Check Your Bias
I run day workshops on the subject of bias, so for brevity I am going to focus on the top line learning. What I learned about my bias was shocking, and I may not have learned it had I not had the great good fortune to be working in Asia. Far from my cultural norms, I had to have the deep trust of my recruiting staff who were empowered and enabled to give me a real gift in harsh feedback. Isn’t it always true that the only feedback you need is the stuff you don’t want to hear?
The story goes like this: I was recruiting for a senior (director level) technical position as a direct report in my Asia regional leadership team. As always I was looking for the best recruit from a diverse pool. I could only hope to do this because of the years of work I with the recruitment team had put into building such a pool, but that’s another story. No surprise that an excellent candidate had made it to the hiring loop, who I was excited to meet, but our schedules were not working with us, and she ended up accepting a telephone interview with me.
I was not so impressed. My questions were answered but not with any passion nor conviction and I sensed a candidate who would struggle in my team.”No-hire” was my verdict, not just for my team, but for the company. The recruiter was incensed with me, she said, “James, you are just wrong on this one, she’s a great addition to your team and brings diversity of thought and style, not just gender, and you need to reschedule. Perhaps see her face to face?”
The end of the story is that this candidate went on to become one of my best hires in a career that spans more than 20. The face to face interview was night and day compared to the phone interview and I learned to face an uncomfortable truth – my bias gets in the way of making great phone interview decisions. I have still to really understand what it is about my bias that makes this true, but I have fully grounded the assessment that I don’t give candidates the opportunity to shine when they are on the phone. This is especially true for anyone that has a diverse cultural or way of being to my own, where my biases are most at work. Coming to accept this allows me to work toward a better outcome. Diverse hiring is now a possibility for me because I have addressed the behavior that was getting in my own way.
Look Where No-One Else Is Looking
When I was successful in winning the argument to set up a new network engineering team of 14 full-time employees in India, I faced an unexpected challenge from within our own recruiting team in that location. What I had learned in managing this team through a vendor relationship was that, as our frontline or tier 1 escalation team, they were troubleshooting and learning about customers and their problems that should be thought of as ‘intellectual property’ (IP) for the company, and that having this valuable knowledge rolling off was a very bad thing.
These employees deserved to be stock holders and get all the benefits of employment with Microsoft; and so the hiring process began.
Flying in to Hyderabad to hold the first of these face to face I could not help but notice that it was an exclusively male candidate pool.
I chose not to make any offers and instead insist that a more diverse pool be brought into interview. I was informed that this would not be possible since “Indian parents don’t want their daughters working in dark datacenters and on night shifts; better employ men”. Having rejected that argument, I was told that “actually, no women had applied and so there is nothing to be done”.
A few years earlier, managing an engineering team in Shanghai, I had faced real trouble in recruiting engineers suitable for work in Technical Operations, downstream of pure software developer, testing and requiring a holistic mindset, a curiosity and passion for ‘Systems thinking, how things work’; The China recruitment system was providing plenty of well qualified Computer Science grads but none with that spark of individuality and questioning spirit that I know I needed. The recruiter explained “but the kind of kid you describe would have failed high school and never made it to a CS degree”.
Both stories offered a powerful opportunity to do something unexpected. In India I took the highly respected Cisco CCIE examination as my baseline, telling the recruiter that whatever the pass rate of female internet engineers in India would be the minimum representation I would accept; it worked because it forced us to look in another place for our candidates and I delighted in the feedback in those interviews “I didn’t think a company like Microsoft would ever employ me,” she would say.
In Shanghai, we figured out that these students would have failed high school and would now be found on the Internet Cafés springing up all over town, feverishly working out how to stay out of jail and defeat the Great Firewall of China, an almost perfect mindset for me. So guess where we went recruiting?
Be a Magnet for Talent
Two things are always true: as a hiring manager, you know that there are never enough great candidates with the skillset you need. As a candidate, you know there are never enough great jobs or hiring managers to appreciate your skillset. It’s a matter of context and perspective. The enlightened hiring manager puts herself in the shoes of the candidate she is looking for and asks herself these questions:
“What would the perfect candidates be doing right now?”
“Where would they be working, hanging out, chilling out?”
“Who will their friends and influencers be?”
I discovered that this was not enough, and at scale, I would not be able to hire enough quality and diversity if I followed only this strategy. What I learned was to build a pool around the skills and jobs that I had vacancies for and to constantly feed that pool with knowledge sharing and preparation.
1) Use Twitter to post consistently toward the needs of the candidates you want to attract.
2) Find groups on LinkedIn and Facebook that meet the criteria you know of your candidate pool and get active in the discussions and concerns of that group. Can’t find the right group? Oh, you lucky thing, create a new one! Starting that new group is the holy grail in my opinion because it tells me you have thought about what differentiates you and the roles you offer in a really impactful way.
3) Look hard at who were your number 2, 3 etc. picks for jobs recently filled. In most cases, any of the final 3 candidates would have been great in role (and equally, any could have failed!) but if they only heard and felt rejection from me, that hardly serves my purpose as a diversity hiring whiz. Really work on the experience those “not this time” candidates receive from you and retain their interest in working for you. My final “secret”tip, to reward you for reading this far, look at who left a year or more ago. Are they ready to come back? Increasingly important, I found a rich and motivated pool who were thrilled to come back after trying their luck with different leaders and organisations.
It takes time and authenticity to attract the profile you wish for, but the investment in becoming a magnet for the greatest talent I found to be the gift that keeps on giving.