Learn How to Hire the Right Person—It’s Like A Horse Race
Some of you might think that’s a strange analogy, but learning how to hire the right person and selecting winning horses are very much alike. And neither one of them is easy.
When I was a little kid, I worked at the race track selling papers. It was a way to earn money, but it was also an education, and in more ways than one. One of the things I’ll never forget is how people chose which horses to bet on.
Some people—the ones who brought picnic baskets and were there for a fun day out—bet on horses by their looks. They would watch the horses parade out of the paddock, and then rush to bet on the horse with the prettiest coat or longest mane, or the way they held their head high in the air.
If you paid attention you could hear the neophytes in the crowd.
“Look how beautiful that one is. He’s gonna win this race. I know.”
I was only ten at the time, but I remember laughing as the people rushed to plunk their money down at the betting windows, because nine times out of ten, the less-glamorous horses won.
Other people—ones who thought they knew something about horses—would hang around the paddock and watch the horses come out also. But they weren’t looking at the pretty ones; they were watching to see which horses had spunk. Which ones pranced and fought the reins.
“He’s got spark,” one would say. “A mile won’t be nothin’ for him,” another would say.
I laughed as those “experts” ran to plunk their money down, too. At the ripe age of ten, I already knew that you couldn’t tell who would win the race by how pretty or how spunky a horse was.
How Do You Pick A Winner?
A good handicapper knows the way to bet on horses is by studying their track record. And in case you didn’t know, that’s where the phrase “track record” got it’s start—from horse races.
A good handicapper looks at a horse’s parentage (bloodline), what they did in previous races, and how they ran in the mud and on fast tracks. They evaluate the distances each horse ran and how they performed, and they analyze which tracks gave them trouble, and why.
Even then it’s not a sure thing. Sometimes a horse is a speed demon, but their personality is so strong, and they give the jockeys so much trouble, that they don’t grow into winners, at least not consistent winners.
People Are No Different
In order to hire the right person, we need to be able to identify the consistent winners. The ones who will deliver results every time. We can’t judge them based on how they interview. Or how they answer questions in an interview, or even on how they perform on a technical quiz thrown at them. We need to judge people based on proven data—references.
And here’s the real key—we can’t judge a person based on performance or track record alone. We have to judge them based on performance as it applies to our situation.
Just like the handicappers at the race track, we need to find out if the candidate is a mudder or a hurdler or does their best work on a fast track.
Anyone who frequents the track knows that very few horses can win under all conditions. Some are mudders. Some like fast tracks. Some like turf or hurdles. Some shine in short races of 6 furlongs, and others favor the 1.5 mile runs. That’s part of the reason that the Triple Crown, racing’s most coveted award, has only been won by 11 horses in almost 150 years.
That’s why it’s been called the toughest trophy in sports.
When In Doubt, Dig Deeper
You have to look way beyond the obvious when assessing a candidate’s skills and appropriateness for a position. Just because they were successful in their last position doesn’t mean they’ll be able to repeat that success with your company.
A huge number of start ups over the past few decades has shined enough light on the failure rates of people moving from big companies—where they had been successful—to tiny start ups, where they fell flat on their face.
Companies are now alert to that and have systems put in place to evaluate a candidate based on certain criteria (At least we hope they do.)
But what about the rest of the factors?
If a candidate knocked it out of the park with product launches at their last company—did they do it because of a fantastic group of project managers, or was it their own skill?
Those sales numbers that look so good—are they a result of new initiatives and strategies that your candidate put in place? Or was that person fortunate enough to have inherited a team of superstars?
Or maybe they were lucky enough to join a company with a fantastic reputation and products that everyone wants?
The answers to these and other questions need to be uncovered if you want to be sure of hiring the right person. You need to prepare your team to dig, and then dig more. And you need to conduct exhausting reference checks. There is still nothing as good as a well-conducted reference check to find out about a person.
But Reference Checks Don’t Reveal Everything
Reference checks are great. I rely on them as the primary means of gathering good information about candidates. But they don’t tell everything. Sometimes you need inside information.
I’ll go back to the track to give you an example.
At the ripe old age of 13, I met the girl who would become my wife. I invited her to the track. (Romantic as hell, huh?) Being from a good Italian family, she invited her grandmother.
While we were at the paddock, my future wife saw a horse that she liked. I checked the horse out in the Telegraph and Racing Form (two of the papers that list track records) and, by all accounts, he looked to be a strong contender. But her grandmother looked up at the cloudy sky and shook her head. And then she said, “He’s not a mudder.”
Having worked at the track for a long time, I knew what a mudder was, but I was shocked that she did. I said, “You know what a mudder is?”
She gave one of her famous chuckles, the kind you hear in movies from people who know more than you think they do. Even more than they should. And then she said, “Put your money on Paint the Town Pink. He’s gonna win this race.”
I said, “How do you know that?”
And my wife’s grandmother said, “I just talked to the jockey.”
Nothing Is Better Than Inside Information
Think about it. In this day and age, when honest references are difficult to come by, there is nothing more valuable than information from someone who knew the candidate well. The problem is that most people are afraid to share that information.
A reference will often share what they know with a close acquaintance, or with a headhunter that they trust. But seldom will they say anything negative in a formal setting. This level of detail is exactly what you need to make informed decisions, so do whatever you have to do in order to get it.
Hiring people is a hit-and-miss operation. If you conduct comprehensive, well-prepared interviews, and you do thorough reference checks, you stand a much better chance of hiring the right person. If you can find a way to take advantage of inside information, your odds for success increase significantly.
Remember that the next time you start a search to fill a position.
Oh, and as far as Paint the Town Pink…he won that race, and he paid $14.80 on a $2.00 bet. That amounted to a $37.00 return on my $5.00 bet. Needless to say, I took my wife’s grandmother to the track quite often after that experience.