In episode 19, we share detailed advice to recruiters, sharing views on job descriptions, finding talent, interview process, good and difficult interview questions, other hacks, as well as our own “pet peeves”. This is the second episode on recruiting. In episode 18, we framed the discussion and shared our core recruiting principles, including in compensation, and in the design and development of the recruiting organization. Episode 20 will end our trilogy, by focusing on detailed advice to candidates.

Navigation:

  • Introduction (01:24)
  • Section 1 – The Job Description (02:00)
  • Section 2 –  Hacks & Tools (10:19)
  • Section 3 – Finding Talent (15:04)
  • Section 4 – Interview Process (18:14)
  • Section 5 – Other Hacks (31:52)
  • Section 6 – Pet Peeves and Dislikes (39:17)
  • Conclusion (41:27)
Our co-hosts:
  • Bertrand Schmitt, Tech Entrepreneur, co-founder and Chairman at App Annie, @bschmitt
  • Nuno Goncalves Pedro, Investor, co-Founder and Managing Partner of Strive Capital, @ngpedro
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Intro (01:24)

Bertrand: Welcome to episode 19. This is the second episode in a trilogy of episodes on recruiting that started previously, with episode 18. In this new episode, we are going to focus on the recruiter side: writing a job description, the tools and approach to find talent, the interview process, global differences, the evergreen approach to recruiting, closing candidates. And we will conclude on our pet peeves and dislikes.

Section 1 – The job description (02:00)

Nuno: And maybe switching and going into the weeds a little bit on advice that we would specifically have for recruiters and starting with the job description.  The job description is normally this painful thing that someone has to do that involves some copy pasting, hopefully if there’s a template or some Googling in the middle, to define what the job looks like.

I think this is absolutely the wrong approach, just to be clear. A job description, I think has two sides to it. There should be an external job description, which is manifested to the market. That can be used with external recruiters, that can be used with candidates directly. And that should be sharp and really conveying what hard skills are being looked for, what soft skills are being looked for, what is the value system of the organization, and obviously a brief description of the organization, and finally, a little bit on how that position would fit in terms of roles and responsibilities within the organization. Those four or five things need to at least be there.

It should be sharp, it shouldn’t be a three page job description. I’ve seen seven page job descriptions. I’m like, why?

Bertrand: No way.

Nuno:  Is anyone gonna read that? And sharp should be one page, very clear, there should be a lot of attention to the words that you use and the clarity on it.

And it should really be appealing. It is a marketing material. I’m not saying it’s not, but it should also be clear in filtering people that have certain skills versus others, people that have a certain value system versus others, et cetera. Then there’s a little bit the internal job description, which also should be very clear. Which is, who is this person going to report to, what are going to be the day to day of this person, the complexity of it, et cetera.

I’m not sure that needs to be manifested in a very formal way. But there should be clear understanding around the table, from the hiring manager all the way, maybe to the CEO early on in the company, to the person that’s managing the recruiting process so that there is clarity on what works and what doesn’t.

If there are some unwritten rules that are not in the job description that is shared externally, it should be there. It should be clear to the team what actually are we looking for here. And so again, for me, the job description is an incredibly important tool of framing to get the right talent, so again a marketing material, to frame that talent against the rest of the market, and also to be used as an internal play on these are the flags that we have in mind. And this is what we’re looking for. 

The final point I would make on job description is, sometimes job descriptions are incredibly prescriptive. I’ll give a stupid example. Someone who has a tremendous amount of experience in doing partnerships, for example, in the financial industry or the financial services industry might not have been someone who was in business development for the last 15 years.

It might’ve been someone who was doing something else around that industry for the last 15 years. And so sometimes I feel that if the job description is badly framed, it also frames really badly the type of talent you’re looking at, in particular if you’re using external recruiters, that’s even worse. Because they’re looking for a very specific type of profile, and that means you’re formatting everyone that you’re recruiting in this industry. I remember having a discussion with someone a few years ago, a very large tech company that’s well-known was hiring a VP of Corporate Development and someone had reached out to me about that position.

