How can I avoid making the wrong hire?

Five tips to find the top-notch talent that will grow your business

There’s a common-sense formula for business success that I talk about often, and it’s this:

Build people capability first. That’s how you satisfy more customers. And when you satisfy more customers, you make more money.

It’s a simple formula, but believe me, it’s a proven way to get consistent results. 

Of course, the foundation of that formula is building the right team. Talent is everything! If you don’t consistently bring in people with the right skills and attitude, it’s practically impossible to achieve healthy growth.

But when you’re right smack dab in the middle of the hiring process, it can be hard to discern whether hiring someone is the right decision—or a costly mistake. 

So to help, here are five practical things you can do to make sure the people you bring on board will be the right fit to grow your business. Ready? Let’s dive in!  

1. Don’t outsource reference calls

A candidate’s references are a vital source of insight. After all, the best way to assess someone’s future performance is to look at their track record. 

But too often, leaders overlook them. They outsource reference calls to headhunters or HR staff. Or they make cursory calls just so they can say they’ve checked a box in the hiring process.

Don’t make that mistake. Get involved! Call up references yourself. Talk to the people who worked directly with the candidate and get the real skinny. 

This gives you a chance to personalize the conversation. You get to dig into what matters most to you. Get that reference’s take on the candidate’s contributions and strengths. Ask for specific stories that reinforce the qualities you’re looking for.

Plus, you’ll get more honest feedback. In my experience, references tend to speak more generally when it’s a headhunter or recruiter on the line. But when they’re talking directly to the person who’s making the hire, they often open up and offer key details that can make or break a decision.

2. Push their buttons

In the hiring process, you and your team will likely have concerns about a candidate’s fit for the job.

That’s normal. You can’t completely understand a person’s strengths and abilities in just a few interviews. 

But it’s important to explore those concerns and see if they’re dealbreakers. I love what Gousto Founder and CEO Timo Boldt does at his company.

“If we have certain reservations [about a candidate],” he says, “we try to create a situation where we really push the person’s buttons.” 

Let’s say, for example, you’re concerned about a candidate's ability to handle criticism. (Hey, maybe this is something you learned when you made those reference calls!)

During the interview, have one person on your team ask the candidate how they would approach a particular project. Once the candidate answers, have another person on the team express concerns about some aspect of it. 

Then, see how the candidate reacts to that negative feedback. Do they become defensive or dismissive? Do they concede without a fight, or do they try to continue the conversation?

Engineering a scenario like this will give you a real-world glimpse into how that person would really behave on your team.

Hear my full conversation with Timo Boldt on How Leaders Lead

3. Share a meal

You can learn a lot more about a candidate when you get outside of the office. 

That’s why, once my team got serious about hiring someone, I took that candidate to lunch or dinner. When possible, I also invited the candidate’s partner, along with my wife, Wendy. 

In a more relaxed, personal environment, you can see the heart and soul of who a person is and what makes them tick.

Plus, people reveal so much about themselves in the way they behave at restaurants. 

Pay attention to their manners and how they treat the waitstaff. Their attitude and level of respect will speak volumes about how they see people, especially in hierarchical situations.

This isn’t a practical step for every kind of hire, but if you’re filling a role that demands leadership or dynamic people skills, it’s worth doing.

4. Look beyond the “safe” hire

Hiring is a big decision. Getting it wrong is costly, and so naturally we tend to look for “safe” hires—people with a perfect background who check all the right boxes for experience and industry.

But only hiring the “safe” candidate is risky, too. That’s an insight I learned from Johnny Taylor, the CEO of SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management.

By only making “safe” hires, you pass over people who can bring creative, outside-the-box thinking and drive exponential growth.

“You overlook incredibly unique talent,” Johnny says, “because sometimes the most talented people don't look like what we think is the right, perfect, safe candidate.” 

I have to admit, some of my biggest hiring mistakes were the result of my own assumptions about people who came from a big name school or blue chip company. I had to learn the hard way that a pedigree can’t do the work for you. Those were “safe” hires—and they were disasters.

The point is, talent doesn’t always look the way we expect it to. If you want to make smart hiring decisions and find true talent, you have to look beyond the “safe” hire.

Hear my full conversation with Johnny Taylor on How Leaders Lead

5. Learn from the best

The best leaders I know have succeeded because they intentionally surround themselves with the right people.

It’s a theme that comes up time and time again when I interview people on my podcast.

If you want to hear the very best wisdom on hiring from all those conversations, guess what? It’s now available as a “playlist” inside my new app, How Leaders Lead.

Download the app and just search for the playlist called “Wisdom on Hiring.” You can hear short but powerful insights from top leaders like Carol Tomé (the CEO of UPS), Indra Nooyi (the former CEO of Pepsi), Jesse Cole (founder of the Savannah Bananas), and many more of the world’s top leaders.