One of the most important workplace leadership decisions we make is who we hire. If you have ever replaced an employee that was wrong for the role with an employee who was right for the role, or replaced someone with a bad attitude with the opposite, then you know what a huge difference this makes on results and on morale. With the right people, things seem effortless; with the wrong people, things seem impossible.
It all starts with hiring the right people for the job.
To match the right person to the role, we need to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate then assess them against the needs of the position.
Just asking someone in an interview what their strengths and weaknesses are, however, does not work very well. People tend to bend the answers on the strengths side to what they think the job requires, and they tend to be generic and self-serving on the weaknesses. “My biggest weakness is that I try too hard” is one of the standard replies. This has zero value in helping you make a hiring decision. Of course, candidates with high emotional intelligence and self-awareness may give us the whole goods when asked what their strengths and weaknesses are, but this is rare. There is a better way to figure this out that gets better information.
This is a method I first came across in the book Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. It is a method that has served us well for many years. There is more to the whole process than I can describe here, but I can explain the valuable heart of it.
Instead of directly asking a candidate what their strengths and weaknesses are, take them back to various times in their life and ask them what their bosses, instructors, or co-workers would have said about them. Further, for each thing they say, ask for examples.
For each past work experience, try questions like these:
“At the book shop, who was your direct supervisor? How would they rate your performance from 1 to 10? Why? What would they say your strengths were? Your weaknesses?”
We listen carefully to each answer and probe for examples. “You said being impatient with people who don’t share your standards is a weakness. Can you give me an example of that?” I use this example because I remember a time when the answer to this question highlighted a candidate’s pretty serious character issues that I had not yet sensed.
We always want the direct supervisor to be the one we ask about. This forces the person to think about how they were perceived in real life by someone with authority over them and away from wishful thinking. It works. If they have no work history or they had no real boss, then we can refer to instructors or co-workers.
The more important the role for which they are applying, the more past jobs and experiences we go through. We also fight the urge to give the person the answer we want. “This job requires you to update procedures in detail. Are you good at detail work?” is not such a good question. Many people might say yes to this, but if interviewed the recommended way, they might help us understand that they are a strong in-the-moment problem-solver and a good writer, but routine repetitive work is very hard for them to get excited about. They are not the right person for the role in this case, and we would not have figured this out if we had led them to the right answers. It’s a common mistake.
We will never find a candidate who checks off all of the boxes we want, so that shouldn’t be our goal. Our goal is to develop a good understanding of each candidate and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and then choose the candidate most likely to succeed in the role.