Buffett tests intelligence by asking applicants to solve tests or puzzles of various types. For energy he finds out about the candidates personal habits on eating, exercising, meditation etc. he also gives them an interesting test. He asks candidates to prepare a presentation for ten minutes that describes some particular business topic they should be familiar with. He then gives them two minutes to chop it down to a five-minute presentation. After that he gives them two more minutes to chop it down again to a one-minute presentation. Buffett says that integrity is impossible to assess in an interview and so for any finalist candidate for an important position in his company he does a full background check.
The whole premise for this hiring process, according to Buffett is that you can’t believe resumes. They are obviously only going to pick out highlights of a career and will not tell you about negatives. Numerous studies have shown that a significantly high percentage or resumes include half-truths or outright lies. And he thinks asking questions about resumes is a waste of time because that focuses on what people did in the past instead of understanding what they might be able to do for you in the future.
All businesses rely on good people to make them operate and it can be a huge setback to your business if you hire the wrong people for a key role. Most companies have the experience of having made a bad hire and know how traumatic that can be for your business. So it is vital that you find the right people during the interview process. I think almost anybody will agree that the normal way that we hire often doesn’t uncover everything you want to know about a person. We typically sift through resumes and then interview the top few candidates for an hour or two. We don’t often dig very deep past the resume.
I’m not saying that we should all change to Buffett’s method because you can find many other non-traditional hiring methods that other people will swear work equally well as Buffett’s. But you really should consider changing your hiring process if it is not finding you the people you need. Finding something that works for you will take some work on your part. The traits Buffett lists as most important for his company might not be the same traits you think are most important. And certainly you have different needs to meet if you are hiring a new CFO, a help desk technician or an installer. You must determine for each job what you most want out of that position and then find a way to test for those traits.
For example, if you are hiring somebody who says they are an expert in something you need, then grill them hard about what they know. If somebody is supposed to have physical or technical skills, then get out of the interview room and into the central office or into the field and have them demonstrate what they know. If you need a good writer, have them write something on the spot. One of my own favorite tools is to ask candidates to solve a real life problem. Every company has real-life examples of problems you have recently encountered – asking them how they would have solved it will tell you a lot about how they think.
There are a number of companies around that offer tools for non-traditional hiring. There are on-line tools that offer the kinds of games that Buffett administers and many other kinds of tests. I have one client who makes everybody take a test that provides a detailed profile of their personality traits. They think it’s important to know if somebody is an introvert or an extrovert, is likely to work better alone or in teams and similar traits.
But I would caution against administering any test if you don’t feel qualified to interpret the results. I know I would not feel comfortable trying to understand a personality profile since I don’t know how different personality traits affect job performance. As an example, I recently read a university study that found that high-energy introverts often make better salespeople than extroverts. They conjectured that it’s because they have to try harder to communicate and since they are introverted they tend to stick to the basics instead of filling in quiet time with a lot of empty talk. That sounds reasonable but is counterintuitive to the way most people hire salespeople. If I was hiring a salesperson I would have a hard time trying to do so using a personality profile and I think I might find myself quickly second guessing my own judgment.
To some degree, identifying and hiring the right person is itself a talent and some people are good at it and others are not. I have one friend in the industry who has made numerous poor hires, and my advice to him was to find somebody else to hire for him. So perhaps the first place to look at hiring better is to look at yourself. I suspect that many people are uncomfortable in being the sole decision maker in the hiring process and this is why many companies use teams to interview people.
I don’t have any generic device because this is one area where everybody had different ideas, and I have seem many different ideas be effective. But I also know that just reading resumes and judging people by what they tell you about resumes is often ineffective and can lead to some terrible hires. So I strongly recommend that you find ways to test people on those traits that you think are most important for the job you want to fill. If you take some time to think about that before you leap into the hiring process you probably are going to do a better job at finding the right fit for your company.