Co.Design

Looking For Talent? Here Are Three Steps To Making The Right Hire

Eric Ryan, the cofounder of cleaning-product company Method, discusses his tried-and-true screening process.

The surest way to thwart a fast-growing company is to let the wrong employees on the bus, as Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, would say.

During Method's explosive growth years, we would hear things like "I just need a warm body to fill the seat" — code for 'We are about to compromise the talent level.' No matter how you may rationalize it at the time, simply finding a warm body to fill the seat is never okay. We often talk about "kicking ass at fast," but when it comes to hiring, we like to take things slow, by adding a number of speed bumps to the process that give us a chance to assess the applicant on a number of levels.

Prospective employees may get all the way to the end of the process, but if no one stands out, we'll start the selection process all over again with a new group. At Method, we think of an interview as an audition, to borrow from other fields such as the performing arts or sports that are purely talent based. For us, this takes place in three stages: cross-functional interviewing, the homework assignment, and on-boarding, where we place candidates with the people they'll actually work with.

We add a number of speed bumps to the hiring process.

Cross-Functional Interviewing

Our interview process employs a team of interviewers from around the company, so an applicant for a communications position might wind up discussing the job with an accountant, an industrial designer, a greenskeeper, and a publicist. The message: You're joining an entire company, not just one department. One of the primary benefits of our interview process is that it allows the hire and the team to really get a sense of the chemistry, and we regularly ask ourselves, "Is this a person that I?m excited to sit next to on a five-hour coast-to-coast plane ride?"

Homework

When we have a few candidates whom we love, we invite them back for our homework assignment, which is, in essence, a live audition. It's an integral part of our hiring process, and the first test is just watching their reaction. If they push back or aren't genuinely excited to give it a try, it's a major red flag. We once cut out of the running a CEO candidate who had previously led a billion-dollar consumer brand because this person questioned the validity of doing homework. Yup, we're that serious about homework. There's three basic reasons:

Cash money. In some cases, homework assignments have saved us money because we were able to see that a less experienced, less expensive candidate actually had more talent. We always hire for talent over experience, and the homework assignment is the best way to distinguish between the two.

Due diligence. You can customize homework to a candidate's perceived or rumored weaknesses, allowing you to dig into any problem areas hinted at by interviews or reference checks.

Scare the window shoppers. Let's face it, a lot of people browse new jobs just to see if they can make more money. We keep them from wasting our time. You want an offer? You better be ready to work for it! In the end, this saves us a lot of time.

Every homework assignment consists of three questions: one strategic question, one tactical question — both customized to the applicant's experience — and then our favorite question: "How would you keep Method weird?" While it may sound like little more than a fun stunt, the homework assignment is actually a make-or-break rite of passage. It's a form of prototyping to see how candidates think and approach their work. It's a peek into their work ethic and a chemistry test for our culture.

Method-Thing

Our process has three stages: cross-functional interviewing, homework, and on-boarding.

It raises the bar for everyone. If you're the hiring manager, and your candidate bombs in front of an audience, ultimately, it makes you look bad. So everyone works harder at recruiting and screening top talent. The result is that it's harder for people to hire candidates weaker than themselves; because the process is so transparent, nothing slips by. Bad talent can't hide in the homework. Sometimes the worst employees are the best interviewees. With homework, you can get a better sense of how talented the candidates really are, allowing you to see how they think and problem-solve right in front of you.

Silo busting

Our unusual hiring process ensures that we hire unusual, dynamic people who are at ease outside their traditional comfort zone. These traits have become a pivotal part of what keeps us fresh. After all, once we find our unicorn, we change things regularly, looking for opportunities to move people around the company to broaden their experience. For example, a director may lead the laundry branch of the brand one year and transfer to personal care the next. The process forces employees to think creatively, spreading new strategies and lessons beyond traditional company silos.

I encourage you to try some of these suggestions from us, modify, make it your own, and then share, so we can learn from you. Once you try it, I am confident you will feel like you were just flying blind before adding the live audition to your recruiting approach.

[Top image via El Bibliomata]

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11 Comments

  • eric ryan

    Thanks for the feedback on our approach of using a homework assignment as a tool for hiring. A core cultural value at method is “care” which we take seriously in every part of our business, from caring for the environment to caring for our advocates and internal team members. We make sure this value is also well represented in our hiring process. The feedback that we regularly receive is that the homework assignment is equally valuable to the candidate. It allows them to test us out and get an intimate sense of who we are and what we would be like to work with. We often hear candidates say that even if they don’t get the job, they’re going to share this approach because they found it both useful and rewarding. The homework assignment is also our way of getting to know a candidate on a personal level because we care about who they are as an individual. At the end of the day, it’s not for everyone and that’s exactly the point. We don’t want to hire just anybody, but instead find those rare individuals who are passionate about their work, share the mission of People Against Dirty and represent our values.
     

