The Alchemy of Org Building: Hiring for What Will be Over What Is

Blog Post
The AppNexus Team

The first startup I joined was a social venture called CitySoft. We were founded with the idea that a company can make a profit while making the world a better place. We believed the answer to poverty was wealth creation, and wealth creation comes through gainful employment. So we partnered with community training centers in low income urban neighborhoods. We helped them develop software programming training courses and then hired their best and brightest students to be our programmers. At one point, 80% of our programmers came through the training centers.

Although AppNexus isn’t a social venture, a common principle still applies – hire for what will be over what is. At CitySoft, the folks we hired from the training centers never had relevant work experience. However, they had the DNA for success – smarts, a deep desire to be better, and a passion for technology. In Global Services at AppNexus, we take a similar approach; only 13% of our team has previous ad tech experience.

Why does this work? Previous professional and educational experience is not the best indicator of a candidate’s likelihood of success in your organization. A person’s capabilities, passions and values matter more. These are the qualities that determine how high and far a candidate may reach. Let me explain:

Capabilities: Skills like consulting and programming are learned. Capabilities are inherent in a person and reflect one’s capacity to learn; things like the ability to break down complex problems into logical parts; the ability to focus on a subject until its mastered; the ability to communicate clearly about challenging topics; the ability to empathize.

Hiring for capabilities has three benefits:

  • It expands the recruiting pool. The pool of great people who know a specific domain is often limited. The pool of great people who can learn a domain is more abundant. For example, we have several great employees who were Teach for America volunteers, sustainability consultants, and even a lawyer.
  • It creates a dynamic environment. Bringing a diversity of skills and experiences into an organization lifts everyone because they learn from each other and develop better ideas.
  • It enables organizational scaling. As the org evolves employees, have the capabilities to easily change roles and take on new challenges. For example, one employee, over the past three years has moved from being a consultant, to a consulting manager, to a product strategy leader, to a sales leader. Athletes can play a lot of sports!

Although this approach requires a longer training period, it is a worthwhile investment!

Passions: Capabilities are helpful only when we are passionate about putting them to use. Combine passion with capability, and you have a future high-impact employee.

Values: Capabilities and passions are helpful only if a candidate holds your organization’s values. At AppNexus, we evaluate candidates on their ability to embody our values such as, “See and improve the whole system” and “Learn and teach.” Adhere to the Golden Rule of Hiring – values are a hard stop – along with the corollary rule, no jerks!

With that in mind, how do you identify candidates with these qualities?

In AppNexus Global Services, we train our staff to interview candidates using the dimensions below. We call this “DNA hiring.” We hire for this, regardless of work and educational experience.

  • Rock Star Potential: illustrates the personal qualities indicative of high achievers
  • Analytical Horsepower: maintains a passion and aptitude for complex problem solving
  • Technical Orientation: demonstrates success and drive in learning about technology
  • Consultative Nature: exhibits the desire to understand “why” and then evangelize “how”
  • Customer Service Gene: demonstrates a commitment to helping others
  • AppNexian at Heart: embodies our values; embraces our culture

Each dimension has a set of specific qualities to look for and example questions interviewers use to identify those qualities in candidates. For example, in the Rock Star Potential interview segment, one quality we interview for is: “Self Awareness: Understands their intrinsic motivations, their capabilities and tendencies, and how they are perceived by others.” Interviewers are armed with questions like: “What intrinsically motivates you? Why does that motivate you? Give me an example of you doing something impactful because of that motivation.”

The dimensions relevant for your organization may vary from ours. That’s okay. And of course roles may require some relevant work experience (e.g. a manager role will require management experience). The point is---optimize hiring for capabilities, passions, and values; develop a process that reliably identifies those qualities; and then invest in training new employees in the skills they need for their role.

We’ll cover new employee training in the next posting … stay tuned!