And as I was having that discussion, I met someone who used to be the VP of Corporate Development, maybe two cycles before. And that person just shared with me, “they’re going to hire someone from Google or Facebook”. And I said, “why?” “Because that’s what they do”. And so again, this cycle of formatting, right? Where you have people that run around with the same playbooks. If you are looking to change fundamental your playbook, you shouldn’t go and hire someone who’s been doing the same playbook for five years, right? Unless maybe that’s the playbook you want to follow, but you should have someone that can recreate a playbook from scratch and maybe the right talent is not on paper getting someone from your direct competitors. Maybe it’s getting someone that has that skillset, but has grown through the ranks in a startup or someone who was CEO of a startup that very heavily skewed towards that role. Again, very important job description, but it needs to be used as a tool to frame the hiring, not as a copy paste exercise or a Google exercise.

Bertrand: Actually that was actually going to be a discussion for me on my pet peeves. And that’s an issue I have seen again and again especially in Silicon Valley, where in some ways, you have so much depth of talent that you end up with, “I want this person who has done this specific experience, has done this MBA, has done this engineering school, and has worked five years at a big corporate, and has done this, and has 20 years’ experience in databases”.

And guess what? Actually, you can find people with all these criteria , they exist, at least, in Silicon Valley. But then, you end up with a situation where you don’t bring up-and-comer, you don’t bring people with varied experience, you just bring ultra, super-deep expert who actually might not be that interesting, because in some ways, they might have spent too long in big corporates for their own good. And I’m always surprised to see that mindset and approach, where in so many other regions, you simply have no one who has more than 10 years’ experience in a specific industry or space. And guess what? It actually works well enough. You might not need that 20 years experience. So I think that’s something to be extremely careful. And, yes, a good job description can help you not to go in that direction. And personally, I prefer someone who deeply understand the game, but is also very hungry, to achieve, to succeed, to go to the next level, versus someone who has been there, done that for way too long and is not excited anymore,  for whom this is just another job, more or less like the same, versus someone who really want to make a dent in the universe.

Nuno: And very, very early on in my career, I applied for this position, I still remember, that required five years of experience as a project manager in an engineering environment, what we would now call engineering manager and five years experience in technical sales. And I literally had been working for three and a half years total, where I’d moved from being a developer to  basically an engineering manager and then a product manager.

And I’d never done actual sales in my life and I applied for it. And it’s very interesting ’cause I went through the whole process. This was a long time ago, so I think I can mention it now. It was back in Europe with HP when HP was really cool some time ago. It’s very funny the hiring manager, for some reason, liked me and it’s very interesting. They actually made me the offer. I didn’t join, which is sad because the salary. It’s one of these things you do when you’re young. I took some other job that paid much less and didn’t have the same responsibility. It’s just, I went to after some stupid dream.  And that’s the one that sort of got away in some ways, but I once asked the guy, “Why did you even look at me?” And he’s like, “there was no loss in just at least having one interview with you. And you had an interesting background, you were, you started working very young through college and I was like, there’s something about this guy. That’s interesting. Let’s just check him out. And as we went through the whole interviews, the whole team thought you had all the core capabilities to excel at this play, to excel at the role that is required from you. And you have one third of the experience, literally, but we thought you could excel at it.” 

And those hires normally, again, I didn’t join this organization, but those hires normally I think, are the hires that really make a dent. They’re the people that bring the energy, the hunger, the capability, the “I want to learn on the job” that really makes a huge difference in scaling, for example, a unit, a department, or a company at the end   

Bertrand: Again specially early on there is a lot of value to give a chance. The bigger you get, it’s bit more of a different story. [ You have more to lose, in some ways, so you want to play differently.

And for the record, HP was one of the company I most admired in the ’90s, so a lot of respect for the HP then.

Section 2 – Hacks & Tools (10:19)

Going back to recruiting tools, I want to raise that at least, from my perspective, there are a few secret weapons [laughs] I used over the years to recruit, and especially to recruit at scale. And I will say, overall, it’s the approach of, on one side, if the job enables it, having some quantitative tools to measure and test candidates very early on.

