How to hire a rock star Featured

8:01pm EDT March 31, 2011
Amanda Lannert, president, The Jellyvision Lab Inc. Amanda Lannert, president, The Jellyvision Lab Inc.

Rumor has it that an economic recovery is underway. Maybe your employees haven’t ditched their chairs to sit on piles of cash (yet), but it’s at least evident from the slight uptick in the job market. If you’re fortunate enough to be adding to your teams this year, you’re probably doing so with great caution so getting the very best people matters more than ever.

Surely we all understand the costs — in lost productivity, morale and coffee — of making a disastrous hire. And most likely, your hiring skills are honed such that you can weed out these obvious stinkers during the initial interviews, if not before. The trick, though, is finding the truly great in a sea of good enough — finding a candidate who’s an indispensable game changer and not just another competent game player.

In my experience, it’s not dumb luck, but rather a combination of a rigorous process, an investment of effort and creativity, and a willingness to trust your gut (but only if it has largely served you well in the past. Otherwise, trust someone else who has a better one).

Here are a few proven tricks to jumpstart your talent scouting efforts:

1. Invest care and creativity in your job description.

If you’re using dry, boilerplate job descriptions, get ready to read lots of dry, boilerplate applications. Instead of viewing your job description as a classified ad, think of it as a marketing effort aimed at your ideal future employees. They’re not going to work for you, let alone apply to work for you, let alone even read your job description, if it doesn’t speak to them. Also, when you put time and effort into your postings, you’ll be pleased to see that great candidates do the same, and then it’s much easier to pick them out of the clutter.

2. Require cover letters and weigh them heavily.

Thanks to the Internet and fancy Word templates, anyone can crib together a smart-looking resume. But a compelling, thoughtful and well-written cover letter — those tend to come only from bright, interesting people. Great writing skills are an asset in any position, so it’s safe to assume that if people can’t craft an engaging page about themselves for a job they want, they’re not going to be any more engaging when, say, communicating with one of your customers. The time you spend reading all of those cover letters is time you won’t spend interviewing a bunch of duds. Candidates won’t do it, you fear? They will if they are humble, committed, caring and interested people, which are key characteristics of a true rock star employee.

 

3. Have an audition.

There’s a difference between talking about expertise and actually having any. We require our writers to pass writing tests. Our engineers have all passed coding tests. Our salespeople have prospected for their jobs. Our project managers weren’t hired until they demonstrated an ability to assemble a production schedule and impress us in some client-handling role-plays. And our marketing guy who bragged in his cover letter about making the best chili in the Midwest? Well, it’s a bit spicy for my tastes, but the point is, no one should be hired for merely talking the talk.

4. Weigh “DNA” over experience.

Greg Gretsch, a 2009 Midas Winner at Sigma Partners (and an investor in The Jellyvision Lab) says a secret to his success is picking A teams with B ideas over B teams with A ideas — because really great people can adjust to bumps in the road, whereas B players can drop a perfectly thrown spiral pass. So if someone comes in with smarts, hunger and a phenomenal work ethic, they just might be a better business bet than the perfect resume fronted by someone who lacks passion, intuition or creativity, for example, which are all characteristics that really can’t be learned.

5. Be patient.

For me, this one’s the hardest. When you’ve got financial targets and deadlines looming, it’s tempting to staff up with B teamers and bulldoze forward. But the truth is — whether you’re a small outfit or a ginormous conglomerate — a handful of rock star employees is better than a roomful of roadies — every time.

Truly great employees are rare, as you may know from all the times you wished you were working with more of them. All the more reason to be patient. Position yourself properly, make yourself visible to them, and they’ll appear. And when they do, you’ll know it.

Some inspiring job postings:

Designer: http://www.zefrank.com/jobz/

Engineer: http://blog.reddit.com/2010/08/reddit-is-hiring.html

Intern: http://lowercasellc.com/ranchhands/

Amanda Lannert is the president of The Jellyvision Lab, the interactive conversation company. Jellyvision creates virtual advisers who help clients attract customers, train employees, and reduce the costs of customer service. Lannert has served on the board of the Chicago Improv Festival, mentors local startups and often waves to people she doesn’t even know on the street, just to be encouraging. She has climbed several mountains, including Kilimanjaro and Space Mountain, birthed a gaggle of daughters and is known to award limitless slabs of grilled meats to co-workers who grow ironic mustaches for her birthday. Reach her at amanda@jellyvision.com or (312) 266-0606, ext. 116.