Article Published: August 29, 2014
Article Published: August 29, 2014
Raul Valdes-Perez, Contributing Writer
In nine years as Vivisimo CEO and 12 years as Chairman, only once did I get a call asking what kind of a job a former employee had done for us, despite Pittsburgh’s intimate technology community and Vivisimo not being a large company. As a startup founder, I knew the former employees, or had ready access to their supervisors. Why didn’t prospective employers inquire?
Previous columns developed principles for bringing others’ knowledge to bear on our challenges through social (not social media) means. These principles endure, despite technology change, as long as people remain fairly constant.
In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” author Stephen Covey was asked what he would have done differently as a businessman. His answer: “I would do more strategic, proactive recruiting and selecting. When you are buried by the urgent … it is so easy to put people that appear to have solutions into key positions. The tendency is to not look deeply into their backgrounds and patterns, to do “due diligence,” [...] You really have to look deeply into both character and competence …”
Inquiring about prospective employees or partners is a special case of seeking advice, with its own norms. I’m an enthusiastic background checker, because it’s crucial for startup success, and because I relish the entrepreneurial challenge: Starting from scratch, figure out quickly and confidently, with the entire outside world as a potential resource, if someone is right for a job.
The first advisor is of course the candidate! Jack Welch, the former GE CEO, wrote in his book “Winning” that the most informative question to ask is this (in my expanded version): “For every place you’ve been, starting with college, why did you go there, what was your mission, who was your supervisor, what did you accomplish, and why did you leave?” The answers reveal the candidate’s goals, how the candidate pursues them, whether the transitions were due to reasons that might recur in your company, whether the accomplishments aligned with the mission, and so on. Leave lots of time! Chapter 18 of my book expands on this and other questions.
The other source of “advice” is people who have worked with the candidate before. If the candidate is currently employed, ethical norms apply. But often the candidate is not now employed, is on his way out, or is forthcoming with references anyway. If candidates have detailed their past supervisors, then there is a ready list of people to contact, with permission.
If possible, talk with peers, supervisors, or subordinates who aren’t formal references. Ask who else knows the candidate, then call them. Since most people don’t do this, it’s best to state up front who you are and why deep background checks are important for the success of your project. Outside recruiters won’t be as zealous, since their stakes aren’t as high.
Here’s another approach: Call references when they are unlikely to answer. Leave a message explaining yourself and say, “IF (emphasis) you think [candidate] did a great job for you, I would appreciate a return call at your convenience, day, night, or weekend.” You stress its importance by giving your mobile number and asking to be contacted at any time. If you don’t get a call back, maybe the reference is on vacation, sick, or didn’t get the message. But if you call several people, no or few calls back will tell you something.
If the candidate joined your organization, it’s good practice to “close the loop” with references with a brief message that reports the outcome and thanks them, building a foundation for future needs in either direction.