And if I pick the engineering function, for instance, there is a great software called  Codility. So Codility for instance let you test engineers,  check their capacity to write code. And that has been very useful for us to simplify the process.

You absolutely want quantitative metrics, at least for functions where you can have quantitative metrics to test candidate live, not just based on what they supposedly have done, not just based on their supposed degree, but based on what they can do right now.

The other side of the puzzle has been, for me, to run case studies. And sometimes, case studies are more important, for more creative positions or more managerial positions. But you want to put candidates into a real-life story about, what is a day at the company? What is a typical project that we would like to get delivered?

Give them some good context about what’s happening and pick something real enough, that it either happened or is happening right now. And, give them enough details for them to do an analysis, to prepare that case study, to prepare that at home.

And two things here happen. One is you separate people who are just looking around but not willing to put the effort, because your case study preparation, in my experience and what I targeted,  required 10 to 20 hours of preparation. So it’s a serious weekend, basically.

And if you are serious, you are going to do it. If you are good, you are [laughs] going to do it and excel at it. But if you didn’t care, or if you are not so good, it won’t work for you as a candidate. And as a recruiter, that has been a fantastic tool, because we easily lost, at the end of the process, 50% of the candidates. 

Either you discover someone [laughs] who was not at all putting the effort, and they might even tell you they are not going to go to that step, because they realize it’s too much work, or you realize it was all talk, but no walk, no ability to execute. And you discover something really horrible.

On the other hand, you might discover incredible candidates, people you were not sure, people you were wondering in term of their credentials, and you see something fantastic, and you’re like, “Okay. All good.” Ultimately, you just care about getting the job         

Nuno: Indeed. Two things I would add to that. And let me start with a pet peeve, and then I go to sort of some of the tools and some of the hacks I use for finding talent. The pet peeve is, I do think you need to spend time with a person and really explore their capabilities thoughout the process and really ask them to do elements of work in the background that show you that this person might be the right person to be joining your team. At the same time, I think there’s now companies that go a little bit too far in doing that. Recently someone was sharing with me, and this is a really good friend of mine, was super experienced, who has IPOed one of her startups and she’s just considering more of a COO role, literally with a startup.

And they made her go through this grueling process of weeks of interaction. Several hours spent on it, hours spent with a team, et cetera. And in the end they decided not to hire her, but at the same time, I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think it’s fair that you pick people’s brains through a variety of hoops and get sort of their thoughts and get their work at the table without giving something in return.

So if your process is a very highly involved process, in particular in early-stage companies, as you’re really framing your top talent and your top executive team, if that’s what you’re trying to do, you need to find some way to compensate people. Either you pay them per interview or you pay them for their time spend, maybe it’s a nominal value, it’s nothing. But at least you acknowledged that at a certain stage of the interview process, you’re asking a lot from people. So that’s a little bit of a pet peeve. I think in Silicon Valley, we’ve gone off the deep end, even now engineers writing code, like for potential issues that I could reuse. That stuff I think is just a little bit unclean, to be honest in the process.

So agree with your point Bertrand, that you need to really make sure that the person aligns with a role and spend that time. But at the same time, if you over-engineer it, there needs to be some form of compensation back to the candidates. 

Section 3 – Finding talent (15:04)

Moving a little bit to finding talent, I agree that there’s a lot of tools out there.

Obviously when you start, you do your job description, you post it on your website, you go and post it on LinkedIn. You post it on maybe the most adequate website for that type of talent that you’re trying to hire. Obviously for engineering, there are better websites and services than others. You might or might not hire an executive recruiter or work with an executive recruiter for that hiring.

Certainly one thing I would go, in any case, at the beginning of the processes is to my own network. Sharing the job description or sharing at a high-level what the role is and what I’m looking for, going into my own Rolodex and my own LinkedIn and seeing who I know that might actually be in the market, or I might be able hopefully to poach from somewhere to hire, doing that homework upfront is very powerful.

Again, that work should not only reside with a recruiter, even if you already have an internal recruiter in the organization, the hiring manager, maybe some of the people around that part of the org should spend some time looking at their own network and their own Rolodex, figuring out are there people that we should try to hire?

