One of the few things I wish I had when I first started out managing teams was a veteran leader who would have given me advice on all the bad and good hires they made over the years.  I received tips from other managers at the time, read the “how-to-interview” books, and dug through my personal experiences trying to remember what questions I was asked during some of my interviews.  Over the course of my career I’ve made some good hiring decisions and some questionable ones.  I sat down the other day to reflect on some of those hiring decisions to try and pin point those critical qualities that ended up in a great hire.  Over and over again it came down to problem solving ability and communication effectiveness.

Here’s the conundrum.  How do you evaluate these two critical qualities over a 1-hr, 2-hr, or even a multi-day interview process?   What complicates matters is when you bring in several different people who end up asking the same questions over and over again:

“So tell me a little bit about yourself?”

“What’s your biggest weakness?”

“Can you tell me what CPC and Quality Score is?”

“How many years of experience do you have with Google Analytics?”

There is nothing worse to turn off that really good candidate you were looking for, by asking these types of questions over and over again.  This approach does not address those two critical qualities of problem solving and communication.  Hire the wrong person and it will cost you dearly as they will drag the rest of your team down.  While you spend hours and days performance managing the bad hire, the top performers on your team who deserve your time wonder where you are.


This got me thinking about football, and how some teams seem to have a knack for hiring good players to put them in contention year after year (ex. New England Patriots).  Can a football team make bad hires (draft choices/trades)?  Of course, but they can also substitute a quarterback or bench a player in the middle of the game when things aren’t working out.  This is something you can’t do very easily in a corporate setting.  So how do football teams make the best choice?  They watch prospects play the game.   Asking bad interview questions or letting your prejudices creep in when you see the Ivy League degree on a resume doesn’t allow you to see the candidate play the game.  More importantly it doesn’t allow you to see them play the game on your turf.

Hire like a football scout.

Every year scouts attend the NFL Scouting Combine where they can evaluate prospects on basic measures such as how fast they can run 40 yards and how they fare on the Wonderlic test.  These tests allow teams to evaluate players across a broad set of standards. However these aren’t the only attributes informing a team’s hiring decision.  The scouts do a lot of work beforehand attending games and spending hours watching tape to see how prospects play in game situations.  In doing so they can evaluate the players ability to problem solve (how they read the opposing defense and make adjustments) and how they communicate (are the players moving to the right spots before the snap, and is the player working with their team mates on the sidelines after a failed play to make corrections).

Boiling that entire process down into something that can be achieved by issuing a case study or problem to work on in advance of the interview.

Why issue an case study or work assignment?

There are several reasons to have a job candidate work on a case study:

  • It allows you to see how they are with time management balanced against their other commitments.  There is a hard deadline, the job interview date.  Will they hit it?
  • You weed out the candidates who are just surfing for the next gig.  What you’re left with are candidates who really want the job and willing to do that extra bit of research about your company.
  • In business there are hardly any black/white answers.  Most of the time you are working in grey areas where there are multiple solutions to a single problem.  Are they going to dig and leverage all of their available resources to solve a problem?  The case study level sets everything and allows you to see how they apply their experience to your business domain.
  • Structure the case study right and inform the candidate they need to present their solution to your team on interview day.  By doing so, you get a clear line of sight in to their communication abilities.  Can they break down a complex problem, and clearly articulate the solution?  Better yet, did they probe for more clarifying questions to firm up some of their assumptions?

Getting specific with a case study:

If you’re looking to hire a sales person, have the candidate develop a sales plan for your product or service.  This is better than asking them questions about their prior sales experience.

Hiring a developer for your mobile team?  Have them deliver a mobile version of your product page.

I’m going dive a bit deeper into an example for Search Marketing, whereby the main goal is to drive customers to your website from search engines to do something, whether that is to buy something, submit contact information, subscribe to an email list, or some other call to action.

Take a snapshot of data from your Google Adwords account and manually manipulate the data to insert anomalies in the data and develop a series of related questions:

  • What parts of our campaign are working?  What isn’t?
  • Develop an action plan to address the problem areas of the account.
  • Would you change any of the landing pages?  If so, what would you change and how would you validate success?
  • If your media budget was increased by 25%, how would you allocate your investments?

These 4 questions alone will address the candidate’s ability to use Excel to identify anomalies, solve problems, think creatively, prioritize, and make decisions.  Send this in advance of the interview and you get a sense of their time management skills.  On the day of the interview you have an opportunity to assess of their ability to communicate.

If this approach looks familiar, credit goes to Joel Splosky of FogCreek Software, and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals.  I’ve used these techniques to hire developers in the past and have had success adapting the approach for marketing roles.

At the end of the day, find a way to watch the player play the game before you make that next hiring decision.