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I'm an engineering manager at Braintree. I write about politics, psychology, and software.

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Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street

30 October 2018

Most writing on management includes a paean to the importance of hiring the right people, the best people, who will differentiate the organization from the rest and make dreams come true. Despite widespread agreement on the importance of hiring, I haven’t seen anything on how to actually do it - how to go out and build a top team.

“Who” is exactly that. It’s a playbook for hiring executives, although its authors would say their method applies to non-executive hires as well. While short - about 160 pages - it is comprehensive, covering everything from how to define a role, source candidates, and interview and sell them. Like all good business books, it’s opinionated, concise and persuasive.

Scoring scorecards

“Who” advocates measuring candidates against scorecards, internal documents that define expectations for a role. Unlike traditional job descriptions, which often focus on the day to day activities of an employee, scorecards document the specific outcomes a hire will be expected to achieve. For example, rather than saying “the VP of Sales will spend their time hiring a sales team and selling to clients”, a scorecard will say “the VP of Sales will hire 4 salespeople and achieve $10M in sales at a 30% margin within 6 months”.

This has several benefits.

First, it has effects similar to specifying OKRs on product teams: by writing down concrete expectations, the scorecard forces the hiring manager to think carefully and identify the most important things the hire will do. Just as importantly, it forces the rest of the management team to get on the same page about the role. The CEO and CFO can’t have different ideas of the VP of Sales’ goals are when they’re written so specifically. Scorecards are therefore instruments for both clear thinking and effective communication.

Second, the focus on outcomes helps guide hiring managers away from the useless credentialism that is endemic in hiring. Apart from outcomes, the only other section of a scorecard is the core competencies a candidate must have. Therefore, the scorecard is entirely focused on the outcomes a candidate has to produce and the skills they’ll need to produce them; there’s no room for requirements regarding a degree or number of years in industry.

Scorecards focus hiring managers on the right questions. Their biggest weakness is that explicitly defining outcomes can be difficult when hiring for non-executive roles. I don’t hire individual software engineers to achieve a specific outcome; I hire them to build a team, and then the team achieves the outcome. I haven’t found the right way to phrase this in a scorecard yet, but the discussion I have when trying feels like the right discussion to have.

Who have you worked with?

The other big idea in “Who” is their approach to sourcing. “Who” heavily emphasizes prior experience working with candidates, both in sourcing and when evaluating candidates.

The authors advocate for a strict preference order when sourcing: referrals, then recruiters, and finally open postings. Whenever a role opens up, the first thought of management should be to find someone in-network who can do the role. This approach has several advantages:

  • Candidates come pre-screened, which cuts down on selection time.
  • People might refer candidates who are not actively looking for a job, expanding your candidate pool.
  • By making it clear to each employee that they’ll be expected to provide referrals, the company creates a culture where everyone is invested and involved in building the best possible team.

I find this reasoning pretty persuasive. I’ve evaluated hundreds of candidates over the last few years and acted as primary hiring manager for about 70, and I’d estimate the success rate for referrals to be at least 50% higher than for people off the street. There really is something to the idea that high performing people want to work with other high performing people, and “Who” presents an effective approach to sourcing based on this observation.

The biggest downside of 100% referral-based sourcing is that it can be an obstacle to building a diverse and inclusive team - you have to be careful not to develop a culture of people just hiring other people who look and think like them. Disappointingly, “Who” did not discuss this dynamic at all, but people looking to build teams this way should be wary of it.

Interviewing and beyond

“Who” also offers a template for a behavioral interview and advice on how to perform good reference check before closing with some thoughts on how to sell candidates on a position. These sections seemed fine and a good primer for people who haven’t done much hiring before but weren’t as thought-provoking as the earlier parts of the book.

It’s cliche, but the quality of the team really is the most important element in any venture. “Who” was a refreshing and fast read that contained a lot of useful insights on the topic; I’d recommend it for anyone interested in the topic.

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