Notes & Summary: The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired by Lou Adler

In The Essential Guide for Hiring and Getting Hired, Lou Adler makes a strong case for what he calls Performance Based Hiring.

What follows is a combination of quotes from Lou’s book, my summaries of his ideas, and occasional additions and interjections of my own. This is one of the best books I’ve read on the hiring process soup to nuts and I highly recommend purchasing, studying, and highlighting the daylights out of it if you’re in talent acquisition or HR.

The Gist

If you want to improve your ability to hire strong people, here’s how: clearly define the performance required for success. Use this description for recruitment advertising and screening and then find people who have done something comparable. In the process, you'll discover if your candidates have exactly the right level of skills, experience, and motivation to do the job. This is what performance based hiring is all about.

Clarifying objectives up front has been shown to increase employee satisfaction, improve on the job performance, and reduce turnover.

Minimize the risk of hiring someone who isn't a perfect fit by having the candidate demonstrate evidence of exceptional past performance – any pattern of achievement in a variety of comparable situations.

On the job success means consistently and successfully getting the job done, regardless of the circumstances, with the least direction possible. If a person can do this, they have exactly the right level of skills, experience, industry background, and academics needed.

Extra weight should be given to motivation to do the actual work required. But to properly assess motivation, confirming job fit is critical. More on that later. Doing less than satisfying work, working with a weak manager, or working under very trying circumstances can drain even the most motivated person.

Overview of the performance based hiring interview process:

  1. Prepare a performance based job description to replace the traditional skills and experience based job description. This is the performance profile. It lists the primary performance objectives of the position, describes what the person in the role needs to do to be considered successful, not what the person needs to have in terms of skills and experiences.
  2. Conduct an exploratory phone screen. A 30 minute phone interview starts by reviewing the candidates LinkedIn profile or resume and conducting a basic work history review. Part of this is looking for the Achiever Pattern, indicating that the person is in the top 25% of his or her peer group. If the candidate is a reasonable fit, the interviewer should ask the major accomplishment question (described below) as it relates to the most important performance objectives in the performance profile.
  3. Prepare a preliminary assessment using the Quality of Talent Scorecard (more on that below).
  4. After the phone screen, it's possible to make a reasonable decision if a full interview is appropriate in order to conduct a thorough Performance Based Interview. The bulk of this involves conducting a work history review and then asking the two basic questions: the Most Significant Accomplishment question and the Problem Solving Question. The MSA question is used to assess the candidate’s past performance in comparison to the performance objectives in the performance profile. The PSQ is used to determine if a candidate has the problem solving, thinking, and decision making skills required for on the job success.
  5. Organize the interview for multiple interviewers
  6. Conduct a complete evidence based assessment using the Quality of Talent Scorecard.

Lou Adler’s Performance Based Hiring process aligns perfectly with the four keys to becoming an excellent manager presented in the 1999 book by Marcus Buckingham First Break All The Rules:

  1. Define desired results
  2. Find people who could deliver these results
  3. Leverage employees’ strengths
  4. Select staff for talent, not just raw knowledge or skills

Define the Job

To attract top talent, a company must offer career opportunities rather than lateral transfers. Be open to flexing the job somewhat to attract and hire more high achievers who might be light on experience and skills, but high on potential.

Top people rarely apply for new jobs as they often have multiple opportunities in front of them, so companies must offer major career moves, not just another job, in order to attract top talent.

Emphasize year one and beyond criteria. This should communicate what the person can become if he or she successfully completes the challenges of year one. It represents the future possibilities and is a large part of the Employee Value Proposition (EVP); basically, what's in it for the candidate. If successful in year one, candidates need to know that the potential for rapid growth exists for those who achieve stellar performance.

A typical performance profile consists of three to four major objectives that the candidate must accomplish to be considered successful in year one.

Performance profiles capture job fit, managerial fit, and cultural fit.

Clarify objectives by making them specific, measurable, and action oriented. Include expected results, the time frame, and an overriding statement about the environment. The environment relates to the culture, management issues, resource availability, or unique challenges involved in completing tasks successfully.

Define the three to four major performance objectives for a job, then break down some of the sub-tasks required to achieve each major objective.

