June 17, 2019

What do you look for when you’re hiring? When the applications come streaming in and piles upon piles of cover letters flood your inbox, do you enter a mindless mode of rapidly sifting through each resume to see which school they came from, how old they are, how many years of experience they’ve accumulated? We might deny it, but a public university graduate tends to hold more appeal than an ITE dropout. An abundance of ingrained stereotypes might influence who we decide to shortlist for an interview. Yet, who’s to say our choices are right?

Everyone wants to hire the best talent, but not all of us are well-equipped to identify them. That ITE dropout could, in fact, be a maverick genius who is ahead of their time and grow to become a disruptive Silicon Valley-worthy entrepreneur. Our idea of what good talent looks like doesn’t always align with reality, so we end up making hires based on components and qualities that tell us nothing about how well they’ll perform.

Different industries also call for different skill sets and traits. A medical practitioner needs to go through a fairly standard route of education, whereas a graphic designer may get a job with a stellar portfolio despite being self-taught. In certain fields or specific companies, employees have to be able to think outside the box and be different. As Yah-Leng Yu, the co-founder of Foreign Policy Design Group, says, “You would be surprised how people come in with a fixed way of doing things, and that’s kind of scary because we want people to be innovative and adaptable to change. We have projects from different industries, so you can’t apply the same approach to every single one of them.”

It’s also obvious for every employer to sift out candidates with the right qualifications and technical know-how for the particular role, or as Love, Bonito’s chief commercial officer Dione Song puts it, “aptitude and experience”. However, recruiters who stop at “aptitude and experience” are generally the ones that fail to make good hires.

Those are the two most common ingredients in potential employees. What differs between candidates is their mind-set and the values they carry. Song adds, “Probably the most difficult one is their attitude because it is hard to accurately sense this during an interview—candidates can say whatever they want, but who knows until they are put to work.” Jenny Tay, the managing director of Direct Funeral Services, agrees, “The technical know-how of how to conduct a funeral can be taught, but it’s nothing without the right attitude and sincerity.”

That’s why the hiring process is always a gamble. There’s only so much you can tell about a person from their resume and a one-hour interview. Still, not everyone is well-versed in the art of faking it till you make it, especially when you catch them off guard. Darren Cheng of Direct Funeral Services likes to ask questions that are tough to anticipate—although it’s not for the sake of being unorthodox, but rather to attain a deeper understanding of the interviewee. “My first question is always to ask if they have experienced loss in the family. I like to hear what the experience was like for them and their family because you can understand a fair bit about the individual’s personality and approach to life,” he explains.

Renyung Ho, the co-founder of Matter, doesn’t discount the candidate’s personal and social life either. This may seem irrelevant at a professional interview, but it speaks volumes about the character, personality and proclivities of a potential hire. She shares, “I ask them about their motivations, work ethic and how they spend their free time because that gives me a good indication of their priorities. Not everyone is suited for a start-up, especially new graduates who may have preconceived notions that it is glamorous. Also, value alignment is key. As a small team, we interact constantly, and if people share similar values, there tends to be less friction.”

When it comes to values, Tay looks for “empathy and the heart to serve”. No matter the vocation, emotional intelligence (of which having empathy is a fairly decent indicator) is paramount, more so than IQ, and defines the crème de la crème of the talent pool. Rather than passion, GOODSTUPH’s Pat Law also prioritises hunger. While passion often fizzles out, “hunger makes you do things you never thought you would do—and that can’t be taught”.

All these elements that make a standout prospect can’t typically be demonstrated or proven in a single email or list of accomplishments. It takes time to discern. Yet, it’s in the nature of a fast-growing start-up to go on rapid-fire hiring sprees as they scale up. TradeGecko, for instance, went from being a lean team of 18 to a 120-strong organisation in a year. The danger in this is to sacrifice quality for quantity. Steve Melhuish, the co-founder of PropertyGuru, had a similar experience: “In 2011, we went from one country to 4 countries in four months, and had to hire 200 people very quickly. The challenge was to hire 200 people in such a short space of time. Of the 200 we hired, within 12 months, 10 to 20 per cent had left.”

The Supermarket Company’s founder Sue-Shan Quek, advises, “You need to know who to bring on board and the type of people who can fulfil what the business requires at a certain point in time. Don’t just hire managers just because you think they are the most experienced and can just run the show. It’s more than just the people on top, but the running of the day-to-day that’s equally important.”

On the flip side, if you end up with two equally talented candidates that you’re certain of, Skin Inc’s Sabrina Tan suggests there’s no harm in cranking up the quantity of manpower. “I will hire both. You know why? Good talent is very hard to come by.”