Oswald Letter

Predicting success is hard

Basketball player with ballby Dan Oswald

How good are you at picking winners? If you’re one of the 70 million Americans who filled out a bracket for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, you probably have a sense of how hard it is to predict success.

You think you’ve done your homework. You do your research, looking at win-loss records, points scored, and common opponents, yet you’re looking up in the standing of the office pool at the guy who chose his teams based on school colors or team mascot. Maybe you have a “system” guaranteed not to fail, yet somehow it always does. Predicting success is hard.

This year’s tournament overall number one seed, Villanova, was penciled into more brackets as the eventual champion than any other team. It seems like a smart bet. The experts say they’re the best team by giving them the overall number one seed, and 17.9 percent of Americans picked them to win it all. Yet they’re headed home after a second-round loss. Predicting success is hard.

Or maybe you picked Duke to win it all this year. If you did your research, you’d know that the Blue Devils have the best tournament-winning percentage in history, winning more than three of every four tournament games they’ve played. You would also know that Duke has won five NCAA Championships and appeared in 11 championship games. And they have a veteran coach who has led the team to all of this success. Yet Duke lost last night in the second round, and their season is over. Predicting success is hard.

Isn’t it the same with picking winners as a hiring manager? Consider the résumés you receive for an open position. You meticulously sort through them to determine who is worthy of a phone interview and come up with your choices. Let the tournament begin.

The first round yields an impressive slate of candidates with the right pedigree and track record to catch your attention. You start your calling, and the results are mixed. Some of your favorites as you started the process don’t hold up under scrutiny. A few must have taken a creative writing course because they don’t even resemble their résumé. Others clearly don’t possess what you’re looking for despite what the résumé says. The field has been cut in half.

Yet you’re still alive. You have a good group that you’re looking forward to seeing in action, so you invite them in for an interview. The first round of interviews culls even more from your group of candidates. Some of the experiences related don’t match what’s needed in the position, and others are clearly not a fit for the organization.

Time to pull out the assessment tool to see what we’re really dealing with. What’s better than a proven tool to assess behaviors and personality to determine success? Now we not only have what they’ve put on paper and what they’ve told us in the first round of interviews, but we also have some real information to help us determine fit and, maybe, reveal a few things that we had not discovered.

You bring the candidates back for a second round of interviews, where they get to meet other members of the team. This is a time to see how they interact and behave with someone other than the person who would be their boss. Amazingly, a number of them let their guard down and show a side of themselves they haven’t revealed before. With a little confirmation on your end, the group is even smaller.

You follow up with the top candidates on your list and determine your top choice for the position. You decide it’s time for one final meeting. You meet for lunch to see her in a different setting. How will she conduct herself in a more informal interview? She passes with flying colors, and you make your choice. You have your overall number one pick. What are the chances you made the right one?

About 50/50, according to a study by Leadership IQ in which the organization tracked 20,000 new hires to see how they fared. The research showed that 46 percent of new hires failed in the first 18 months—46 percent! All that work that goes into hiring, and you still end up with the wrong person nearly half the time. Predicting success is hard.

I was speaking to a colleague about hiring, and she said, “I tell my managers that until you get someone in the job and see how they perform, you really have no idea how they’re going to do. And the ones we think have all the right stuff often fail, and the one we took a chance on proves to be a great performer. We get it right only about half the time.” It seems like her experience is about average. Predicting success is hard.

I wish I had the secret recipe when it comes to hiring. A thorough interview process that involves a number of different people meeting the candidates, assessment tools, and reference checking can all help eliminate those who don’t meet your criteria, but in the end, there’s still a lot of risk in hiring. You certainly can’t expect to be perfect. In fact, statistics show that when you get down to your final candidates, a flip of the coin might provide the same results.

But hiring is too important to leave to chance, so you’re stuck doing your best to find the right fit. Just know that you’re not going to get it right every time—no one does. And be prepared to start all over when you discover you’ve made the wrong decision. Predicting success is hard.