start, is appealing because of its simplicity. You know nothing about your future team; you have no idea about potential death marches or that guy down the hall that just bugs you for no particular reason. It’s simple to think about the future optimistically because the future hasn’t screwed you, yet.
This optimism fades in the middle of the night when you open your eyes, startled, and think, “Why in the world would I leave a solid gig with people I know and a bright future?” The reasons are myriad, but that’s not the point. The point is for any big decision, you’re going to question it from every single angle. You’re going to have endless inner dialogues with yourself. You’re going to talk yourself into the gig and then you’re going to talk yourself out of it.
Michele’s message during the entire hiring process was, “You are the best person for this gig. We want you.” Remember that we’re not talking about random, anonymous candidates; we’re talking about handpicked candidates.
Before any interview, she’d drive to them, explain the gig, and begin, “You are the best person for this gig. We want you.” After the first round of interviews, her message was the same, “See, this gig is perfect for you. We want you.”
When we started the offer negotiations, she’d worked with the recruiter and knew exactly what we’d need to do to lure the candidates. She knew that base salary was a big deal for Alex. She knew Sean was going to be a stickler about stock. There was no offer negotiation because Michele constructed offers that were going to be accepted. She presented them: “This is the offer you wanted. This gig is perfect for you. We want you.”
Once the offers were accepted, Michele didn’t change her tone or message a bit. She’d had rockstars walk before and she knew the slippery inner dialogues that were going on. She knew that change begets more change and that the easiest time to lose someone was during that post-courtship purgatory between gigs. She had her team take them to drinks. She planted seeds of future work that would need to be done. She reminded them, “We want you”.
This strategy reads like a massive ego-stroke for an attention-starved engineering rockstar, but it’s not. Whether you have pre-identified a candidate for your gig or you’re lucky enough to randomly find a great fit in a pile of anonymous resumes, the strategy is the same — you consistently remind the candidate that they are wanted. In the mental chaos that is a career change, you and your gig are unchanging in your message. You’re not coddling them; you’re a constant amongst mental chaos.
Hire for Your Career
The strategy I’m proposing steps on a lot of recruiter’s toes. Recruiters are professional relationship people and their instinctive reads on candidates can be eerily accurate, but their job is the hire and once the hire shows up, the recruiter vanishes. The relationship is ended because the job is done.
Your professional relationship with those that you hire is never over.
If you’re hiring well, you’re hiring people not just for this job, but for your career. These are the people who, for better or worse, will explain to others what it is like to work with you. They’ll explain your quirks, your weaknesses, and your strengths. When they eventually leave the group, they’re taking your reputation with them. You may never talk to them again, but they’ll continue to talk and my question is: what stories are they going to tell?
Your daily hands-on management of your hiring isn’t just going to improve your hiring process, it’s going to improve your career because you’ll demonstrate from the first moment you interact with your future employee that you care.
Jesse didn’t decide to turn us down at 4:45pm on his last day. The decision began long before that and I wasn’t listening. I didn’t hear the parts of his current job he loved because I didn’t do the phone screen. I didn’t understand his concerns about leaving the first job he loved since college because I didn’t build enough trust in the interview. I didn’t hear him drifting away during the offer negotiation. The last thing I heard about Jesse is he walked.