I run an executive search firm. On a typical search, we’ll review over 600 candidate profiles to put forward 6 candidates for an interview with the client. But even after we’ve ruled out 99% of the potential candidates, some of our clients will take out a pocket knife to further whittle down the interview list because some of the resumes don’t fit their pre-existing mental picture of “the ideal candidate.” (Unlike insurance companies, recruiters cannot just exclude pre-existing mental conditions.) So we usually hear some variation of, “Hmm, Larry seems a little junior, and Susan comes from a background that just doesn’t seem like it would fit in here, so let’s just schedule the other 4 people.” But despite their objections, we encourage our clients to go ahead and interview the outlier candidates.
Because we know from experience that after a rigorous interview process, almost half of the people who ultimately get the job are the very same people that our clients were initially reluctant to see. (Yeah, we measure stuff like that.) It’s astounding really. Year in and year out, through hundreds of searches, it’s the person we initially had a hunch about–the outlier, the slightly off-spec person–who had the best chance of being hired.
So recruiters, when you are selecting candidates for an interview, when should you trust your gut, even though it doesn’t make sense? And how do you explain your gut instinct to a hiring manager? When that doubting voice in your head says, “The hiring manager is the real expert in their functional areas, not me,” why should you summon the nerve to push ahead? Is your gut feeling just some muse whispering ideas in your ear?
Here’s when to trust your gut– when you know enough about the job market to see where the hiring manager’s mental picture is flawed.
We’re all prisoners of our own experience. If a hiring manager has never seen an outlier succeed, they will unwittingly rule it out as a possibility. So when you accept the limitations inherent in any hiring manager’s mental picture, you’ve brought nothing to the party. You’ve actually done the manager a disservice. But how can your instinct possibly be more useful than the hiring manager who is more familiar with the work?
It’s simple really.
Hiring intuition is the intersection of 3 things: 1) a useful mental framework; 2) heavy transactional knowledge; and 3) the ability to think flexibly about how to solve a hiring challenge. When the three pieces intersect, it may look like intuition, but really it’s just taking a calculated risk based on a deep understanding of all the factors involved in hiring. The best recruiters have several useful mental models running all the time, and are constantly improving the models based on their transactional knowledge and experience.
So let’s just look at how good recruiters select candidates for an interview:
1) Good recruiters understand job market supply and demand. We know what skills are hard to find, and which ones are not, so we know where to make smart trade-offs in a laundry list of desired attributes. We instinctively say to ourselves, “We’re never going to find that attribute, so let’s focus on this attribute we can find.” Hiring managers often lack that market perspective, and tend to grind away on something impossible, rather than look for what is actually possible.
2) Good recruiters know that great candidates often have bad resumes, and vice versa. Through hard-won experience, we’ve learned that some pristine resumes are polished so brightly because they hide a hollow, ineffective candidate underneath. (Because when you are not good at working, you have to be great at looking for work. But when you are great at doing work, work often finds you.) Recruiters are prepared to kiss a lot of frogs (talk to people with dull resumes) to find a prince. But hiring managers are rarely willing or able to invest that kind of time. This limited perspective also makes managers susceptible to “skill blindness”—overlooking a candidate’s obvious flaws, and focusing only on their skills. This is why so many people are “hired for skills and fired for fit.”
3) Good recruiters talk to people from hundreds of organizations, while hiring managers are often only familiar with the handful of organizations they’ve worked for. Recruiters who have kissed lots of frogs soon learn that there are many career paths that can lead to job competency. But hiring managers are usually only aware of a few paths—and usually prefer the path they happened to follow in their own career. So when hiring managers refuse to interview anyone without “a perfect resume” (like their own), they never begin to understand the universe of great people and diversity of experience they’ve been missing all along.
4) Good recruiters talk to hundreds of people and have learned to detect patterns in people’s behavior. If a candidate is rude to a recruiter and nice to a hiring manager, they will likely be rude to their co-workers and subordinates, and all smiles to the boss. Conversely, when a junior candidate demonstrates an uncommon ability to “punch above their weight class” they can be more of a “sure thing” than hiring a less hungry “proven” candidate … but you would only know that if you took the time to speak with someone who’s title the hiring manager thought was too junior to consider.
5) Good recruiters methodically track their results, studying both successes and placements who failed to thrive in the organization. You need lots of data–far more data than managers typically see. You need to look at dozens of people, not just a handful. You can’t just sweep failures under the rug and blame the candidate. “Well, Susan worked out fine, but Bill just had a character problem.”
To develop your intuition for selecting candidates, you must be willing to step into the void and put it to the test. Which means you risk looking foolish when you are wrong. And it might be too risky to your career to challenge the hiring manger. Perhaps you simply prefer the illusion of safety you get by doing only what the hiring manager wants. So this advice might not be for you right now.
OK, one final, possibly counterintuitive point in a post about when to trust your gut. This post is really about how to use your market knowledge to help hiring managers select a broader spectrum of candidates to interview. But when it’s time to interview, you want rigor, not people relying on “gut instinct” to make hiring decisions. Unstructured interviews are notoriously terrible at predicting success on the job.