Steve Jobs on interviewing for “needles in the haystack”

Recruiting is hard. It’s just finding the needles in the haystack. You can’t know enough in a one-hour interview. So, in the end, it’s ultimately based on your gut. How do I feel about this person? What are they like when they’re challenged? I ask everybody that: ‘Why are you here?’ The answers themselves are not what you’re looking for. It’s the meta-data.(Steve Jobs Top Ten Quotes)

Steve Jobs is certainly onto something here (he is often on the mark!).  It is hard finding  “needles in the haystack,” otherwise known as an “A” players, “top talent” or simply stated, the right people for the right jobs at the right time.  And because it is hard, without the discipline to identify and hire top talent, some will settle for ‘best available.”  In recent years, many organizations grew faster than could be supported by the talent on hand.  We are now seeing the results in many failed or severely weakened organizations.

“You can’t know enough in a one hour interview.”  Amen and amen.  We can conduct an initial screening interview in one hour.  We can likely assess a particular technical skill or knowledge area in an hour.  But can we really get to learn about mutual fit?  No.  But many keep trying.  Surely, experienced managers can size someone up in an hour, especially if 4, 5, 6 or more other people in the organization, give us a “thumbs-up” or “I like so and so.”  Not consistently.  Yet, many are committed to the “one hour interview” and fill in whatever information gaps exist with their “gut feel.”

Steve asks a few insightful questions and looks to extrapolate the candidate’s response into his framework of related data (his meta-data) in order to make a decision.  He is on the right track, but something is missing.  I agree that you can’t fully establish mutual fit in an hour interview and that you need to acknowledge your “gut” or intuition as part of making your hiring decision.  For example, your gut may prompt you to ask specific questions to probe those areas important to understanding fit.  But there is more.

An executive or manager does not typically make a capital investment decision based principally on her gut but, rather after she has collected the data, established key patterns of plusses and minuses, and weighed the risks and benefits relative to alignment with the firm’s goals.  Hiring top talent is or should be a similar process:  interview to collect data, establish patterns of behavior over an extended period of time (career, education, etc.), identify key strengths and shortcomings and weigh against job and candidate specifications, including alignment with firm values and objectives.

To do this conduct at least one interview that allows sufficient time to capture enough data that enables the interviewer to more firmly establish the patterns of past behavior that are most likely to predict future behavior.  Such an interview will likely take several hours, depending on the length of a candidate’s career and the level and complexity of the job.  When we take the time in an interview to thoroughly learn about a candidate, we systematically develop data about data or, as Steve Job’s put it, meta-data.  Only then are we in a position to identify “needles in a haystack.”