And reaching out to people is not a binary thing. It’s not just saying, would you be interested in taking this job? It’s more of a conversation on the one hand, but at the same time, even if the person’s not interested, that person has a network of talent that they themselves have access to.

So I found that actually what I call mining aggressively your network early on gives a lot of value. It might not solve the problem. You might not find it in your network, but it certainly gives you a heads up in terms of the talent you might be able to find in the market.

Bertrand: So, here I will say, ultimately, if you’re a manager, certainly if you are an exec, in some ways, you are who you hire. If you’re not able to hire the right people at the right pace, simply, you have not done your job. Me, I evaluate managers, execs, based on who have they hired below them? Who have they hired two level below them, ultimately? And, it might be through their own network, it might be through different tools, it might be through exec recruiters, internal recruiters, but at the end of the day, they will be judged based on that.

And for me, that’s probably the biggest criteria, people who have had a revolving door, below them, of hiring people, firing people, hiring, firing, or people who leave, because it doesn’t seem to work out with them as a manager, or people who cannot hire because they fail to convince candidates about the company, the opportunity, the position, working for them. That’s a problem.

So I think that part has to be put very clearly. You are who you hire, and you will be judged based on that in a lot of organizations. And, if an organization is not judging based on that, we have a problem, because projects come and go, but people you hire are there for a long time.

So if you have brought a lot of talented people, it should be very well acknowledged because you have built a lot of value for the org. At the same time, if you cannot do that, then you are not really doing your job. So that’s pretty key for me.   

Section 4 – Interview process (18:14)

Nuno: Agreed. Maybe switching to the interview process itself and there’s a lot of elements around how you think through the interview process. A very basic one, who’s going to interview? Who are the people that should be in this interview process? Obviously hiring manager needs to be in it. There is a need in many cases for a recruiter to be involved early on to do what I’d call top of funnel check and an assessment to see if this person really fits close to the job description or not.  Do you have peers in the interview or not? Do you have other people from other parts of the organization? One of my pet peeves is peer interviews are very dangerous. You need to be very cautious on how you put peer interviews in the process because peers are rarely interested in people that are better than them. And that in some ways always creates a skew towards decision-making.  

The second piece is how the decisions are actually made in the end. Obviously, some companies for a long time, I’ve been proponents that anyone has a veto on the hiring. Others believe in majority, others like Amazon believe in majority, but there’s an even number of interviews and therefore they have the notion of the bar raiser. So the bar raiser is a person that normally is not in the team that is hiring for that position. And that person has a decision at the end, on the one hand,  almost a positive veto rights. So pushing the person in to the organization, if let’s say four people are for, four people are against, the bar raiser as the final vote in that sense.

So for me, that’s a lot of interesting elements. Again, Amazon, I think has a lot of interesting elements on how they hire for me. It’s probably in my experience, certainly one of the toughest recruiting process I’ve gone through. I really enjoyed it. And we’ll come back to some of the lessons learned from that process later on, but the fact that most of the people that are interviewing you are not in your team, that you would be hired for is really interesting. Again, there are different ways on how you define the cycle of it. How do you evaluate people? What criteria are you looking at? The criteria should match nicely with a job description.

I’ve found some companies don’t adapt at all their criteria to the job description. Some companies don’t assess culture at all. What do you ask in the interviews? Are you just checking for the background or not? We’ll come back to that when we talk about advice for candidates, but one really interesting element is what sort of questions should you ask from people?

What sort of depth of questions should you ask? Are you just checking for career? Are you checking for how people think? Are you checking for their values? And obviously, different questions that will give you very different answers. So having that in mind is really powerful.

One final final element that I would add, before passing it to you Bertrand is, at the end of the day, you are going through a process. So this person will see someone at the beginning and then they might move to second interview. Or if it’s interviews where it’s no batch interviews, I have three at the beginning and then I have another four and then I have three at the end, how do you move people through that process is really important. I found that biases are created through the process. So how you, like I’ve interviewed someone and I’m passing it to you Bertrand to do the second interview. How I passed that person to you is very important. I’m a big believer that in order to unbiased that discussion, I shouldn’t give you very firm- if let’s say it’s a batch interview system rather than, what’s an elimination. So if I can eliminate the person I can, but let’s say it’s a three interview process. You’re the second person on that interview process. And we are all three going to interview that person. I would definitely not give you my evaluation upfront, but rather tell you which areas I think it would be worthwhile for you to focus on because I might not have focused on them. And in some ways that, the bias is the process of interviews, right?