Here are some questions hiring managers can use to help develop some of the sub tasks of each major objective:

  1. What kind of work will the person be doing most of the time?
  2. What are the biggest technical challenges or problems the person would need to address?
  3. What are the team issues or challenges?
  4. What are the key deliverables?
  5. Are there any strategic or big picture issues that need to be considered?
  6. Are there any changes or improvements that need to be made?
  7. What's a typical problem the person is likely to face?

As part of the performance profile process, it's important to create the Employee Value Proposition or EVP. This describes what's in it for the candidate by clarifying and defining in detail the reasons why a top person would take this job over other competing opportunities, including a counter offer.

One aspect of preparing performance profiles is to make sure that the employee value proposition is clearly stated and visible at the top of the posting, where it's read first.

There are 4 main elements to creating a job posting Lou Adler’s way:

  1. Include a compelling or unusual title that will stand out
  2. State the Employee Value Proposition somewhere near the top
  3. List a quick summary of the big tasks and projects to be completed. Clarifying expectations this way, even roughly, is far more meaningful than listing a bunch of skills and required experiences.
  4. Minimize the skills and experience requirements, but describe how they'll be used on the job, rather than as a demeaning list of screen out requirements.

Sourcing the Right Candidates

Good sourcing begins by aligning your strategy with how top people look for new careers.

This process is similar to preparing a traditional consumer marketing plan focused on identifying the needs and desires of target customers. In this case of hiring, the target customer is the ideal or perfect candidate.

Every marketing plan begins with the strategy and development of an ideal customer profile (ICP).

The plan needs to get specific: understand buying patterns, prepare advertising copy, identify target customers, identify the best channels to reach those people, and conclude with the actual engagement and selling techniques.

Here's a checklist for developing a customized sourcing plan.

  1. Understand your ideal candidate before starting to look
  2. Offer career moves instead of lateral transfers
  3. Add the two step MSA (Most Significant Accomplishment ) and PSQ (Problem Solving Question) to the interview process
  4. Push personalized emails to your target list quickly
  5. For passive candidates, don't sell the job, sell the next step

Recruiting advertising programs need to be set up so that active candidates can find you (inbound process). It's different for passive candidates, whom you need to seek out (outbound process).

Finding and attracting more top passive candidates is largely about aggressive networking in combination with compelling career messaging.

Depending on your industry, LinkedIn Recruiter should likely be your top sourcing tool.

First Phone Screening

Start every conversation with a candidate on the basis that it's only exploratory. Then tell them that a mutual agreement will be made to move forward or not, based on the career merits of the job opening, after the first phone screening. This way you don't try and oversell a candidate who expresses too much interest in day one offerings (as opposed to year one and beyond). Those are the candidates that typically have an economic need for a new job and won’t have the intrinsic motivation to succeed long term.

As you begin the phone screen, ask the person why he or she is looking for a new job, and what the person would need in a new job if they were to switch companies; then ask him why this issue is personally important to them.

Getting the answer to "why is this important to you?" will unveil some of the candidate’s underlying frustrations. If you can minimize these problems you'll increase the odds that you'll be able to hire the person on reasonable terms.

During that initial 30 minutes of the interview, conduct a work history review while looking for the Achiever Pattern (more on that soon), and ask one job related Most Significant Accomplishment (MSA) question.

Many hiring mistakes are made in the first 30 minutes of an interview due to first impression bias.

In order to minimize moment one or first interaction mistakes, wait 30 minutes to make any judgments about the candidate.

To fight that initial/first impression bias: For people you don't like, ask them easier questions – go out of your way to prove they're fully competent. On the flip side, ask those you do like tougher questions, thereby going out of your way to prove they're not the least bit qualified for the job. This mental reversal is how you offset your natural reactions to first impressions.

