How to hire employees who will succeed

You may not have heard of a 19th century Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto, but you have heard of the theory that made him (semi) famous: the 80/20 rule. His studies of the distribution of wealth in a variety of countries around the turn of the last century led him to conclude that 80% of the world’s wealth is controlled by 20% of its people.

Pareto’s principle is more than some dusty economic theory and there are numerous corollaries that have direct application to your organization. For instance, in most companies 80% of production and success is directly attributable to 20% of the staff. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone we hired was a 20-percenter?

Well, with the right preparation and interviewing practices you can greatly deepen your talent pool.

You get to choose the people you employ

To make the point about the value of having the right people in the right position, let’s take a look at a professional football team, the Jacksonville Jaguars. In their first season, they had an optimistic owner, an aggressive young coach, an enthusiastic fan base, and a new stadium. However, in spite all those positives they had a poor record and didn’t make it to the playoffs. Flash-forward a year and the Jaguars made it all the way to the AFC Championship game, even though they had the same owner, the same coach, the same fans, and the same stadium. What changed? The players. Some were new, some were re-utilized, and some simply showed the benefit of effective coaching. 

Like football, the unfortunate reality of business life is that there are a large number of factors you cannot control. However, your employees are the one thing you can control from start to finish. You have the opportunity to decide who your ideal candidate is, who you will recruit, who you will interview, who you will hire, who will perform which tasks, and, when necessary, who you will fire. Therefore, making the right decision becomes all the more important.

Create a performance profile to define your ideal candidate

In order to make the right hiring decision, you have to have a strong sense of the individual who, in a perfect world, would meet and exceed all of your expectations for the position. It is this ideal candidate against whom you will measure all applicants, and in search of whom you will design your recruiting efforts.

In turn, identifying the ideal candidate starts with defining what it means to be successful in the position. The value of this process cannot be overestimated and it is imperative that you be thorough and invest sufficient time and resources into creating the most accurate performance profile of an ideal candidate as possible.

Start by understanding what the position exists to accomplish. The first step will be to review an updated, thorough, and accurate job description. You will also want to meet with the position’s supervisor and the top performing employee(s) in the role to learn about the specific needs and applications of the position. Similarly, if the position interacts with other departments or work groups, it can be useful to understand their needs for the position. It can also be important to benchmark against those employees who have failed in the role.

Next, shift your focus to developing a deep knowledge of the objective measurements for success that you already have in place. Your performance evaluation system is a good place to start, since you have probably already invested a significant amount of time and effort in establishing criteria that determine whether or not an employee has been successful in the role. The value of hiring someone who can meet these specific criteria for success should be obvious.

No less critically, you should have a clear understanding of the positive and negative aspects of the “environment” in which the job will be performed. Is the team a well-tuned machine, or is it currently fractious? Are there a lot of deadline pressures? Does a successful performer have to be able to quickly decide between and execute multiple tasks? What sort of management style will the candidate be subjected to? What sort of outside of work commitments go along with the job? In the end, the most skilled candidate in the world will fail miserably if he or she can’t function in the job’s actual environment.



The importance of interviewing effectively

The best performance profile in the world will do you no good if your interviewing process is inadequate. Properly prepared and conducted, the interview can be your best opportunity to develop a true sense of whether the applicant possesses the “right stuff.” To do so, however, you must go beneath the surface of the candidate’s resume, examine his or her responses, and probe the applicant carefully on the core competencies that are necessary for success. 

Effective interviewing starts by building a questionnaire around the performance profile you have created. Focus on the areas crucial to success in the position. Design questions that not only get at the specific requirements of the position, but also reveal elements of the applicant’s character and personality.

You will want to explore times they have had success in job-significant tasks in the past. Asking questions that focus on how effectively the applicant has worked with others, and what sort of management style best aligns with their needs is also important. Finally, getting a sense of what they’re passionate about, and what amount of motivation they have demonstrated in other workplaces, can give you a good idea of what to expect if you hire them.

The way in which you ask a question can be as important as the question you choose to ask. Close-ended questions (e.g., “Have you ever used Excel?”) will get you close-ended answer (“Yes”). Open-ended questions (e.g., “What’s the most difficult project you’ve ever had to accomplish using Excel?”) will get you a much more useful answer.

And once the candidate provides you with a response, it is essential that you ask a number of follow-up questions, since the answers they give will often only touch the surface. Questions such as, “what difficulties did you encounter,” “did you have to ask for help at any point,” “who else did you have to rely upon to complete the project successfully,” and “did you initiate the project, or was it assigned to you,” can give lead to a lot of valuable information.

Finally, during the interview (with a nod to our old friend Pareto), you should only be speaking about 20% of the time. And after the interview, it can be very useful to complete a scoring sheet containing the position’s eight to 10 core competencies for success, which will not only help you more rationally evaluate the candidate, but will make it easier to compare him or her to the other candidates you interview. By the time you make a job offer you should already know how (and how well) that person will fit into your company.


Many people see interviewing as an innate skill and for some people that may actually be true. But for most of us preparation, a keen ear, and basic curiosity can get us to the same point. The biggest mistake most interviewers make is to rely on their gut instincts. While the gut may be right about 40%–50% of the time, it is very often wrong in ways that could wind up being discriminatory. Following the process I’ve described should improve your hiring success rate, while reducing the possibility of unintentional discrimination.

James Olney is vice president, senior HR consultant at Associated Financial Group.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine – your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.