Tag Archives: Strengths-Based Selection

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 techdoer@gmail.com.

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

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People Narrative

Do you remember when Java’s promise for platform independence opened new frontiers in architectural planning? Or when Extreme Programming gave new life to an audience disillusioned by the Waterfall model?  It seems like only yesterday when these two carried the distinction of  “next great thing”.   A distinction that influences the collective conscience of software professionals, not to mention the effect it  has on the software development ecosystem.  In 1999 we witnessed Windows ME, Outlook 2000, RUP, DCOM, MySQL, personal homepages, and XML vying for this distinction.  Ten years later we find Chrome OS, Google Wave, Agile, REST, NoSQL, Twitter, and JSON picking up the fight.

Programmers and startups have also found themselves vying to become the next Bill Gates, or creating the next Google, but rarely do we sufficiently understand the personal characteristics that inspire such distinction.  For example, we know the benefits behind Agile’s iterative approach,  or model-view controller in Ruby on Rails, but do we agree on the interpersonal traits required for a high-performing individual?  In a world where software development processes, and technologies continue their trend towards commoditization, it is the ability to answer this question, and others like, that will differentiate organizations in the marketplace.

People Narrative is a look at the traits that distinguish talented people in the software development lifecycle.  A comprehensive panorama of such traits can serve as a useful reference for programmers, project managers or executives to better understand, select, and improve the people in their own software development teams.


What talents come to mind when you think of the programmers you’ve worked with?   Was it their strong ambition, power of persuasion, or their ‘seeing eye’ intuition that set them apart?   Or maybe it was their relentless attention to detail coupled with an insatiable curiosity that drove their success.   Like them, you also possess innate abilities that uniquely (un)qualify you for certain types of work. Your ability to perform at a high level will largely depend on how well the unique talents you possess align with the needs of the job.

Still too many companies don’t understand this. They write job postings emphasizing a particular skill or body of knowledge yet neglect to mention specific talents required by the job. As Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman so eloquently state in their book, First, Break All the Rules, it is critical for companies to understand that the equation of competence includes the set of talents, skills and knowledge an individual possesses.   The key differentiator between these three is that you cannot teach talent.  For example, I’m willing to bet that an innate attention to detail was a major contributor to the performance of the last superstar programmer you worked with, or that good listening skills contributed to the excellent communication in your current team, but only a healthy dose of empathy has helped you fully understand them (i.e. Peter Drucker’s “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”).

The performance of your software development teams will primarily depend on the individual and collective talents that characterize them.    I’ve included a comprehensive list of these talents in Table 1.







































Table 1. Panorama of Individual Talents


To better understand this list, I’ll need to categorize.  In their book,  Buckingham and Coffman offer striving, thinking and relating as three possibilities.  Using this scheme, striving talents such as  determination explain the ‘why’ we perform, thinking talents such as a superior analytical ability explain ‘how’ we perform, and finally relating talents such as charisma explain for ‘whom’ we best perform.

The Theory of  Multiple Intelligences, proposed by Howard  Gardner, and more specifically the categories of intelligence he defines, offers an alternative classification.   Howard suggests eight different types of intelligence including:

  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Interpersonal* (i.e. social intelligence)
  • Verbal-linguistic*
  • Logical-mathematical*
  • Intrapersonal* (i.e. emotional intelligence)
  • Visual-spatial*
  • Musical
  • Naturalistic

I’d like to assume that the distinguishing talents of high-performing software development teams span those intelligences marked with an asterisk.   More important is the understanding that successful individuals and teams possess talents not typically understood or revered by hiring organizations or educational institutions.  For example, standardized intelligence tests that limit themselves to measuring logical-mathematical and verbal-linguistic abilities.


In software development terms, think of effectiveness as the runtime engine.  When the code is syntactically correct, it can be executed.  Every programmer can admit to an overwhelming sense of motivation that comes with seeing their code execute flawlessly. But without this runtime engine, even the most beautiful piece of code is rendered functionally useless.

Similarly in people, maximizing effectiveness requires a thorough understanding of their competence so that productive work can be assigned to the right individual.   While it may be straightforward to assign programming work to an individual who stands out for his knowledge of Java, it may not be so straightforward to conclude that the work of a leader should be assigned to an individual with a talent for empathy.   When the full spectrum of an individual’s competence is required for the work at hand, the individual’s motivation will grow, and she will be satisfied in her job.  There has been strong emphasis on aligning business and IT over the years, and it’s time we also realize the impact of (im)properly aligning a person’s competence with their work.

Lacking a thorough understanding of an individual’s competence is a recipe for their ineffectiveness.  Peter Drucker taught us that the job of the knowledge worker is to be effective (and similarly stay motivated) while also reminding us that:

“…people of high effectiveness are conspicuous by their absence in knowledge jobs. High intelligence is common enough amongst knowledge workers. Imagination is far from rare. The level of knowledge tends to be high. But there seems to be little correlation between a man’s effectiveness and his intelligence, his imagination, or his knowledge. Brilliant men are often strikingly ineffectual; they fail to realize that the brilliant insight is not by itself achievement.”

Perhaps he referred to the limited definition of intelligence and brilliance, which is to say, achievement requires the broader set of intelligences usually found in more than one person alone.   Our teams should be formed on this basis and as Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman stated, the job of a manager is to convert these combined talents into performance.

3 Stages for High-Performance Teams

Figure 1.  High-Performance Teams


Diana Larsen’s presentation on Trust taught us that an individual’s competence (i.e. talent, skill, knowledge) is a major component towards growing professional trust  (See Figure 1).  A sufficient level of trust must exist in order for a self-organizing team to maximize their individual and collective effectiveness.   It will serve as the foundation for the team’s understanding of each individual’s competence, of how best to organize, as well as maximizing their ability to execute.


It should be clear that before we can preach the benefits of Agile software development, or evangelize the next great programming language, for example, we need to understand the talents of people, because it is these talents, and our ability to identify and nurture them, that will primarily influence the foundation for individual and team trust, effectiveness, motivation and overall performance.

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