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Hiring: It’s not a funnel

October 29, 20225 min read

Hiring: It’s not a funnel

There’s a recurring conversation around hiring that goes something like:
“We need to hire X number of people in the next quarter, to stay on target.”
“What do we need to do to get more people into the funnel.”

It’s at this point that things go wrong. We start by wanting to be sure we hire the right people, but when they turn out to be elusive, we decide to cast a wider net, to ensure we don’t let any of the good people go.

We then approach the interviewing process as if it’s a gauntlet, where only the strong (read: qualified) survive. This creates 2 problems: 1. It’s adversarial in nature, so there’s a conflict between the company and interviewees, and 2. It assumes that winnowing people down as they go through the process is both a good and necessary step. And not insignificant winnowing, either. Some companies do 10–20 phone screens (each of which can last 30–60 minutes) before finding someone they want to meet in person, and then interview 3–5 people in person, as well. Depending on how intensive the in-person process is, that could easily be a week lost for hiring for a single position, not to mention time spent screening CVs in advance.

Hiring, like anything else, is best approached with clear thought, in advance. In an ideal world, we could CV screen, phone interview, and in-person interview one person, they would be perfect for the role, and we would hire them. 1:1 is the ideal amount of work necessary to find somebody. Anything we add on top of that is waste — sometimes unavoidable waste, but waste nonetheless. Any time I see waste, I ask myself whether there’s a way to reduce it.

The first way is to change the metaphor — don’t look at hiring as a funnel, look at it as a pipe with a filter at the front. If all goes well, everything in the pipe gets through, and the filter stops the wrong things from getting into the pipe. So, what’s the filter?

The ideal filter is self-selection. Anybody who isn’t a good fit for the job, should opt-out before applying. That saves both of us time. How do I do that? It starts with who gets an interview. The ideal people to find new people to work with you are people who already work with you. But lets say you’ve been down that road, and want to branch out. Maybe you’ve exhausted your network, maybe your network isn’t giving you the diversity you need to build the best products. For whatever reason, you want to hire strangers. That’s where job adverts come in.

(Just a quick aside that hiring is the #1 most important thing any company does, so take the time to do it well.)

I use job ads as a filter. Most people do, but I like to do more with my ads than most people seem to think is possible. A job ad that only lists skills and experience, and maybe a blurb about the company, but is otherwise reasonably soullesss, won’t turn that many people away. Skills and experience are less valuable to me than mindset, curiosity, honesty, openness, and some other things. The advert should make those things obvious, if not explicit, so people who struggle with whatever my company values, don’t bother applying. A friend of mine once charactarised job ads as an invitation to a conversation (thanks Urmy). I have yet to find a better characterisation.

When somebody reads a job ad, I want them to either be excited or repulsed. The companies I work for (the companies any of us work for, hopefully), aren’t a good fit for everybody. The longer I work, the more I think there’s a suitability bell curve for every company, where 60–80% of people will adapt to fit in, 10–20% will take to it like a duck to water, and 10–20% will have an allergic reaction and never be a good fit. I don’t want the last group to apply. So, how do I do it?

Every role in every company should fit the people that apply. The values of the company, the mission, the goals, the management, the environment, etc should come across clearly. So the advert should:

  1. Ask questions that help the potential candidate answer, for themselves, whether they’re interested.

  2. Frame what you’re looking for in a way that allows people to either nod along, or walk away. Some possible examples are, “We’re looking for people who know there are better ways of working, and want to help other people discover them,” or “We’re looking for people who speak with, and deliver, what customers need, rather than what a project dictates,” or “We want people who can juggle many things at a time, because we value parallel progress over singular focus.”

  3. Talk about where you are now, but also where you want to go. I’ve never worked for a perfect company. Every organisation I’ve been part of is on some sort of journey. Be open about it. Some people want to work in waterfall companies. Some want to work in agile companies. Some want to help one become the other. Wherever you are in whatever your journey, talk about it.

Ultimately, your job ad is your last chance to let people who wouldn’t do well at your company walk away before using both your time and theirs. Make that advert do as much of the work as possible for you. There will always be people who will apply for your job without engaging with whatever you intend. There’s no escaping that. But the closer you can get to a 1:1 ratio, the more time both you and your candidates can spend on other things.

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