Patrick Lencioni: Selecting the ideal team player

Abstract from Patrick Lencioni's The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtueselecting

This abstract from Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues, takes a look at recruiting the right people – and how to get the most out of the interview process

The most reliable way to ensure that teamwork takes hold in an organisation would be to hire only ideal team players. Of course, that is neither possible nor practical, especially considering that most leaders don’t have the luxury of creating their teams from scratch. But all leaders can certainly do their best to try to recruit, select, and hire people who are humble, hungry, and smart when an opportunity arises to bring on someone new.

Though it would be nice to have a perfectly reliable, diagnostic tool for accurately identifying and selecting people who are ‘humble, hungry, and smart’, no such tool currently exists. However, by doing thorough interviewing and selective reference checking, a manager can hire people with a high degree of confidence that they’ll be ideal team players.

The interview process

The most important part of interviewing for team players is simply knowing which answers and behaviors are the best indicators of humility, hunger, and people smarts and then making the interview as revealing as possible. There are plenty of books in the world about behavioral interviewing that offer a variety of models and tools. For me, the key is sticking to a few concepts, all of which may seem obvious but are too often overlooked.

Don’t be generic

This first one is the most obvious of all, as it is largely the point of this section, if not the entire book. Still, it’s worth stating. Too many interviews are so generic that they provide little or no insight into specific attributes. Instead, they leave interviewers with extremely general assessments of candidates. “She seems like a nice person. I like her.” That would be fine if you were looking for someone to mow your lawn once a week but if you’re looking for a team player who is humble, hungry, and smart, being specific about targeted behaviors and attributes is critical.

Debrief each interview as a team

One of the biggest problems I see is a silo approach to interviewing. This happens when a handful of people conduct their own interviews and don’t talk about what they’ve learned until after the entire round of interviews is complete. The problem is that one interview is no more specific or effective than the previous one.

Instead, interviewers should debrief quickly after each interview, specifically around observations related to humility, hunger, and people smarts. For instance, if the first two interviewers agree that the candidate is hungry and smart, the third can focus on humility, taking more time and probing more directly for the unknown piece.

Consider group interviews

I often like to talk with candidates in a room with multiple team members. This allows us to debrief more effectively (e.g., “What did you think he meant when he said…?”).

This also gives you a sense of how the candidate deals with multiple people at once – which is a critical skill in a team. Some people are much different one-on-one than they are in a group, and you need to know that.

Make interviews nontraditional

It is amazing that, as we move further into the twenty-first century, most interviews are still the same stilted, rehearsed, and predictable conversations they were forty years ago. The problem is not that they are boring or old fashioned, but rather that they aren’t effective for discerning whether a person has the behavioral skills and values that match an organisation or a team.

Someone once told me that the best way to know if you should hire a person is to go on a cross-country business trip with him. See how he handles himself in stressful, interactive situations and over long periods of time. While that isn’t necessarily practical, I do believe that interviews should incorporate interaction with diverse groups of people in everyday situations and that they should be longer than forty-five minutes.

I like to get out of the office with a candidate and see him deal with people in an unstructured environment. Running an errand at the grocery store or the mall is not a bad idea. Spending time in a car and seeing how he behaves when he’s not answering a question helps me understand him better. And remember, whatever I’m doing with that candidate, I’m looking specifically for signs that he is humble, hungry, and smart.

Ask questions more than once

I call this the Law & Order principle. On that crime show, tough investigators would always seem to ask suspects the same question again and again until the perp admitted to the crime.

Cop: “Did you murder the guy!?”

Perp: “No.”

Cop: “Did you murder the guy!?”

Perp: “No.”

Cop: “Did you murder the guy!?”

Perp: “Okay, I did it! I did it!”

Yeah, that’s an exaggeration, but the same idea can apply to an interview. Asking an interviewee a question once often yields a generically acceptable answer. Asking that question again in a different way might get you a different answer. If you’re not sold on the response, ask a third time in a more specific way, and you will often get a more honest answer. 

Ask what others would say

This one relates somewhat to the previous suggestion. Instead of asking candidates to self-assess a given behavior or characteristic related to humility, hunger, or people smarts, ask them what others would say about them. For example, instead of asking someone if he considers himself to be a hard worker, ask him “How would your colleagues describe your work ethic?” Or instead of asking a candidate if she gets along with her colleagues, ask her “How would your manager describe your relationships with your colleagues?” Or here’s an interesting one; instead of asking someone if he is humble, ask, “If I were to ask your colleagues to assess your level of humility, what would they say?” Some interviewers will think this sounds obvious but then they’ll admit that they don’t do it enough. Others will wonder if such a seemingly small change in tactics can make a difference. But there is just something about having to answer on behalf of another person that makes a candidate more honest. Perhaps this has to do with the possibility of the interviewer doing a reference check. Maybe it’s a matter of not wanting to misrepresent someone else’s views. Whatever the case, it seems to produce more reliable answers.

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Ask candidates to do some real work

This one won’t always be possible, since it depends on the nature of the work. A doctor can’t be asked to do surgery before being hired, but a copy editor, an advertising manager, or a management consultant can be given a simulated work project. The point is not to get free work, but rather to see how people perform in real-world situations so you can discern whether they are humble, hungry, and smart.

Don’t ignore hunches

If you have a doubt about a person’s humility, hunger, or smarts, don’t ignore it. Keep probing. More often than not, there is something causing that doubt. That’s not to discourage keeping an open mind, but erring on the side of assuming that a person has the virtues of a team player is a bad idea. So many times hiring managers look back at the red flags they saw during interviews, the ones they chose to ignore, and regret not taking more time or energy to understand them. While it’s never possible to have complete confidence in a hire, nagging doubts about a candidate’s humility, hunger, or smarts need to be properly explored and discarded before an offer can be made.

Scare people with sincerity

One of my favourite ways to ensure that I’m hiring people who are humble, hungry, and smart is to come right out and tell them that these are requirements for the job. It is probably wise to wait until the end of the interviewing process to do this, but it may be the most important part. Here’s how it works.

You’ve finished interviewing, debriefing, and doing follow-up interviews, and you’re pretty confident that the interviewee is humble, hungry, and smart. But you’re not sure.

Before making an offer to the candidate, assure him that you are absolutely, fanatically committed to these principles and that if an employee somehow made it through the interview process but did not share that commitment, it would be miserable working there. Let candidates know that they would be called out for their behavior, again and again, and that they’d eventually dread coming to work. Also, assure them that if they do fit the humble, hungry, smart description, work will be fantastic for them.

Many people will try to get a job even if they don’t fit the company’s stated values, but very few will do so if they know that they’re going to be held accountable, day in and out, for behaviour that violates the values. Of course, it’s important that you follow through on that commitment to the values in the rare occasion that a candidate calls the bluff.

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This is an edited extract from The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues, by Patrick Lencioni (Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand, 2016, RRP £16.99)