November 15, 2007 | last updated March 28, 2012 4:14 am

Start With Good Grapes

By Stephen R. Balzac

Joel Peterson, co-founder and winemaker at Ravenswood Winery, was once asked about his secret to making good wine. He replied, "Start with good grapes." William O'Neil, the founder of "Investors Business Daily," often says that the key to making big money in the stock market is to start by buying the best stocks.

Businesses want to hire the best and brightest. Seems pretty simple: start with the best, and your results will be stellar. Of course, as anyone who has ever tried to make wine or play the stock market knows, it's rarely quite so simple: picking good grapes, stocks or people is surprisingly difficult.

Why is it so hard to pick good people? While grapes can be tasted, and stocks can be researched, Facebook aside, it's hard to find out a lot about people. The information that is available is often confusing, misleading or subject to dramatic misinterpretation, a trend only likely to get worse as users become more sophisticated at shaping their online images.

Test Overload


Some businesses employ a bewildering array of psychological tests, looking for just the right people. In professional sports, a number of tests were developed to identify those budding athletes with the same traits as top performers. The simple, logical, reasoning was that they would be the most likely to become top performers themselves. It was simple and logical…but it never worked. The use of such tests in a business setting is just as effective as in sports: not at all.

Puzzle solving is another popular screening technique. Done well, it is highly effective at selecting for good puzzle solvers. It also selects for a homogenous team. While homogeneity may be fine for milk, heterogeneous teams produce significantly superior results: the wider range of skills and viewpoints yields more varied and creative solutions to problems.

Performance under pressure, working as part of a team, seeing the big picture, punctuality, reliability and so forth are at least as important as technical skills. Despite this, interviewers spend almost all their time focused on the last: those are the skills with which most interviewers are comfortable. It's vital to investigate the rest of the package. Technical skills can always be learned, whereas someone who refused to cooperate with team members in prior jobs isn't likely to change just for you.

How do you find the best employees? Like picking grapes and stocks, nothing will guarantee success. However, to significantly improve your odds:

• Identify the key skills needed for the job, and specify metrics for evaluating those skills. Don't leave it to each interviewer to come up with their own metric: "different from the interviewer" is often seen as "wrong."
• Focus on key events in the candidate's past. What was the situation? What did they do? What happened?
• Ask about scenarios relevant to the job. Ask them to describe similar events in their own experience. Stick with actual events, not hypotheticals.
• Find out what the story means to them. How do they interpret the situation they described to you?
• Watch for inconsistencies. Do the stories make sense?
• Use a variety of techniques. No one method is perfectly reliable. Build a detailed and multifaceted picture of the candidate.
• Think about what you've learned and compare notes with others.
• Keep the interview focused.

Good luck!

Stephen Balzac is president of 7 Steps Ahead LLC, a consulting firm based in Stow. He can be reached at steve@7stepsahead.com or 978-298-5189.

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