So at the end, when let’s say in this case, the three people that did dispatch interview process come together to make a decision, whether the candidate moves forward or not, all of us don’t have a bias. We just have our own evaluation and we share it. And, again, I see a lot of stuff where the first person had a bad interview and then the second person already has a very negative stance on the candidate. And it’s just, at the end of the day, it just doesn’t work.

Bertrand: Yes I think you talked about, quite a few important points and that’s clear that what matters most  at the end of the day, is to have a clear process. There are different approaches, that different companies are using, and when we pick, for instance, an Amazon or whatever other company, you have to be careful that you understand why they do that. How did they come up with this approach? At what stage of their company life did they start with this type of approach? And therefore, you can repeat something you like intelligently, but not blindly, because not  every company is made to same, not every company is in a specific line of business that necessitates a very specific approach. And obviously, there are a lot to learn from a lot of very successful companies, their secret, why they are successful, and usually it’s connected to recruiting.

So identifying, what are the options? Looking around in your industry. Looking around per function, because each function has a very different recruiting approach and mindset. There might be some similar checkpoints and overall philosophy, but there are different approaches.

A few things in the interview process that are critical for me . You can hire for skillset, for experience, for culture, for smartness. Me, at the end of the day, I have a big focus on culture and smartness, because if you are well aligned with the company culture, if you are smart, you will be able to acquire the skills. You would be able to acquire the experience.

So don’t get me wrong, you need some basics in term of skills, in term of experience. But what gets me worried is people with, quote, unquote, skills and experience, but a bad culture match  or that they are simply not very smart. And they are just repeating again and again, what they have been doing without really understanding why they have been doing it in the first place and it’s not a good match for this new company, where things are actually different.

And I would call this category of people parrots. So they are just repeating what they have done in the past, what they have listened to, heard, being done in the past, but they don’t fully understand why it was done.

And usually, everything in term of how you do business is based on specific business assumptions, the size of your market, your growth rate, your industry, your competitive situation. And all of the best practices that work in one company might simply not work at all in another company.

And to be able to understand that, adjust to that, you need smartness. And, and yes, skills and experience can cut how fast you become efficient, but at some point, very quickly, you want to move from efficient in your job to excellent in your job. And this one requires culture and smartness. So please keep that in mind in your recruiting process.

I don’t know Nuno, if you want to talk about the guesstimate approach or the IQ test. I will start with the fact that I’m not at all a fan of the guesstimate approach. And that’s why I’m actually a fan of the case study, because I want to see how people think based on a real business expectation, not based on some random test. But, you might have a different perspective on this.

Nuno: I actually totally agree with you. Just to frame what a guesstimate is for example, I asked you how many manholes are there in New York. That’s a classic guesstimate. And my objective is to see how you think, right? How do you create assumptions and how would you get to a number, rather than the number? I don’t care about the number, I care about the assumptions and how you think through that process. I agree with you totally Bertrand, I think the case study already gives me that. It gives me the ability to see how you think. 

My case studies are always related to my business. I never do case studies that have no connection whatsoever to what I do. I can anonymize information, I can share a problem that we’re currently working on that is not necessarily the most confidential thing ever. But I want to work on something real where there some actual expertise already, and the case study will already give me that, it will already give me the ability to see how the candidate thinks and how they share their logical process, how they get to certain conclusions and how they frame it.

So for me, case studies are important. They should be aligned with the business and with a function you’re hiring for. And, so therefore they should be as real as possible. Not a big fan of IQ tests, not a big fan of guesstimates. There’s some value that sometimes comes from them, but I definitely am not a huge fan of that.

