How to (and how not to) screen for the best startup hires

After nearly 7 years, I've stopped improperly screening potential hires. Here are the 4 simple questions you must ask candidates.

How to (and how not to) screen for the best startup hires

As CEO, I make mistakes every day. One mistake I am glad to no longer make — after nearly seven years — is improper screening of potential hires.

Up until four months ago, this was my flawed mental process with regards to screening promising job applicants:

Prior to the introductory conversation: “Wow, this person’s resume is great! They check all the boxes for this role. I need to convince this person to work here.”

During the introductory conversation: “During this meeting, I must make an air-tight case for working here: our mission, the technology, and why their personal and professional experience is a great fit for this role.”

After the introductory conversation: “They seemed interested. This is great! Everything is going to work out: we need to fill this role and they want to work here.”

What my well-intentioned approach yielded, over time, was way too many hires who did not work out for a variety of reasons I now realize could have easily been avoided upfront.

Earlier this year, someone fortuitously suggested I read a book called Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. The screening interview guidelines Smart and Street propose have been game-changing for me and I'm only sorry I didn't discover them sooner.

This screening "hack” I’m excited to pass on is both simple and very effective at culling “A” players from other candidates — where “non-A” players are either low performers or people who would not be a good fit at the company and/or in a specific role.

Per Who, there are four questions you should kick off a screening phone call with. I tell candidates I insist on asking these same four questions of every person I interview, and that once we get through them, we can dive into absolutely anything else. (I also share that I take notes during this portion of the call so candidates know I am taking great care to listen and understand their answers.)

  1. What are your career goals? The key thing is to give candidates the first word so they can give you a truly candid answer, rather than running the risk of having them repeat back some version of what you say you’re looking for. I’ve learned that truly talented people know what they want and will be excited to share their career goals with you right off the bat.
  2. What are you really good at professionally? The goal is to get the candidate to share 8-12 specific positives so you can get a sense as to whether their professional aptitude is aligned with what the role and your organization requires. I insist on getting at least eight examples of what they consider their professional “superpowers — “A” players tend to have a pretty acute sense of what they excel at and can be very specific about their skillset. I urge people to be precise, though that doesn’t mean their answers have to be lengthy. For instance, when interviewing a product candidate, I’d like to hear that they consider MRDs and PRDs part of their core expertise, rather than hear a soliloquy about being great at “product strategy” which is rather nebulous.
  3. What are you not good at or uninterested in doing professionally? This question is my favorite because it offers a great opportunity to truly understand what someone is not looking for. In candidates’ responses, you have to watch out for those who disguise “strengths as weaknesses.” I don’t ask candidates to specify which things they are “not good at” versus what they are “uninterested in,” because in the end, they are one-in-the-same: they won’t be happy doing any of the things they share in response to this question. If someone shares something that’s a deal-breaker for the role/organization, you can easily cull them from your funnel. Lots of candidates initially feel awkward answering this question, but most tend to say they actually had fun with it on the other side of their answer.
  4. Who were your last bosses and how would they rate you on a scale of 1-10 when we talk to them? The Who authors specify that you should be careful to say “when” not “if” so people give you honest assessments of how their managers feel about their accomplishments. (In my experience, this last one is always worth asking, but  becomes most useful during the reference-check process later on.)

After asking these primary four questions, I try to be as curious as possible about people’s answers. You should ask clarifying follow-up questions such as, “What do you mean?” “What happened?” “Tell me more.” As a former journalist, I like to transcribe the entirety of the conversation because I can go back to the answers to analyze them and share them with colleagues internally.

Once we’re done with these Who questions, I let candidates guide the rest of the conversation. Often they want to talk more about the specific role at-hand, but more frequently, these initial screening questions lead us into a more interesting discussion about goTenna’s mission and technology or about the overall industry landscape.

Regardless of where this introductory conversation veers, these four simple  questions have consistently enabled me to efficiently screen out people whose goals or aptitudes are not aligned with what our company needs or can offer. They’ve also helped me quickly move applicants whose ambitions and experience are well-aligned with our business’ needs through the hiring process.

By allowing candidates to “go first,” I invite them to share their forthright career goals and give an honest assessment of their skills. By “going last,” I don’t color their answers or sway them in any way. In other words, I now know I should not be “convincing” anyone to work at goTenna — a surefire way to end up hiring someone who would certainly be happier and more successful working somewhere else.