Hiring new employees: Get the rockstars

Originally posted to the personal blog of Luc Levesque, founder of travelpod.com and a general manager at Expedia.

TravelPod’s hiring. [editor’s note: So is TribeHR!]

I’m looking for a UI Designer, 2 Web Engineers (developers) and a Product Manager.

I’ve heard the old saying many times that you can always expect to have a mix of “A” players and “B” players in any team… I understand that in medium and large companies, to grow to scale, you inevitably have to accept this to some degree.

Luckily, we have a small team and I have no plans to hire 50 people in the near future. So, my approach is different: I want a 100% A team. 

Get a 100% “A” Team

Now, this is hard to do. I already have an all-star team but I know how hard it is to grow while keeping the quality bar super-high.

It can take 6 to 12 months to find the right person, but as we all know, once you’ve found them and add them to an already solid team, you can do magic. Also, it’s just so much more fun for everyone on the team when you’re working on big ambitious projects, with great people, every day.

So, that’s what I’m trying to do. But it begs the question: How do you find these gems?

Finding the Gems

It’s a good question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The average person has probably only ever worked with—or even heard of—two or three talented people like this in their career. They’re hard to find.

Here’s my current thinking around how to recognize these rock stars:

  • They’ve never, or have VERY rarely, been let go… when they resign everyone stumbles all over themselves to try to keep them. It does happen that a rockstar falls victim to politics or cut backs, but I still think this is a huge signal.
  • They’re the smartest people in the room when you’ve worked with them. I prefer finding someone who’s super smart than someone who knows the exact stuff I need them to know. Smart people can learn fast.
  • They always get stuff done much faster than you’d expect and faster than others do.
  • When they’re asked to do X, they do X. And Y. And they suggest clever ways to do Z.
  • They’re the first person(s) you’d call to hire if you started a new company like TravelPod tomorrow.
  • When they work somewhere they quickly become the “go-to” person.
  • They’re likely currently employed (that’s ok though, we offer a very sweet package and work environment here).

Bonus: Recruiting and Selection FAQ

“Does rock star talent get referred more often?”
Yes, in my experience, rock stars are typically found by referral because the only way to be sure if someone is any good is by working with them. Everyone who’s worked with a rockstar knows how good they are. Referrals from your network of contacts (inexpensive) or a talented recruiter (expensive) is the best source to find these gems. 

“Can you tell if someone has rock star talent from a resume? If so, how?”
It’s tough. There’s no silver bullet but some of the thoughts I included above help. The big ones for me are:

1) Looks for signs of excellence. Have they excelled at anything in their life? Do they just play soccer or did they win the championship? Do they play piano recreationally, or are do they compete (and win)? Are they working for the pay-cheque or because they love what they do and would do it even if they weren’t paid (side projects usually are good signs of this).

2) What’s their work history like? Have they moved up, mastered what they did (ie: became the go-to person) or taken on more responsibilities in their past jobs? Have they been laid off or fired? The best predictor of future performance is past performance.

Again—and this is a big caveat—there’s no silver bullet. Basically, unless you know the person or trust the referral they’re coming from, you’re stuck trying to sniff out talent from a resume or an interview. The more signals you can identify, the more you can stack the deck in your favor. There’s nothing worse than a terrible hire. 

Sure, looking at these signals might mean that you miss up a rock star but as Steve Kaufer (TripAdvisor’s CEO) once told me: “You’re better to pass on a rockstar than to hire a dud.” This has become my hiring philosophy.

“I would imagine people with rock star talent are quite humble, how would a person know they have rock star talent?”
Yes, absolutely. They are humble, and aren’t prima-donnas. The best way to know if they have talent is to look at what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished in their careers and lives and in their side-passions. Whether it’s excelling at school, having the guts and determination to successfully launch a startup and product, or surviving waves of layoff, try to sniff out excellence from their past experiences.

Obviously what you look for will vary based on the type of role you’re looking to fill but talent and passion always trump skills.

In the end there’s just no substitute for having worked with the person or a trusted referral.

“I don’t think that never being let go and being currently employed should be [a signal for talent], given the [job market and economy].”
I agree, it’s not a perfect signal but with a stack of 20 resumes and no referral from your trusted network, it’s definitely a signal that helps focus in on the ones with potential, at the risk of missing out on a rock star. When I see that someone’s been laid off or fired, I try to understand very hard why. It does happen that big companies chop out good people but it’s a rare event. There would need to be many other signals showing how great the person was to counter the fact that they’d been let go.

“… the most brilliant people I had a privilege to meet would never admit they were the rock stars. … “
Absolutely, I 100% agree. Big egos do not make for rockstars. I have a blog post in the works that echoes this. You’re 100% spot on.

What isn’t a rockstar?
Here are my thoughts on this:

  • They aren’t prima donnas. The best rockstars are humble but ambitious, hard-working and respectful.
  • They aren’t job hoppers. They commit to a project/company and stick around for years, not months. The ones who spend their time hopping around because the grass always seems greener somewhere else don’t make the cut.
  • They don’t just want to work on the cool stuff. Everyone likes to work on fun stuff and luckily for us at TravelPod almost all of our work touches some pretty cool things like Facebook, mobile, viral & SEO… but the reality is rockstars know that there’s always some grunt work that needs to get done.
  • They aren’t passive contributors. They have (intelligent) opinions but understand that sometimes other opinions win out.
  • They aren’t shameless self-promoters. They’re good, they know it, but they are good listeners and work well on a team.
  • They aren’t just in it for the money. Don’t get me wrong, money is important and they deserve to be compensated well, but ultimately they care deeply about making a big impact on the company mission.
Workplace Tribes will be publishing an exclusive interview with Luc Levesque on Tuesday November 15th. Sign up for free email updates whenever we have new content.

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