Some people have a gift for hiring talented, motivated candidates. They know what assets to look for and consistently find people who have them. And as a new or aspiring team leader, you might wonder: “Is there a formula I can use to find the ideal candidate?”
Hiring is part art, part science. It requires an ability to read people on paper and in person, and a clear understanding of what skills, experience, and qualities will position candidates to be successful. While you can develop this skill and hone your acuity through trial and error, at least some degree of intuition is essential.
Your best bet is to follow a clear process in order to zero in on top candidates. These steps will lead you in the right direction, and with practice, help you to develop and test your instincts.
Your step-by-step evaluation process
Stage 1: Pre-screening
- Decide on pre-screening criteria. Start by developing minimum threshold criteria for pre-screening applications. At this stage, limit your list to standards you can assess at a glance, such as cover letter syntax, resume design, core skills, and minimum relevant professional experience. Be sure to calibrate your assessment to fit the position. For instance, when recruiting graphic designers, data analysts, and other technical staff, you can judge cover letters (and more specifically, an applicant’s writing skills) by a different standard than you would for grant writers or content marketing professionals.
- Do a quick, impressions-level review of applications. As you sort through applications, tag each as a front-runner, mid-range, or below-threshold candidate. With pre-screening criteria in hand, you should be able to spot front-runner and below-threshold candidates. If you’re hung up on an application for a minute or two, move that person into the mid-range category. Consider your first review to be a rapid-fire exercise. In other words, don’t overthink it.
Stage 2: Re-screening
- Create a shortlist. After pre-screening, it’s time to build a shortlist by really studying your front-runner and mid-range candidates. To develop more detailed criteria, ask yourself: What does success look like for this position? What should a new hire be able to do independently? What skills are in demand and underrepresented on the team? Then, work backward to imagine a timeline of education and experience that would shape your ideal candidate.
- Ask shortlisted candidates to complete a pre-interview exam. This is the moment to test how candidates analyze information, express themselves, and tackle their work. Prepare and send candidates a two-part test tailored to the position. Start with free-form questions inquiring about their interest in the position and organization. Then, in part two, engage candidates in an exercise that tests essential skills. For instance, ask prospective project managers to develop a project scope of work, budget, and timeline, and ask graphic designers to design an event invitation.
Stage 3: Interviewing
- Make the interview an open conversation. For any interview, you’ll need to develop a set of questions, which combine open-ended, scale-based, and scenario-based formats. Also bear in mind that to build a cohesive team, you’ll need to test chemistry, as well as competence. You can do this by creating a light, open interview atmosphere that feels like a less-formal conversation. To set the tone, start with an overview of yourself and your vision for the team and position. Next, probe into statements that spark new ideas or that align with your vision. Finally, prompt candidates to put you in the hot seat. If you walk away feeling that the conversation was part interview, part brainstorm, odds are, this person is a good fit for your team.
- Get a second opinion. Never interview alone. It’s important to have another member of your team in the room to ask questions, engage candidates, relay their impressions, and co-decide who to hire. Select someone from your team who will work directly with the new hire. This will give you deeper insight into possible team dynamics.
Stage 4: Final decision
- Re-interview to test open questions. What happens if you’re on the fence about shortlisted candidates? Identify exactly what concerns you and test those points directly. For instance, maybe your candidates performed well on the exam, but you wonder how ready they are to take initiative and think strategically. Plan for a second round of interviews, designed in an oral exam format. Send instructions in advance, asking candidates to present how they’d solve a common, position-specific challenge.
- Check your gut. At the end of the process, if something still doesn’t feel right, trust your instinct. No candidate will check every single box or answer all interview questions perfectly—but if you feel that something is missing, it probably is. Having reservations about a candidate is different from identifying skills that person should develop over time. If your gut tells you not to hire, don’t. It’s okay to not select anyone from the pool and go back to the drawing board. If it feels right, go ahead and make an offer.
A useful time to pick up hiring tips is when you’re a candidate. Share something that left an impression on you.