Why working backwards guarantees you hire the right person

Avatar of Elise


9 Oct 2021

Image of start and finish line

I was recently asked what’s the best way to hire the right person. I don’t know if I would call it a philosophy but the rule I always like to follow is working backwards.

What I mean by this is start with the end goal. Think about the ideal person for the position, what skills, attributes and experience would they have? Then we work back from there and develop questions to determine if the person you’re interviewing has those skills, attributes and experience.

Step 1 - Create the brief of the ideal hire

  • What is the position?
  • What would the person in this position do?
  • What skills are required to do this position well?
  • What previous experience would you like them to have?
  • What attributes would make them great for this role?

It’s easiest to start by answering what the person in the position will be doing because that will get you thinking about what kind of skills they need to have. Skills and previous experience are pretty self explanatory but i want to touch on attributes. This could be pretty much soft skills that a person holds that would make them excel in the role. Some examples are empathy, team work, autonomy, leadership, creativity, self-motivation, resilience, flexibility and adaptability.

Hopefully you will also have a position description that has been provided to you and you can answer a lot of these questions from that. If one hasn’t been produced for the role, this would be the ideal time to develop it!

Step 2 - Develop your questions to find these skills, experience and attributes

Writing questions is challenging but I find that if you start with a list of what you want to know about the candidate, then it’s easy to write questions around that. So let’s say we want to make sure that a person works well in a team. Of course we want to use standard question writing rules like open ended and ask for examples. But I like to get a little more creative.

What I want to know about this person is, can they work well with others when things become challenging. So rather than just asking ‘How do you work in a team?’ I’m going to ask, ‘Can you tell me about a time where you and your team faced a challenge and how did you work together to get the best outcome?’ Now hopefully they will answer with a great story where their team banded together to help each other out and shared their success. If they don’t have a great example, then they might not be the best hire.

You might also be able to target two points with one question, for example, you want to know that someone is creative and resilient. Probably not two things you would typically think you could find out with one question but let’s give it a go. Here’s what I would ask, ‘Can you tell me about a time where you created something at work (perhaps a process, a report or a presentation) that received negative feedback (either from colleagues or a manager)? What did you do to improve your creation?’

So now we are going to find out if they are resilient and can take someone's feedback on board and we will also see how they got creative to meet someone else's expectations.

Step 3 - Promote the position

So now we have developed the interview questions. Let’s think about writing an ad and where we would like to place it. It’s pretty standard to write an ad with the following format:

  • About the company- include a statement right at the beginning to capture their attention
  • About the role - we can lay this out easily with what we did in step one
  • Requirements for the role - again, from step one we can talk about what skills, experience and attributes we’re looking for
  • What’s on offer - talk about the benefits of working at this company, the culture, the salary, training and any other benefits
  • Call to action - APPLY NOW - maybe be more creative than this if you can ;)

We can quite easily whip an ad up using all the information that we collected in step one and having a position description will also make writing an ad much easier. What I think is most important at this stage is you now know the type of person you’re looking for so let's try and talk to them specifically.

Perhaps you’re looking for someone empathetic, try to use some language in the ‘About the role’ and ‘Requirements for the role’ sections that would talk to an empathetic person. Words like care, help, understand, compassion, relationships etc.

Step 4 - Let’s go back the other way now

So we’ve now written and posted our ad and hopefully we’ve received some applicants. So let’s work back down the steps to get the right person. Starting with reviewing resumes, you’ve detailed what experience you’re looking for in step one so you should be able to clearly see who meets that criteria. If you’ve also asked them to write a cover letter, hopefully they have spoken to what skills and attributes they have that will fit the role.

So you have your shortlisted candidates you would like to interview. Of course, interview them with the questions you developed in Step 2 and see if they stack up to the criteria of Step 1. This is my favourite part of the process as we can now see where this tool is most valuable. Let’s say you’ve interviewed four candidates and two really stand out as great fits. How do you decide between the two? Let’s look back through that criteria and see if they meet everything that you’re looking for. It’s a sure way to make sure that you’re hiring the person you think will do the best job.

Now I’m not saying this is always the right answer, sometimes you might have someone who ticks all the boxes but you just didn’t connect well. Then a second candidate ticked most, but not all boxes, but you got on like a house on fire. Maybe having someone in your team that you connect with is more important to you and you can train and develop them to meet that criteria.

So although it’s not always as clean and easy as this person ticks the boxes, hire them, I definitely think it helps as a guide to finding the right person for the job. For me personally, this process makes hiring a lot easier because I hire for such a wide variety of roles, I don’t always know exactly what I’m looking for. So for Step 1, I will sit down with the manager of the role and develop that criteria with them to make sure I can do my job to the best of my ability. It also helps to make me feel more confident in my hiring decision at the end and if you’re working with someone that hasn’t hired before, it will make the process easier for them to see the end goal too.

I also recommend recording as much of this process as you can so that you have tools to use next time and data to back up your hiring decision.

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