The primary purpose of the initial interview:

  1. Accurately assess competency and motivation to do the work required.
  2. Clearly communicate to the candidate that the company and interviewer have high hiring standards
  3. Clarify job expectations without overselling or being long winded
  4. Get the candidate to see that the job offers a true career move

The basics of first contact recruiting and networking:

  1. Ask yes questions when you get someone on the phone. Ask if they'd be interested in talking for a few minutes about your position if it represents a significant career opportunity.
  2. Don't launch into a sales pitch about your job opening. Instead spend a few minutes reviewing the person's LinkedIn profile. If you've prepared the performance profile and recruitment marketing materials, especially the EVP, you'll have enough information to craft a statement about the career merits of your opportunity, once you fully understand the candidate’s current job. Remember you’re proposing a career opportunity, not a lateral move.
  3. Create the career gap. In order for a job to represent a career move it needs to offer both Stretch and Growth. Stretch represents the actual difference between the person's current job and the job you're offering. A more important job in a smaller company represents a stretch from an impact standpoint. Growth is the future. It represents what the person can become if the job is handled successfully. This relates to taking on bigger assignments with more significance, promotional and unique learning opportunities, and getting exposed to more challenging situations.
    1. The two question Performance Based Interview process (MSA & PSQ) can be used to help both the interviewer, and the candidate figure out the size of this opportunity gap. For example, a slightly bigger team, more influence, bigger impact, and broader responsibility combined with a faster growing company is often all you need to convert what seems like a lateral transfer into a significant career opportunity.
    2. Most candidates, especially those who are actively looking, normally asked about day one criteria when first contacted by a recruiter: the job title, company, location, and compensation. Recruiters then typically fall into an unsuspecting trap by giving them the answers. Instead, shift the conversation towards year one and beyond criteria. Do this by saying, “If the job doesn't represent a good career move, compensation really doesn't matter. So let's first see if the job is worth more serious discussion, and then we'll get into the compensation and related issues.”
  4. Don't sell the job, sell the next step. In order for the person to have enough information to consider the job a potential career opportunity, you need to move in graduated steps. This allows the person to gather more and more year one and beyond information in order to fully appreciate the significance of the position.
  5. Build a 10 minute relationship by controlling the conversation around year one and beyond and getting the candidate to describe his or her background first. Then the recruiter can then figure out if the job represents a career opportunity or not. The recruiter must control the conversation and prevent people from opting out until they fully understand the career merits of your job.

It's important to quickly and accurately assess competency when first interviewing a candidate. You must ensure that the candidate:

  1. Is competent to do the work
  2. Motivated to do the work
  3. Can work well with the culture and style of the organization

Find out if a person has a track record of:

  1. Working with great clients
  2. Has worked with top executives
  3. Has been assigned to a variety of critical multifunctional teams
  4. And/or, ideally, can meet the performance objectives required for success laid out in the performance profile

The Performance Based Interview (The Second Interview)

It's important to start the second interview with a thorough work history review. The first screening interview should’ve uncovered an informative overview of the candidate’s career, but now it’s time for a deep dive.

It's very difficult to make an objective assessment of a candidate without a solid knowledge of the person's work history, why he or she took different positions, and how well he or she performed in each of these jobs.

How to conduct a thorough work history review:

  1. Review the past 5 to 10 years: ask about major projects and accomplishments for each job. Find out about the biggest projects led or changes implemented. Scope this out in terms of budget, team size, overall impact, and importance.
  2. Ask about the person's organization, including who he or she reports to and who reports to them. Also ask about project teams the person was on, and who was on the team.
  3. Have the person explain any gaps in employment. Look for resilience, persistence, and self development.
  4. Have the person explain job changes
  5. Highlight all promotions
  6. Look for continuous recognition
  7. Look for patterns of success
  8. Look for diversity of experience, environments, and circumstances

The core of the two question Performance Based Interview is asking candidates to describe major accomplishments comparable to those required for on the job success. This is called the Most Significant Accomplishment question (MSA).

The second question is called the Problem Solving Question (PSQ), and involves asking candidates how they would figure out how to solve actual job related problems.

In general, while there is no getting around the need for some level of talent and ability, it needs to be measured in terms of real job demands, not some artificial standard imposed by the hiring manager.

A solid grasp of the technical demands of the job, plus an ability to rapidly learn and apply new knowledge is the right mix. Remember that the ability to rapidly learn, apply, and execute is a common trait of most high achievers.

The Most Significant Accomplishment question (MSA):

The first question involves asking candidates to describe a significant business accomplishment related to an actual performance objective required for success.

Most jobs have five to six performance objectives that collectively represent top performance – the performance profile. These performance objectives are action oriented and cover the basics required for on the job success.