On the parrot side, this is maybe interesting, I agree with you on the parrot side, I also agree with this sort of very verbose, amazing, speaker issue as I call it. And there is an element of hiring in different geographies and also hiring different people with different upbringing or different cultures.

Someone was born and raised in Korea that maybe went to one of the top schools like KAIST in Korea, that has worked most of their life in Korea that has had a little bit of experience in the U.S. or has just come out of an MBA in the U.S., will not appear in the same way in an interview as someone who was born and raised in the U.S., went to a school here, et cetera. It will be very different. The noise level being verbose, the way you convey your thoughts, will be different. And that doesn’t mean necessarily that the person was born and raised in the West is necessarily the right option. It might be that they are, it might be that they’re not. You need to sort of go undertone and understand what’s the right person for that position.

You need to understand that the way I speak, the way I express myself is not always fully correlated to the ability of me doing the job well. Of course, if the person’s job is to speak well and be a spokesperson, et cetera, maybe it is. But in some cases it’s not, in some cases you’re asking someone to do, for example, deep intellectual work and that deep intellectual work, in some ways, communication is an important piece of that, but it’s not the only piece.

And so I found that, there is a bias towards, in some cases what I called verbalization, or, you call it parrots, verbalization or extreme verbosity in some cases by people, there’s a skew towards that in some types of hiring that actually doesn’t align with what you need for the positions and you would get the better team and a more diverse team if you went underneath the hood and understood cultural differences between people from different parts of the world and how they process information and how they make decisions and how they actually present work and the core skills behind it. So in some ways agreed on the parrots, I hate it as well. Sometimes verbosity is needed, sometimes it’s not. 

And, actually understanding what that person brings to the table from a diverse standpoint, their cultural background, et cetera, is really powerful. And there, I do see a lot of value in what I call diversity hiring, right? Where you having that diversity on the team and the right person for the right role is very powerful.

Bertrand: In agreement. And maybe, actually, one point of disagreement. I’m probably more positive on IQ test, personality test, like a Myers-Briggs, and whatever is the flavor of the month, in the HR world. That I can see some value. So personality test, it’s how do you fit with other people in the team, especially if we are talking about an exec team. IQ test, from a perspective of making sure that the bar stays high enough and there is no surprise.

I have been actually surprised to hear that some firms, when they do acquisition, PE firms in tech, firms like,  Vista, are actually running IQ tests at scale right after acquiring a company and, organizing layoff plans, maybe not just based on that, but significantly based on that.

So in some ways, I was like, “Huh. that’s interesting.” and if it has an impact on pretty successful tech companies they are acquiring, it’s an interesting viewpoint. So I start to warm up to run IQ test, a standard tool.

Nuno: I don’t think there’s anything wrong about analyzing someone’s IQ, and EQ, by the way, and personality.  I just feel I’m better at it. I think that’s my super power. And so normally in interview batches, I’m one of the people that focuses the most on it. Even if I have to do two or three interviews with a candidate to talk about more, the hard skills versus the soft skills, spending time asking questions that lead you to understanding personality, I do think should be in the mix of interviewers that is in the process.  Again, I believe certain personality tests can be super helpful, such an IQ test can be very helpful as well. So I’m not dismissing them fully. So it’s not a full disagreement, I do believe the interviewers have a huge important role in that and really analyzing through questions. And we’ll talk about questions in a second and some really good questions you can ask that get you to the bottom of that analysis, but you can actually ask questions that get you there that lead you to get a little bit that personality on the person on how they make decisions, what leads them to move jobs, what leads them to hire to fire? What leads them to do certain elements of a job better than others. There’s a lot you can ask to get to the bottom of that. Again, don’t disagree fully, but I do feel that’s a really important piece of the obligation of the interviewers.

Bertrand: You’re right, it should be an obligation of the interviewer. I think more thinking in term of scale, you don’t  always have the right  interviewers for everything, and it’s a question also of moving faster. So it might help you that a candidate can work offline on  some of these problems.  

