Interview with Jeff Hyman: On recruiting Rockstar talent effectively

Vera: Congratulations on your new book, “Recruit Rockstars”. Who is a Rockstar talent and what are some of the big mistakes organizations make in recruiting such?

Jeff: Rockstars are the top performers in any organization. Some people call them “A” players. They do a disproportionate amount of the work, with exceptional quality, and they contribute a great deal to the organizational culture. They are indispensable to the success of any organization.  Here are the common mistakes that organizations make in hiring:

  • Focusing too much on experiences and competencies and overlooking the match between the company’s culture and the employee. For example, a person who prefers to work in teams may make a poor fit for a sales organization that fosters competition between sales people.


  • Overemphasis on the interview. Some people, particularly in sales, are great interviewees. They can read your body language and tell you exactly what you want to hear. Once in the job, however, these same people may not actually deliver.


  • Confirmation bias. We tend to prefer people like ourselves and we often subconsciously make up our mind about somebody within the first few minutes of the interview. To counter that tendency, develop a standardized list of interview questions, gather information on each candidate without bias, and fairly weight all the candidates against your objective criteria for the position.


  • Lack of clarity about the needs of the position. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you won’t find it. You should develop a very precise description of the skills, experiences, and qualities that are necessary to succeed in the position. I keep a scorecard that allows me to meticulously track how well a candidate meets the job requirements and then use the scorecards to compare candidates against each other.


  • Overweighting titles and companies. It’s natural to be impressed by a senior executive from a Fortune 500 company, particularly if you’re running a much smaller organization. While the person may bring a wealth of valuable experiences to your company, you should take care to determine exactly why the person left or wants to leave their Fortune 500 position, how their specific skills translate to the job you’re seeking to fill, and whether the person will thrive in your organizational culture.


  • References are given short shrift. Many organizations do not check references until after they’ve decided on a candidate. In those cases, negative or lukewarm comments from references are often ignored. It’s best to talk to references early in the evaluation process and give them due weight.


Vera: It’s one thing knowing what a Rockstar looks like – but would be good to know how to identify and avoid B players (seemingly good enough candidates) during hiring.

Jeff: Just as a Rockstar in one company isn’t always a Rockstar at another company, the same can be said for B players. Someone may be underperforming in their current role only to step it up with the right challenges and compensation at a company/role that is a better fit. Again, it comes back to skill, will, and DNA—so make sure to judge candidates (and current employees) in terms of these critical elements. I define DNA as the human qualities that define an organization. It’s especially important to find a candidate whose DNA matches the organization’s DNA. You can teach skill but DNA is either there or not.


Vera: These days, there are many tools available for promoting effective recruitment but as you indicate, 50% of all hires fail. What are some of the tried and tested factors for identifying the right candidate?

Jeff: The most predictive factors of Rockstar success might surprise you:

A test drive: Putting the candidate through a dry run to see how they would perform in the real world.

Structured interview: Ask the same questions of each candidate and get a sense of the trendline of each candidate’s career.

Cognitive ability: This is so much more important than raw intellect. Can a candidate ask questions, consume information, and adjust their approach accordingly? Are they open minded enough to take information that conflicts with their pre-existing mindset? Can they separate the signal from the noise?


Company DNA: Are the candidate’s ingrained characteristics a fit with the culture, the manager, and the team. Some studies reveal that this accounts for nearly half of a candidate’s success in an organization.

Strong competencies: The skills and characteristics that are essential for the role.

Strong backdoor references: References that the recruiter or hiring manager finds on their own.


Vera: A candidate’s fit with the company’s culture is a notion you talk about quite a bit. What is cultural fit and what are some effective ways to determine this with candidates?

Jeff: When most people think about company culture, they’re thinking about the laundry list of feel-good values emblazoned on a poster in conference rooms and tucked away in the “About Us” section of the company website. My definition of DNA is a little different, instead focusing on the 3-5 precise traits of the type of individuals you need at your company to be successful.

In order to determine a DNA fit, you’ll have to ask interview questions that allow the candidate to reflect on situations where they were called on to act with these traits in mind. Then, during the Test Drive (a test assignment of sorts before making a final hiring decision), design a project for your top two Rockstar candidates to undertake that gives you the opportunity to judge whether or not they have these traits.


Vera: We know that hires don’t always work out including even Rockstars. What’s your advice on what to do when a Rockstar hire doesn’t work out?

Jeff: One of the most important things you can do to ensure the success of a new Rockstar hire is to implement a proper onboarding process. Just because a Rockstar has proven themselves as competent during the interview process and Test Drive, doesn’t mean that they don’t need time and direction to become properly acquainted with the inner-workings of your company. Don’t throw too much on their plate at the beginning of their new job and also make sure to provide plenty of opportunities for questions and feedback during the first weeks, month etc.


Vera: You talk about the importance of a company determining its DNA in preparing for Rockstars. What are the tenets of a strong employer brand?

Jeff: You want to create an environment that allows Rockstars to flourish and achieve great things with people who share their values and dedication. Whether you are a CEO or department head, your job is to create a culture that fosters and enables that to happen. In essence, that’s your employer brand. To build a culture that will attract Rockstars, you first need to define the culture you want. Select three top performers who truly epitomize the soul of the company.  Next, identify the three to five characteristics that they have in common.  Once you’ve decided on the characteristics, communicate them to the rest of the company, stating that all employees will be expected to express these qualities every day.


Vera: Heads of HR even at senior level seem to be still struggling to have an equal seat at the table with heads of finance, etc. How do you think heads of talent/HR can have more voice and strategic impact?

Jeff: I believe that times are changing in regard to the perception of HR and its role in building high-performance organizations. Talent has become the great differentiator between organizations today.  Simply put, whoever has the best employees and best culture probably is going to win. HR is in the process of evolving from a back office, transactional function to a strategic partner to the CEO.  Some organizations are further along than others in this regard – but the trend is clear.  An effective HR unit that provides strategic guidance on human capital issues is indispensable for world class organizations. The best CEOs now know this.


Vera: For the many organizations that say their employees are their best assets, any advice on what they can/should be doing to demonstrate that in practice?

Jeff: Create a culture and environment that allows top performers to do their best work and provides them with a viable & fulfilling career path.  Beyond that, it’s important to create an attractive and fun workplace.  People should have flexible hours and the ability to work from wherever they are most productive. In the office, you should provide healthy food and an opportunity for people to move around and be active during the day.  Compensation is important, but you don’t need to pay the absolute top salary.  If you get the DNA fit right and give people challenging, important, and rewarding work, you will be able to retain most employees by paying at about the 80th percentile – in other words, well above average, but not quite the top.


Jeff’s profile

Jeff Hyman is Chief Talent Officer of Strong Suit and Adjunct Professor at Kellogg’s School of Management.  He is an Executive recruiter who has personally recruited over 3000 people, advised hundreds of entrepreneurs and helped organizations improve the recruitment process. Jeff is author of ‘The Ultimate Guide to Hiring Growth Rockstars’ and ‘Recruit Rockstars’. He has been building teams and growth cultures for over 20 years. More on Jeff and his work at


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