Once you know what great performance looks like via their performance profile, all you need to do is ask the candidate to give you an example of something significant he or she has done that's most comparable. For example, “We need to launch a complete series of new business software applications over the next six months. This is under a very tight schedule and with limited advertising resources, can you tell me about some major accomplishment you've led that's most comparable.”

Listen four times more than you talk. Asking tough, detailed questions about the person's accomplishments, is the easiest way to do this. This is what the Most Significant Accomplishment question is all about. If you preface the question with a description of what you need accomplished, and why it's important to the company, the best and most worthy candidates will naturally get excited and try to convince you they’re qualified.

The fact finding that follows is key to obtaining a complete answer. One way to do this is to ask SMARTe fact finding questions for clarifying the accomplishment:

  1. S: Specific task – “Can you please describe the task, challenge, project, or problem?”
  2. M: Measurable – “What actually changed, or were you able to measure your performance somehow?”
  3. A: Action – “What did you actually do? And what was your specific role?
  4. R: Result – “What was the actual result achieved and/or what was the deliverable?”
  5. T: Timeframe – “When did this take place and how long did it take?”
  6. E: Environment – “What was the environment like in terms of pace, resources, level of sophistication, your manager?”

More questions to peel the onion:

  • What was your exact role?
  • When did it take place?
  • Walk me through the plan and the results.
  • Give me some examples of initiative.
  • Walk me through the biggest decision made – who was on the team?
  • What was your role?
  • What was the biggest challenge?
  • Describe your supervisor’s style. Did your supervisor help or hinder? How?
  • What was your biggest problem you faced, how did you overcome the problem?
  • What would you do differently if you could?
  • How did you grow as a result of this?
  • Were there any lessons learned?
  • What was the biggest mistake you made?
  • What was the environment like?
  • What did you like the most and least?
  • What type of recognition did you receive? Ask for specific examples, or simply ask, “can you tell me more about that?”
  • Ask for examples of how the person dealt with conflict or where the person had to persuade or influence people in an important way.

Team fact finding questions:

  1. Who was on the team?
  2. What was your role?
  3. How did you get assigned to the team?
  4. What were the team's objectives?
  5. How did you help accomplish these?
  6. Who did you influence?
  7. Who influenced you?
  8. Who coached you?
  9. Who did you coach?
  10. What was the biggest team failure?
  11. Did you get any formal recognition from the team?
  12. How could your team role have been better?
  13. How did you deal with conflict?
  14. How did you grow as a team player?

The purpose of detailed fact finding is to paint a complete word picture of the person's past comparable accomplishments in order to assess their ability to handle the actual requirements of the new job.

During the full interview, you'll ask a number of different MSA questions covering an extended period of time, at least 5 to 10 years, maybe more for those who have been in the workforce longer. Upward progression is a positive sign, and typical of those possessing a strong Achiever Pattern.

The Problem Solving Question (PSQ):

The second question: how would you solve this problem, or the Problem Solving Question (PSQ). When asking this question, describe a legitimate and relevant job related problem and ask the candidate how he or she would solve it. Here’s an example: “If you were to get this job, what would you need to know, or do to ensure the product launch was handled successfully?”

Based on the person's response, get into a back and forth dialogue asking about how he or she would put a plan together, determine resources needed, uncover potential problems, compare alternatives, decide which course of action is best, and prioritize activities.

Here are some follow up questions to ask as part of a back and forth dialogue:

  1. What would you do first?
  2. How would you determine the resources needed?
  3. Whose advice would you seek out?
  4. How would you determine the root cause?
  5. How would you prioritize the work?
  6. How would you compare alternatives?
  7. How long do you think it would take and how would you figure this out?
  8. How would you conduct a cost benefit evaluation of the alternatives available?
  9. What do you think the biggest challenges would be in implementing the solution chosen?
  10. How would you decide the best approach?
  11. What have you done that's most similar?

The purpose of this question and the subsequent back and forth dialogue is to uncover thinking and problem solving skills, not to determine whether the person's approach is right or wrong.

