Behavior Driven Hiring

While past performance does not guarantee future results in the financial markets, when hiring knowledge workers, this same heuristic does not apply.  A knowledge worker’s past performance indicates the recurring professional behaviors that enable him or her to succeed in future work. In their book, First Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman point out that these recurring professional behaviors are talents.  By asking open ended questions as well as analyzing these recurring professional behaviors in the candidates they interview, organization’s can significantly boost the effectiveness of their hiring practices.

There are three reasons for the improved effectiveness. First, with a focus on talents comes the advantages of a strengths-based hiring approach.  As Tom Rath, Author of StrengthsFinder 2.0, points out in his book, “People who do have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having and excellent quality life in general”.  The second benefit of this hiring approach is the belief that, when it comes to people, past performance may be the most accurate indicator of future performance.  Finally, the understanding of talents, emerging from the hiring process, will help guide the self-organization phase for effective team growth after the candidate comes on board.

Sabermetrics & Internships

The sports and software industry provide two fascinating examples of organizations who found a way to build winning teams by selecting the right talent. I’m talking about the Oakland Athletics of Major League Baseball and FogCreek Software founded by Joel Spolsky.

In his book MoneyBall: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis takes a fascinating look at the subjective and often flawed conventional wisdom guiding Major League Baseball’s insiders for over a century.  The book focuses on the Oakland Athletics baseball team, and the method in which its front office, headed by its General Manager Billy Beane, took advantage of more empirical gauges of player performance.  His system relied on the principles of sabermetrics in order to build a team, which in 2002, finished tied with the New York Yankees for most wins despite having one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball.

Similarly, Joel Spolsky knew exactly the kind of programming talent he needed to thrive as the small software startup, FogCreek Software, in New York City. Needing the ‘top 1%’ of programming talent was not enough however.  He needed a way to identify and recruit this talent before his competition had a chance to.  And so he devised his lavish system of internships. Through this system, he has been able to stay true to his vision of “helping the world’s best developers make better software”.

Two organizations, two completely different hiring strategies, but both first determined exactly the type of talent they needed to succeed, then found a way to hire it.

Effective Amplification

Throughout this series I will apply many of the concepts and ideas presented in Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0.  In particular the language for talent devised by strengths psychologist Don Clifton, which consists of 34 talent themes,  and the strengths equation:

Strengths = Talent * Investment

where investment is simply the time spent developing and growing skills and knowledge.  This equation is essential in the larger context of high-performance knowledge worker teams.  In such teams, selecting the right people is the first and most important factor behind a management strategy that aims at high-performance, and when coupled with the right team building approach, can propel any group towards something greater.

The Programmer Example

Consider the following example.  By now it should be common knowledge that the best programmers in the world have a superior attention to detail.  Yet this is just one of the innate talents they possess.  Rob Walling presents a broader set of traits found in great software developers, including the tendency for them to be pessimistic, angered by sloppy code, long term life planners, as well as possessing elevated attention to detail.  Mapping these traits to the talent language proposed by Don Clifton results in the following themes:

If you’re looking to hire the best programmers available, you could start by giving preference to those candidate’s whose recurring professional behaviors indicate the presence of some or all of these talent.  Let’s take another example.

The Social Media Manager Example

Consider the traits of a brilliant Social Media Manager.  In her blog post, Maria Ogneva suggests that passion, domain expertise, natural evangelism, a service DNA, personable,  thirsty for knowledge, risk tolerance, ability to fail fast, balance of perfectionism, advocate for community, strategic, business savvy, and innovative self-starter are all characteristics of a capable Social Media Manager.  Mapping these to the talent language results in the following themes:

If you’re looking to hire a great social media manager and find a particular candidate’s recurring professional behaviors indicate strong Input and Strategic talents, your chances of hiring the right manager have improved significantly.

The Level-5 Leader Example

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, discovered that leaders who transformed their companies from good to great all exhibited the characteristics he referred to as Level-5 leadership.  These characteristics include self-confidence, humbleness, unwavering resolve, and workmanlike diligence.  Mapping these characteristics to the talent language results in the following themes:

Your business strategy may be designed such that it depends on a Level-5 leader at the helm, and choosing a candidate who possesses all these talents will provide a solid step towards implementing that strategy.

The Startup Founder Example

Looking to hire someone with the qualities of a Founder?  Paul Graham has a few ideas on which traits to look for .  Mapping these to Don Clifton’s language for talent results in:

Behavioral Interviewing

These examples demonstrate a way for hiring organizations to better understand their talent requirements.  What they do not show, however, is how organizations can verify these talents are innate to the candidates they’re interviewing.

Any organization can address this through talent assessments, such as StrengthsFinder 2.0,  which relies on instinctive, “top of mind” responses as a more accurate indicator of a person’s talents.

With Behavior Driven Hiring, however, I’d like to propose an approach that also incorporates the analysis of a candidate’s blogs, github, linkedin, and twitter accounts, just to name a few, in order to conclude his or her talent profile.

Examples of this could include the following:

  1. Determining a programmer has elevated levels of the Discipline and Harmony talents because of the consistently favorable static code measures in the open source projects he has owned over the years.
  2. Pinpointing the Belief and Activator talents in an aspiring Social Media Manager through the analysis of their blog posts and twitter usage.
  3. Concluding a potential Level-5 leader’s knack for the Restorative talent through numerous linkedin references suggesting she managed to dramatically improve the market standing of all her previous employers.
  4. What does an open source programmer’s poor github “commit hygiene” tell you about their Analytical and Deliberative talents?
  5. Realizing a stock market trader’s skill and knowledge are perfect for the job at hand, but the extraordinary focus, discipline and adaptability he has shown in past military experience (as discussed by Paul Sullivan in his book Clutch), will make him particularly adept at delivering under pressure.

These examples are just a small sampling of current and future possibilities for behavior driven hiring.  Share your own ideas for analyzing recurring professional behaviors by posting a comment or emailing

Check back soon, as I continue updating this series on Behavior Driven Hiring.

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7 thoughts on “Behavior Driven Hiring

  1. Sergio Bogazzi says:

    Google takes their hiring seriously
    as does Hashrocket

  2. Sergio Bogazzi says:

    Tidbits from Joel Spolsky’s talk on recruiting programmers or read Joel’s classic post on Guerilla Interviewing

  3. […] posts: Behavior Driven Hiring Tags: agile, effectiveness, leadership, management, trust […]

  4. Sergio Bogazzi says:

    Recurring behaviors should be considered strictly from candidate’s professional life, not from personal life as you see in this article –

  5. Sergio Bogazzi says:

    A Glimpse and a Hook, Rands on you and your Resume

  6. Danuta says:

    I was wondering if you ever considered changing the structure of your website?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so
    people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

  7. […] problems, then consider that this mechanism is inherently instinctive, not unlike the seemingly innate behaviors that characterize an individual’s unique talents.   So while culture and talent are conceptually different […]

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