The Crucial Hiring Lesson That Sheryl Sandberg Learned From Meg Whitman

September 25, 2017

When Sheryl Sandberg interviewed for a job at eBay with then-CEO Meg Whitman, she didn’t have any experience in the tech industry. A dozen other companies had rejected her. And when she told Meg upfront that she lacked experience, she learned a hiring lesson that she’d never forget.

“[Meg] said ‘no one has any experience, because no one has ever done this before. I want to hire people with great skills, and I think hopefully you have great skills.’ I really took that lesson to heart,” Sheryl told Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn’s co-founder, in a recent episode of his podcast, “Master of Scale.”

Now the COO of Facebook, Sheryl is still using this hiring tip when looking at candidates. “I decided what mattered was skills,” she told Reid Hoffman. “I was going to go hire the best and the brightest, and people who were going to bring their passion and dedication and work hard. And actual experience in the field or related fields didn’t matter. That opens up a lot of hiring, because then you can just look for skills.”

Core skills and adaptability enable a candidate to tackle the challenges a job presents them, with or without previous experience. This is especially true in industries that move super quickly, like tech.

Hiring for skills can also help reduce unconscious bias. The name of a prestigious school or company on a candidate’s resume can make them seem more impressive—but pedigree doesn’t actually predict success. By focusing on what really matters, you can sidestep this issue and make the process fairer and more effective.

How to determine if a candidate has the necessary skills and potential 

In a Quora thread on identifying leadership potential, several respondents commented that a candidate’s experience outside of work was a good place to start.

“Young people who get out and DO STUFF can be counted on to thrive when given the right business challenge,” Tyson Supasatit responded.

Volunteering and other activities outside of work can tell you a lot about the drive, passion, and skills that a candidate can bring to a role. The respondents also noted that spotting certain soft skills and personality traits is key—like decision-making, interpersonal skills, and an analytic, strategic, or entrepreneurial mindset.

This is the approach Sheryl takes when hiring Facebook employees. “We’re looking for builders,” she says. “We find people with great skills and abilities who care about our mission of making the world more open and connected and who share our core values: Be open, focus on impact, and move fast.”

This is an approach that has famously worked well for multi-billionaire Warren Buffett, too. When building a team, Warren advocates hiring for three key traits: intelligence, energy, and integrity. You can tease out these traits by refining your interview questions.

Use simulations and skills-based tests to zero in on potential

Personality assessments are a great way to assess a candidate’s emotional intelligence (EQ). Many can be done online before a candidate reaches the interview stage, giving you plenty of insights into what they’ll be like as an employee.

For example, Koru’s “predictive hiring” AI involves a 20-minute online assessment to test for personality traits like grit. And for more practical skills, using a skills-based technical test as part of the onsite interview can be really effective. The results from these tests give you an objective yardstick to measure all candidates against, regardless of past experience.

Job simulations are also a good indicator of how a candidate will actually perform in the role. As virtual reality takes off and becomes more readily available, simulations will become easier and easier. But for the time being, something as simple as the “real client scenarios” that McKinsey & Company present to candidates can give you a clear indicator of future performance, as well as problem-solving and other key skills.

Experience can be helpful. But ultimately, it’s great skills and desirable traits that predict greatness. Moving away from pedigree and past positions—and toward a skills-based approach—can help you find talented candidates just waiting for someone to give them a chance.

*Image from Fortune Live Media

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