The Art of the Intake Call in Recruiting

David Barlaam Candidate Pool, Hiring Bias, Hiring Managers, Interviewing, Recruiting

If 2020 has taught us anything at all, it’s that we live in a very unpredictable world, and surprises await us at nearly every turn. How good is someone at what they do, and more importantly, how well will they do it once they join our organization? Can we hire people who have never done our desired work and expect them to be successful? What interview techniques and assessments should we use? Do competencies really work? (I’ve got a lot to say on that, so look for a future post if that’s interesting to you!) How are we to know if we’re hiring the “right” person, and what’s the magic bullet?

Looking across the variety of tools and methods to discern fit and predict new hire success employed by organizations I’ve been a part of, not surprisingly, some work, some don’t.  In several instances, studies indicate that we’re no better off at predicting success than if we simply flipped a coin for each hire, and that there appears to be no correlation between our methods, interviews, and simple random chance. This isn’t to say that the tools don’t work – they often do, but there’s a caveat.

How much time is spent really getting to know what we’re actually looking for? What does your recruiting “intake form” look like? How much depth is explored, or is the conversation between recruiter and hiring manager simply superficial? It is crucial to get this step correct

Many recruiters can tell you who will be chosen by the hiring manager before even submitting a slate of candidates, and many times it’s based on shared experiences (places worked, jobs accomplished, number of promotions), common values (types of degrees, schools chosen, groups and activities invested or volunteered in). In some of these cases, the hire would seem to fly in the face of the established and agreed upon hiring requirements, criteria and qualifications, and sometimes they do. What these recruiters excel at is separating the wheat from the chaff, identifying the “true” hiring requirements among a slew of nonsense.

I remember very clearly, early in my executive search days, I had a particularly difficult hiring manager, an HR leader to be exact, who was dead set on a very specific set of experiences, companies, and personality type. To top this off, these qualities needed to be embodied in someone who was willing to accept a somewhat uninspiring sum of money compared to what this individual would likely garner on the open market. Important to note is that this HR leader had earned their MILR from Cornell University.

Again, still being new to full spectrum executive recruiting, coming up through the Engineering and Information Technology recruiting ranks, I had no idea how a Cornell MILR was looked upon in the HR community and figured the Ivy status was the key. I decided that I would refocus my search exclusively on HR experienced up and comers who had Ivy League degrees.

After considerable searching and interviewing for “fit” and cultural match, I wound up recruiting a Harvard MBA who, although not HR degreed, had built their career in HR. That said, they did not match many of the past company and experiential requirements of the job. That candidate was promptly hired; the requirements, compensation parameters, and other concerns were seemingly thrown out the window. The candidate was enormously successful, even after the hiring manager left the organization, and progressed through the ranks for more than a decade.

What this taught me, is that you have to really understand what you’re looking for, and what enables someone to be successful, before you dedicate your resources into testing how people stack up to your expectations. What mattered to the hiring manager was the candidate’s professional ability, not their experiential pedigree. However, their scholastic pedigree was still valued highly, even though it was not an original requirement. We could have done many personality tests, fit assessments, color matching, and video analysis and still not accomplished our desired goal.

Getting back to our intake discussion, are the lists of requirements that we use accurate, or are they simply security blankets to point back to when the new employee doesn’t work out exactly as planned? A sales team within one of the Big 4 consulting firms that I’ve worked for used to have a mantra, “Nobody ever got fired for hiring (BIG 4 NAME)” – this was pre-Enron of course, and may not still be in use. How many similar crutches exist in your world? Is it hiring people from certain companies, schools, backgrounds, or experiences?

The very best question that I’ve included on all scoping / intake calls when working on a new job is: What likely separates the hired candidate from the almost, but not hired candidates? This is a difficult question even for me to answer when I’m hiring, but gets to the heart of the matter – we should look for the people who meet our needs, not simply what we’ve “always looked for”.

Ultimately, no matter which evaluation tool or method you choose, and there are a great number of good choices out there which I hope we explore in future posts, the most important part is making sure that you have remarkably clean definitions of what you’re looking FOR, and weeding out what you looked for historically, but isn’t relevant in today’s market… or maybe never really had any impact on the success of your employees to begin with.