Here are the things you'll be looking for in order to evaluate the quality of the candidate's responses:

  1. The quality and insight of the person's questions and figuring out the real problem while determining the company's range of options.
  2. The clarity of the person's approach and plan of action. Good people know how to figure out a problem, even if they haven't done the exact same thing before.
  3. Be concerned if the answers are vague. If a person doesn't even know how to start by asking you the right questions, it's hard to believe they'll do anything differently once on the job.
  4. The variety of options considered should go beyond what the candidate already knows. Seeking advice is part of this and the quality of who the candidate would contact needs to be part of the assessment. Only presenting narrow internal approaches is a caution flag, you want to hire people who can consider all options and the insight of others, given realistic constraints like limited budget, time, or resources to get the problem solved successfully.

Over reliance on the Problem Solving Question can result in hiring someone who can talk a good game but can't deliver the results – emphasizing thinking skills over actual past performance is the primary cause of hiring people who are partially competent. These are the people who are good at planning and strategizing but not so good at executing and delivering.

To eliminate this problem, all you need to do is anchor every Problem Solving Question with an immediate follow up, Most Significant Accomplishment question.

After the candidate finishes answering the PSQ, ask something like, “Can you tell me about something you've actually accomplished or implemented that's most comparable to how you've suggested we handle this problem?” Following up with a Problem Solving Question by asking the person to describe the comparable Most Significant Accomplishment is called an anchor.

The ability to visualize a problem and offer alternative solutions in combination with a track record of successful comparable, past performance is a strong predictor of on the job success.

The key is to look for a pattern of consistent results in a variety of different situations with different managers, then compare the complexity and scope of these projects to what the candidate is likely to face on your job. Team skills, aka emotional intelligence or EQ, relates to how the person works with others.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence: managing feelings so that they are expressed appropriately and effectively enable people to work together smoothly toward their common goals.

Four major skills makeup emotional intelligence:

  1. Self awareness
  2. Self management
  3. Social awareness
  4. Relationship management

To get a sense of emotional intelligence during the interview, look for examples of how the person interacted on projects and/or led teams.

Seek out coaching examples, dealing with conflict, and persuading or inspiring others. Whatever you discover, the person's team skills need to be assessed in comparison to what's required for the new job.

Motivation & Job Fit

Motivation to do the work required is the most important of the factors and will also be the most difficult to assess. In general, people will go the extra mile doing work they find intellectually or emotionally satisfying under circumstances they find personally satisfying.

Assuming basic competency, job, manager, and cultural fit, are the primary drivers of motivation.

Daniel H Pink’s New York Times Bestseller Drive tells us that in order for a person to truly be motivated, they must be able to achieve mastery, autonomy, and purpose through the task at hand.

To assess motivation properly you need to find multiple examples of where the person went the extra mile doing work comparable to what needs to be done.

Find specific job related examples of the person doing far more than what was required. And make sure you ask when those examples took place.

Job fit involves determining the person's interest and motivation for doing the actual job.

Managerial fit assesses the importance of working within the hiring manager's style, the available resources, workload, and decision making process. During the interview, ask how decisions and plans were made, the degree of independence the candidate had, and what the resources were like in their current and previous jobs.

Also asked about each manager the candidate has worked for to determine whether there's a variation in performance as a result of the manager’s style.

Cultural fit relates to the person meshing with the company's environment, pace, intensity, and its values & mission. Cultural fit can be captured in the performance profile by describing the circumstances, challenges, and environment underlying each of the performance objectives required for the job you’re offering.

When the actual job, company culture, and manager’s style match with the candidate, you have a true fit! A true fit is essential since collectively, it drives motivation.

The candidate doesn't have to be from the same industry or the same type of company as long as the work being done is comparable in complexity and the situational fit factors are close.

The Achiever Pattern

Most high potential candidates exhibit the Achiever Pattern very early in their careers and carry it consistently throughout. Those in the top 25% of their peer group, often get external and formal recognition for their exceptional work.

The Achiever Pattern is:

  1. A track record of consistent upward progress
  2. Formal recognition for doing exceptional work
  3. Assigned to bigger projects or special roles earlier than expected
  4. Rapid promotions, special rewards, or unusual bonuses
  5. Working on cross functional teams with company executives, or those outside the company on critical issues
  6. Being involved in big decisions that wouldn't normally be assigned to someone at that person's level

Here's what to look for as evidence the person possesses the Achiever Pattern:

  1. Promotions are good, but promotions faster than norm are better
  2. If the person was rehired by a former boss indicates someone else recognize the person for his or her ability to perform
  3. Assigned to handle the toughest problems
  4. A track record of working with bigger, more diverse groups
  5. Being assigned to process improvement programs or long range planning committees
  6. Find out if a person has ever made some type of presentation to senior managers
  7. Offered advanced educational opportunities

Another better predictor of success than an absolute level of skills and experiences is having a consistent track record of past B+ performance, doing somewhat comparable work, under similar circumstances.

