Chairman of a billion-dollar business: 3 ways to avoid common hiring mistakes

Joel C. Peterson
Customers check in at the JetBlue counter at John F. Kennedy Airport
Getty Images

Nothing is more important to the success of your business than hiring great people. Entrepreneurs should look at hiring like any other critical investment decision: The goal is to invest in people who are likely to generate returns that exceed the costs of their employment by a significant margin.

A good hire, like a good investment, generates value by creating benefits (or returns) that go far beyond the stated job description. When you hire great people, they do more than simply fill a job; they advance the organization in unforeseen ways that are consistent with the organization's vision, but which are also new and inventive. Additionally, they generate cultural benefits that attract other great people, ultimately creating a flywheel effect.

The potential ramifications of a poor hire are equally significant. A bad hire is like a bad deal: Easy to get into and difficult to get out of. A poor hiring decision can be devastating to an organization.

A bad hire is like a bad deal: Easy to get into and difficult to get out of.

Anyone who's spent more than five minutes in business knows good hiring is mission-critical. And yet there's still a lot of bad hiring, especially in an environment where competition for talent is fierce and managers feel pressure to hire quickly or risk losing a qualified candidate.

Fast hiring decisions usually create more problems than they resolve. But it's often not easy to determine whether a candidate has the characteristics you need most.

Here is my formula for hiring, including the most important characteristic to look for and a five-part "checklist" to increase the odds of finding people who have it.

Hire hearts and minds

First and foremost, you should be hiring for brains and heart. By this I mean a blending of a person's raw intelligence with character. And, by character, I mean a deep-rooted quality that is the sum of a candidate's values and her ability to keep going in the face of hardship.

While specific skills and needs may loom large in the near term, it's a person's character and ability to meet unexpected challenges that typically determine her performance over the long run.

Joel C. Peterson

In his story "The Go-Getter," Peter Kyne describes a WWI veteran who perseveres even when given impossible tasks by his boss. The final task leads him on a particularly frustrating wild goose chase in the quest for a certain blue vase. The parable illustrates the principle that a great employee never returns to his boss with only an excuse: "I tried, but ..."

The story also illuminates the kind of person you want to hire: A go-getter, someone who will get the job done, no matter the obstacles.

So how do you find these smart, resourceful go-getters? The best, if not only, way to find people with hearts and brains is to do in-depth interviews with candidates. If you've read Angela Duckworth's "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance," you will recognize this quality when you see it.

Come prepared and go deep

Managers often don't get the information they need to make good hiring decisions because they don't know how to conduct good in-depth interviews. A big part of conducting effective interviews is recognizing that interviews are first and foremost fact-finding missions. Their purpose is to systematically collect specific details about a candidate's accomplishments and to reveal shortcomings and thus prevent hiring mistakes.

How to get hired at Facebook

In order to find facts, managers must know how to keep their preconceived biases in check and how to ask questions that will reveal valuable information about a candidate's talents, values, motivation, and other relevant characteristics.

To improve interviews, follow this handy checklist:

  1. Ask specific, fact-finding questions: Turning generalities into specifics is much better than asking a bunch of 'clever' questions.
  2. Conduct values-based interviews: Dig deep into a candidate's accomplishments to understand how he achieved them. Explore significant, specific actions that say something about what he values and how he brings those values into practice.
  3. Insist that every interviewer do her homework: This includes reviewing the resume, reading the job description, knowing her assigned role, and being prepared to conduct an evidence-based interview.
  4. Park the emotional biases: Invoke the "collect information before deciding" methodology.
  5. Time is on your side: You need at least 60 minutes to conduct good in-depth discussions of a candidate's accomplishments and to gain a good understanding of how she approaches problem solving.

Don't forget to on-board properly

Finally, when you find that "right" person, think carefully about how, when and who will make the offer, and what will happen next. The first 90 days of a new employee's tenure are often a critical period for launching a successful career.

If you don't get the first 90 days right, what looked like a great hire may turn into a not-so-great employee. This is a time for listening, for building relationships, for understanding the culture – the real priorities of the organization and the way things get done. Mistakes made in early interactions can have a long half-life and be hard to overcome. So make a deal with all new hires that you'll give them immediate and specific feedback. And make it two-way, so you can course correct as soon as they run into problems.

Joel C. Peterson is the chairman of JetBlue Airways and a professor of business at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA.

Former Disney exec shares her revealing questions for potential hires