At colleges and business schools across the country, the new academic year is just getting under way and with it a new recruiting season for talent.
At my venture firm, Cue Ball, our day job is to be seekers of great talent with whom we can partner, invest, and grow exciting new ideas and businesses. We try to stay true to the principle of a founding figure of venture capital, George Doriot, who was fond of saying that it is always better to back an A-team with a B-plan than an A-plan with a B-team.
People always trump ideas. That's because while good people can change misguided ideas, the best ideas can't change mediocre people. It has therefore always been our philosophy to remember that the ultimate customer in venture capital is not the VC, but the entrepreneur. If you are doing your job right and attracting the best talent, then it is the entrepreneur who will be choosing you as opposed to you who is choosing the entrepreneur.
This should be the case in job interviews as well. Too often, I feel, employers forget that they want or need the candidate as much as the candidate needs them. Perhaps out of arrogance or perceived power, most interview time is spent asking questions about the candidate with only the last couple of minutes for what feels like an obligatory "do you have any questions for me about us?" You only need to survey a handful of recent job candidates or sit in on a few job interviews to observe that there is usually too little interactive dialogue, and too much one-way questioning of the interviewee: Why are your skills right for this position? Tell us more about your last job? How are you going to add value? What is your work ethic? Tell us three adjectives that would describe your attitude? What about your weaknesses? All these questions are a variant of Why should you matter to us? They all generally fit into the "skill" and "will" buckets.
Yet if you want the best talent, then almost by definition you should want talent that has choices. Your mindset therefore needs to be that of both job evaluator and talent scout. As with venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, it is the talent that is the ultimate customer, not the employer. Top talent will always have the balance of power over the employer, not the other way around. This has big implications for that typical barrage of evaluator-type questions. Start by reflecting on how often you have asked the most practical and important of all job interview questions: If you were given this opportunity, would you take it?
We neglect asking this most practical of questions because we are so focused on the "skill" and "will" categories to determine if a candidate is desirable. But a careful pre-review of a resume and the first 15 to 20 minutes of an interview is usually plenty of time to get validation of a candidate's skill set and will capabilities. Therefore, good interview design should incorporate more humility — taking on more aspects of a mutual dating session than a backroom interrogation. Ask yourself the next time you or your colleagues complete an interview if you have gained a sense of the likelihood of whether the candidate would join your firm. If you have no idea — which is the answer I have heard too often — then you have failed to take full advantage of the interview time. Understanding or at least having a sense post-interview whether the candidate — the customer — really wants this job or if he or she is just "shopping" should be a goal of any good interview and evaluation process.
I have encouraged colleagues to probe deeper during pitches from entrepreneurs or in job interviews of prospective candidates into the critical and practical question of whether or not the candidate wants us. To help do that, there are several related and similarly practical questions: Where do you want to eventually live and settle? Where else are you looking and why do we stand out in your set of choices? Are there any reasons why you would not take this job if it were offered? All of these questions are pragmatic because they focus on the probability of yield. Having a sense of the yield probability of a candidate, his or her motivations for interviewing, and the possible obstacles to accepting the job should be among the most important interview goals. They more effectively channel your time and energy with the candidate.
The next time you are interviewing a candidate, remember that she is the customer — and that the balance of power is not necessarily with you just because you are offering a job. If you don't think like that, you might waste a lot of time and be disappointed making offers that people don't accept. Or worse, you might experience adverse selection, and end up with people below the potential you could have gotten. As soon as you have the sense that you have a qualified candidate, start balancing your interview mode with sell mode. Explain why you and your firm make sense for the candidate, why you are a natural choice. Then ask the most important question — would they choose you?