Future Perfect: How to Hire Great People

Proof Branding

Resumes suck. Portfolios don’t tell a complete story. Cover letters are useless.

Don’t focus on where someone has been. Focus on where they want to be and who they have the potential to become.

One of the hardest parts of running a business is hiring and managing other human beings. Moreover, finding the right people who are truly invested in what you do. You can’t ask others to sign a blood oath to give you everything they possibly can forever (Right? Right.). So, the question, inevitably, is how do you know if you’re hiring the right people? How do you measure if they’re truly invested in the company? How do you keep them around and how do you create opportunities for growth?

The challenge lies in balancing where someone has been – where they are today – and most importantly – where (and what) they have the potential to be. Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, calls these people “Future Perfect”.

“One of the biggest challenges when hiring someone is envisioning the person the’ll become. There’s a lot of future perfect people. People who have the potential to become the perfect person in the perfect role if just given the right opportunity.”

While resumes aren’t totally useless, they inevitably don’t tell you what you really need to know about someone. You can see where they’ve been (and don’t get me wrong, experience is important), but they fail at showing one of the most important characteristics any great hire must possess: Potential.

Ultimately, hiring the perfect person is a roll of the dice. It’ll always be a bit of a gamble. You’re going to take some chances. Here are a few things we’ve learned and put into practice that have led to our best hiring decisions.

Conduct informal interviews at informal locations.

The best conversations you’ll have with potential employees will take place at your local coffee shop or watering hole, not at the conference room down the hall. Have a real, human conversation with people in a natural environment. Ask honest, conversational questions (leave the “What is your greatest accomplishment?” question behind). This will break down the initial nervous energy that is always there during an interview, and will let the person you’re looking to hire be their more authentic, true self.

Let them meet the team.

As you narrow your search, especially for smaller businesses, plan a lunch or happy hour with key members of your team and the potential hire. With small teams, the right hire has to feel right. They have to jive well with your company culture and team dynamic. We did this at Proof with a recent hire and it was a great experience – sure, a little awkward at first, but in no time it became a great, dare I say fun conversation, and gave me great perspective on how the the individual interacted with the team outside of a formal office setting.

Ask bold, interesting questions.

  • “What are you excited about?”
  • “What’s your favorite TV show from the 90’s?”
  • “Where’s the last place you traveled to?”
  • “What are you reading?”

I love asking question that move away from the traditional, “Why do you believe you’d be a good fit for this job?”. Because, quite frankly, they’re boring and don’t tell me what I really want to know about a person. I want to know more about interests, hobbies, and passions – and how those factor in to the day to day operations and position at-hand.

Bonus: If you’re a job-seeker reading this, come to your interviews with similar bold questions for your potential employer – it’ll make you stand out and shows genuine, honest interest in conversation.

Look for effort.

Jason Fried says the most important quality he looks for when hiring is effort.

“I hire people on the basis of the effort they put into getting the job. We don’t define effort; we just ask for it. It’s up to individuals to decide what it means and demonstrate it in their own way.”

If you take a look at our careers page (we’re looking for a couple awesome folks, by the way) – you’ll see that I close each description with the following:

“Please send an email with your resume and anything else that will make you stand out to Matt Cheuvront (matt@proofbranding.com).”

I don’t define what that “extra something that’ll make you stand out” is – because I want to leave “effort” open to interpretation. But effort is getting more than a resume and generic cover letter (you’d be amazed how often has the wrong name on it – I was once a woman named Teresa).

At Proof, when I hire a designer I typically send out a small (very general) design test/sample project and ask them to have it back to me in 3-4 days. This allows me to gauge the individual’s design skills and abilities, but more importantly, their ability to ask the right questions, think critically, budget their time, and most importantly, measure effort. Whether you’re looking for a designer or an accountant, I’d encourage you to do something similar.

How can you apply this to your business?

You can still do all of these things and end up with a dud employee. It happens. People will wow you and then ultimately they’ll end up not being the best fit. There is no fool-proof plan to hiring great employees.

But I concur with Fried. A resume isn’t enough. A formal, traditional interview typically won’t do the trick. And you need to open your eyes not to who someone is, but who they have the potential to become. As Fried concludes:

“A lot of future perfect people are stuck in current mediocre positions. They just haven’t had the chance to do their best work. As the owner of a company, few things make me prouder than seeing someone excelling in a way that their resume, portfolio, and/or references wouldn’t have suggested they could.”

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