Section 5 – Other Hacks (31:52)

Nuno: And then finally you have to sell it, right  

Bertrand: Yes, at the end of the day, you don’t just want to interview people and test in some many ways. At some point you want to make sure the candidates are going to join you once you make the offer.   Selling is two sides. Selling is, on one side, you want to make clear about the opportunity, about the job position, about how exciting it is to join your company, or hopefully, it is. But there is a part around being transparent to the candidates about what it is to join the company, and how is it working internally? And of course, candidates should ask questions. But I think you should be very proactive about sharing your culture, your approach internally, so that people don’t get surprised, and in a way, so that people self select.

If you are very clear and transparent about your culture and your approach to business and work, it’s better for everyone to know, “hey, is it a good match for me? Are these guys completely nuts?” Or on the contrary, “I’m so excited, because it feels like a great fit, and the dream type of environment I was looking for”.

So for me, selling is not dumb  selling. It’s not overselling. You have to really represent what it is. You don’t want people to be disappointed after joining the organization. And it has to be two way, in the sense that you have to be very transparent to the candidate about what is the opportunity and the company and the style all       

Nuno: I totally agree with everything you said. I wouldn’t add a word, absolutely in agreement. 

Let’s talk a little bit about closing, about the due diligence you do on candidates. Obviously, reference checking. My best practice is to ask for references and obviously I only ask this very late in the process, when we’re very close to the offer. There’s no point in bugging people and spending time doing reference checks without actually being close to giving an offer, or on the verge of giving an offer. I would add that you have to be a little creative when reference checking. I first ask for a list and then I do tell the candidate, I give myself the option of reaching out to people on my network that might have interacted with them, if they’re okay with that. And I’m very clear on that. I won’t tell them who it is, but I will ask “can I do it?” Also, I’m very clear with candidates that I will definitely ask whoever he gives me on the reference list for further references. And so I think reference checking is a little bit of an art more than the science, but definitely you need to prepare for it.

What questions do you really have that are not obvious yes or no questions, but that allow you to go underneath the hood again. To be very clear, normally reference checks are a lot of cheerleaders, a lot of people that are on the side of the candidates. Understanding still the nuances of it and asking questions that allow you to get a little bit more of the nuances is very powerful.

And then the final piece is also background checks themselves, depending on the position, but certainly for mid-level and senior positions doing background checks on people and being very upfront about it. Does this person have any issues that I haven’t seen yet? Does this person have a criminal record or not? What’s sort of the background of this person, that goes beyond just the classic thing. So those are good practices. You’d be shocked in particular, in startups, how little of this is done. And I always certainly talk to my startups, as an investor I need to do it anyway before  investing. 

But certainly when I’m working with startups, I really emphasize this. Have you done reference checks? Have you checked with a few people? Have you gotten some bad feedback? I always say, “I work with someone who always calls it – there’s always shit, you just have to uncover it. There’s something somewhere.” And I believe a little bit in that, nothing is always totally clean. There was something that happened, maybe it was not your fault. Something happened, if you haven’t uncovered it yet, it probably just means you don’t know what it is, it exists, but you don’t know what it is.

And it’s not saying that everyone’s a bad person, and that candidate might not be a rock star at the end, but there’s some elements always where people either overemphasize certain parts of their experience that are not truly true, or, they didn’t leave quite in the way they said they did the last role. And so understanding those nuances and uncovering them early on is very powerful and very important.

Bertrand: Yes. And I would say a few things. One specially in the US you have to really be  careful and read between the lines when you are interviewing a reference, because some people might say stuff that this person was good, was great, but actually, in the U.S., if they don’t say the person was awesome and absolutely fantastic, that’s a bad sign if they didn’t use these specific words, at least in the Bay Area.

So you want to be very careful at learning how to read different type of reference check. And how do you read different type of people to get a good sense of, is it really a good reference? Or  it’s actually not a good reference from the cultural setting of the person I was talking to. And especially I’m thinking about European entrepreneurs, Asian entrepreneurs, hiring people in the U.S., they might have  quite a bit of trouble  on this side of the game.

Another piece is, to get to know the truth  is not easy because,  on one side, as you say, you have  official references given by the candidates. And, it’s not easy to find someone saying that is bad on the candidate, usually from this perspective.