When the MSA and PSQ questions are combined with good recruiting skills and a performance profile defining exceptional performance, all of the typical problems with accurately assessing a person are overcome.

ABC: Always Be Closing

Don't wait until the end of the interview process to negotiate the offer. Instead start right after the first phone screen.

After the first round of interviews ask the candidate how your job compares to others the candidate is considering.

Ask if the person considers your opening as one of their top one or two possibilities. If a candidate does not consider your job one of their best opportunities, find out the person's concerns. Ask that if these could be addressed adequately or modified somewhat, would the candidate be willing to then go forward in the process to become a finalist?

Before a formal offer is made, the candidate is much more revealing in expressing concerns, so ask good questions to unveil and address those concerns prior to an offer being made.

Test the offer before it's formalized: make sure you cover all aspects of the offer by asking the candidate if he or she would accept it as described and when they could start, when they can give formal notice, when they can give you verbal acceptance to the offer, and when they would officially signed the offer letter. Do all this before giving them the formal offer – if they balk on any item, stop and find out why.

Assessing a Candidate After the Second Interview

Once the second interview is complete, using a 1-5 ranking scale can help minimize errors caused by first impression, over reliance on intuition, or biases. Equally important, it will increase assessment accuracy including how different candidates for the same job are compared.

  1. Level 1 = Not hireable.
  2. Level 2 = Competent but not motivated to do the work required or doesn't fit with the manager style or company culture. These people are frequently very good people but in the wrong job or situation. Hiring people like this is a very common hiring mistake – it's due to focusing too much on technical skills and not enough on motivation to do the work and not assessing for situational fit factors correctly.
  3. Level 2.5 = Average performer. This person meets the basic needs of the job on all factors including cultural and managerial fit, but the person is not exceptional in any way.
  4. Level 3 = Hireable, rock solid performers. This is a person who can achieve all the performance objectives listed on the performance profile and is highly motivated to do the work required. Motivation to do the work is what separates a level 3 person from a level 2 - 2.5. In addition, all measures of managerial and cultural fit are right on.
  5. Level 4 = Far exceeds performance expectation. Aside from meshing on all areas of fit, this person will do more, faster and better.
  6. Level 5 = High potential all star. This person will achieve a level of performance in excess of what's described in the performance profile. If you find and hire a level 5 person, the company and hiring manager must support and encourage this pushing the envelope behavior, otherwise dissatisfaction will quickly follow.

***Never hire a 2, period.

Once a person is above a technical threshold, the big difference in terms of performance are typically: work ethic, organizational and project management skills, motivations do the actual work required, and working with all types of different people on team projects.

Do not ever accept even the most vocal or sincere statement from any candidate that he or she will do the work required without complete proof of recent past performance. Often pre-hire statements of willingness to do anything required or driven by economic need. Once this need is met, motivation will only be driven by a higher order need, typically sincere interest in the work.


Attract, recruit, assess, and hire people based on what they need to do and what they'll become if successful.

To find the work you want done, hire people who are capable and motivated to do it. If you're a hiring manager during the interview, tell your candidates:

  1. What you need done and why this work is important
  2. Make sure they've done something comparable using the Performance Based Hiring process
  3. Negotiate the offer based on why this work represents a true career move for the person
  4. Emphasize that what you're offering is not a lateral transfer

The idea behind performance based hiring process is pretty simple: prepare a performance profile for the job, look for basic fit and the Achiever Pattern, ask the two core questions (MSA & PSQ), and use the hiring formula and the Quality of Hire scorecard to make the assessment.* Get the Quality of Hire scorecard by purchasing Lou's fantastic book (not an affiliate link).

Finding and hiring the right team is the most significant determinant of success in your recurring revenue organization. If you have Level 2s on your team, you need to make changes, fast. Let’s chat: email now and we’ll talk about your team and sales strategy.