  • Richard Anderson

    You cut a candidate out of the running because they questioned the validity of doing homework? Lots of people who make great employees question the validity of doing homework. Eliminating everyone who doesn't think like you regarding such an issue seems to run counter to your desire to avoid the "world of corporate sameness," no? Besides, perhaps one's view of the validity of your homework might later change, even during the homework, if that is, for some reason, critical to working at method.

    Though I see nothing particularly novel about your hiring process, you said very little about your "on-boarding" stage. I wish you had said more.

  • Bonnie Aumann

    Really nice article. I've found that implementing cross-functional interviews is difficult in a company with really separate departments and no centralized cross-functioning leadership. Given that the hires are interviewed and then placed across departmental lines, who coordinates hiring/makes the final decision in your process? Do you match candidates to open positions or must they be good for several?

  • Mark Miller

    Really enjoyed this article Eric.  I thought it was interesting how you took a few of the guiding principles of smart recruiting and made them your own.  I also thought the combination of informal and formal approaches (couldn't bring myself to say 'methods') was good real-world look into the way companies can hire.  
    Essentially, you took what we would echo as a best practice for hiring (knowing the job inside-and-out from an internal perspective via job analysis) and brought that into a cross-functional purpose which I would agree brings the strongest possibilities for uncovering what will define success on the job.  Then, via the homework, you truly got at both experience and mental horsepower.  Finally, you guys uncovered motivational/cognitive/personality drivers via the "would I want to sit next to this person on a plane flight" criteria.

    We go about it a bit more rigidly via a pre-hire assessment as well, but you've got to hit at what works in your culture.

    Interesting stuff...

    Thanks,Mark Miller

  • Dean Adams

    I used a very similar process to hire experts using the Internet. I wanted to look at new recruiting methods and find the most capable talent. I have found over many years that resumes only reflect a part of the story. Our process began with an email invitation to participate in three scenarios relevant to the position. A technical skills scenario, an interpersonal relationship scenario and business strategy scenario. We team scored the results, had a phone interview with the top scorers and invited the best to a half day interview. The first step was a short speech on the topic of the interviewee's choice  followed by a 90 min. structured interview.

    The process produced 100% successful recruits, can be replicated and is scalable. The downside it the time and energy. Takes up to two months (which actually may be short) and requires manager time to review the resumes. The process was not delegated to HR.

    The results were outstanding. We found capable people and drew from a much larger pool that just the top tier school graduates. We were hiring from bachelor degree to PhD level people. As Eric said, in addition to finding the best talent, we had built in support to make sure the new hires were successful too.

  • Jamey Boiter

    interesting piece ryan. thanks! i like your approaches. we have similar cross-discipline requirements in our design firm, and we need our designers to understand strategy, the triple constraints of project management, selling value, extraordinary customer service, and yes, how we are supposed to make money. [it's not a hobby] so we often open up our interviewers set, as the candidate gets closer. we look for things they enjoy, outside of their profession as well, as an indicator of their personality and how they might fit into the team. and typically, we'll either start them as a paid freelancer or give them a small project to show us how their thinking  goes beyond just the talent that is displayed in their book.

  • Odin Cathcart

    As someone who in the past has been put through the hiring process ringer, this smacks of the arrogance of a company that values "talent" over "experience". This process sounds great when profits are soaring and the company is growing, but what happens when you hit the gap? 

    There's no replacing one on one interactions between potential candidates and their prospective direct co-workers and managers, but sticking people with departments that no little or nothing about what you do is a time waster. Departmental integration happens organically, not in a pretend scenario at an interview.

    Asking people to "perform" simply because you have the benefit of a lousy job market is insulting and in my opinion a bad way to start off a work relationship.

    I'd be interested to hear about your rate of retention? Do you have an actual system for mapping Method's growth against this hiring process? 

    Building powerful teams is incredibly important for young companies and startups. However, starting off the working relationship from a one-sided "what can you do for us" mentality will likely cause you difficulties down the road.

  • Greg Aper

    Eric

    These are some interesting ideas.  

    How long does your process generally take?  Varies, maybe?  

    Recently, I've seen a lot of companies losing out on the A-level talent they want because they move too slowly, or their communication with the candidate is poor.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Larry McKeogh

    I love the approach and strongly agree with many of your points.  In search of my next position, I have become an interview connoisseur (if there could be such a thing).  Your homework example is very similar to an excellent interview I was on a few months ago and wrote about at

    I like your point about the transparency element.  I could be reading too much into this but it never occurred to me that the 1:1 interviews with a hiring manager might be an indication of their own insecurity.  I have seen it far too often.  Each time I question the interviewer after I leave as well.

  • Ruth Ledesma

    So do you compensate the applicants for their homework?  Or do you just profit from it, without regard for the source?  This can be a ginormous source of abuse for applicants.

    And here's a freebie for you:  Keep your company weird by asking "What if..."