But then, you have the other side, your own back channel. But here, there are so much NDAs, that are in place that getting to the truth might be very difficult, actually. Very few people are going to talk to you, they don’t know you, they have no idea who you are.

And a lot of things might have happened under NDA. Some people might have done some bad things, but have a powerful network, and they are very worried about that. So that’s another thing that makes things pretty difficult, I have seen that at work, especially in Silicon Valley, where getting to the truth is extremely, extremely difficult.

Sometimes you have to decipher some interesting  answers, like “I cannot, I cannot talk to you.  I’m under NDA or on this and that.” And depending on who tell you what and how it’s said, you can guess between the lines that was an NDA,  there might have  been some issue that make it a very difficult topic for them to talk about.

And that’s already a big warning sign about what’s happening.

Nuno: I would say my lesson learned is if someone reaches out to you and say, “don’t hire this person”,  you probably shouldn’t hire them Because the feeling is so hard. It’s such a strong feeling. It’s “Ooh”, obviously you need to contextualize and understand, that’s actually one of the things I do on reference checking.

I start every reference check by contextualizing, by asking, how did you work with this person? How close did you work with this person? How many interactions used to have on a weekly basis? What sort of interactions? Very few people actually do this. They ask for the pros and cons of the person without actually contextualizing the credibility of the referrer, the person that they’re talking to.

Bertrand: And for me, the last question I will always ask when I’m doing a reference check is, “Would you hire this person again?”and  that, for me, is critical. I’m talking about people who obviously, managed this candidate before. But that’s a critical one.

If there is a s slightest hesitation, probably game over, because then you know that all the bullshit you might have been served before was just that, all bullshit. If people are not super clear, super strong that might be a problem for you.

But, you need to feel that excitement about hiring that person again. That’s quite critical. If not, then obviously, there is some risk you might not have properly identified. 

Section 6 – Pet peeves and dislikes (39:17)

Nuno: And maybe to end this section on pet peeves and dislikes, we’ve mentioned already a few, Bertrand, you mentioned parrots, also people that are too expert in one space. I would add a few – one, checking for depth. A lot of people present themselves really well, but sometimes the interview is very badly geared towards analyzing depth.

I believe that we need to really understand the level of depth you want to have at the end of the day I mentioned Amazon has a great process. They’re very good at depth, right? The questions just nail it. They go  sequentially to the next level. They start at a high level and by the end, 30 minutes, they’ve gone to level seven of what you actually did in that project.

And if you didn’t do it, they will have figured it out by level two or three of questions, which is really powerful. So again, pet peeves is that sometimes interviews are not well-prepared, they don’t want to go into depth, and they stay high level and it’s no, you need to understand if the person really did what they said they did and really get to the next level.

And then the final pet peeve for me, some people call it rockstar hires. I would prefer talking about it as prima-donna hires. You have to be very cautious with people that are just superstars. And you’re trying to approach them from somewhere to come and work for you. And they know they’re exceptional.

I always spend a lot of time with those types of hires, understanding intellectual honesty. Understanding how well they work with others. If they can adapt, what environment would they do well in versus not. It’s not out of the question that I would hire someone that’s more of a rock star. You know, if they were a superstar at Google or Facebook or some startup, but the bar for that hire is very high.

So it’s not just that it’s an A+ player in terms of hard skills. Is, can this person be an A+ player and fit within the team, within the organization and within the value system or not? How would this person fit? In some cases, you need to figure out what space they would fit into. And sometimes, I have taken risks in the past and have hired people that, we’re a little bit on the fence and sometimes it works out well, sometimes it doesn’t, but just be very weary of rockstar hires without doing this value matching and team matching very aggressively. 

Conclusion (41:27)

Nuno: Thank you Bertrand. 

This concludes our episode 19. We focused today’s episode on advice to recruiters: all the way from the job description, how to find talent at different levels of seniority, all the way to closing the process of recruiting.

In the next episode, episode 20, we will give advice to candidates on how to be found, on how recruiting has changed in the remote world. And a few other elements. 

This episode, episode 20, will conclude our trilogy on recruiting. 

See you next time.