Hiring talent that doesn’t live up to the claims made on a resume and in an interview can be a company killer. This has happened to me, several times over. It has happened to friends and colleagues. It could happen to anyone. In fact, it recently happened to a founder who wrote in:
I just let several people go. Most of these terminations were due to the employee not living up to what I thought I was getting when I hired them. How do I spot candidates who aren’t as talented as they appear to be?
7 Signs of Fake Talent
- They make statements instead of asking questions.
- They claim their methods are superior without offering supporting data.
- They’re know-it-alls.
- They don’t care about what they don’t know.
- They steer conversations back to their wheelhouse.
- They show disdain, not empathy, for failure.
- They take sole credit for their wins.
None of us is immune to making hiring mistakes, both in the hard skills area and the soft compatibility area. In fact, one of the primary reasons this mistake is made is because we think we’re never going to make it. We all like to think we’re good judges of character, and unless the role we’re hiring for demands skills that are way out of our own scope (i.e. a non-tech founder hiring a technical resource), we also like to think we know enough to qualify candidates for the role.
I’ll take the risk of patting myself on the back and state that I am an excellent judge of character. It’s one of my strengths. I can usually figure people out in about five minutes, like 95 percent of the time. But when something works well 95 percent of the time and you trust it 100 percent of the time, it creates a false sense of security. And when that happens, you increase your chances of that 5 percent biting you.
Most entrepreneurs and business leaders accept that risk, because the opposite — spending weeks and months going over each hire with a microscope and a fine-toothed comb and triple-checking each assumption — sounds like a slow march to failure.
So they make mistakes, and those mistakes can be costly. If you think you’re getting top-level talent and you’re not, you’re not only overpaying for them, but like a Ponzi scheme, they’ll need to keep their superhero facade up, and that will wind up costing you much more than their salary plus benefits.
The key, then, is to make as few of those mistakes as possible. In other words: Spot the candidate who’s full of it as quickly as possible.
When certain traits pop up, either in the context of the interview or just in general conversation, they’re usually pretty good warning signs that your candidate is full of it. Here are seven traits to look out for.
They Make Statements Instead of Asking Questions
If this is the only one you remember, you will probably weed out fake talent half the time, if not more. If your candidate is not asking questions, they’re not interested in learning. If they’re not interested in learning, they’re not interested in what they can do for you, only for what you can do for them.
They Claim Their Methods are Superior
It’s easy to watch others do things. It’s easy to read about others doing things. Just because a person spent some time at Amazon doesn’t mean they can bring “the Amazon Way” to your startup and that it will work. When a candidate makes a claim, make them tell you why and how their method is superior.
This is hard to catch because it’s awkward to push, but it is a big red flashing warning light. If you keep asking if they know a person, method/process, company, etc., and they keep answering yes, there’s a limit. I’ve never actually made up a company name and asked the question, but I’ve been tempted.
They Don’t Care About What They Don’t Know
I understand that sometimes people just get bored. I’m older now and I have no interest in certain things, like fishing. But I do know that if you want me to help you succeed with your fishing app, I need to get 60 to 80 percent of expert level on fishing. If I’m not interested in doing that, I probably don’t know what I need to know to help you succeed.
They Steer Conversations Back to Themselves
This goes hand-in-hand with the previous signal. And again, there’s nothing wrong with leaning on experience to help solve a problem, but if a person keeps coming back to their own story without tying it to yours, they’re just playing the hits by peppering the interview with conversational tics and anecdotes that have worked for them in the past.
They Show Disdain for Failure
This is a big one, super subtle, and often overlooked. If someone laughs at, scoffs at or otherwise lacks empathy for the failure of others, they’ve probably never experienced that kind of failure themselves. The easiest way to maintain a facade of success is to run away from failure.
They Take Sole Credit for Wins
Every time someone brings up one of my business successes, I immediately point to the team around me. This is because I want to be valued for what I know, not what I’ve done. When someone is the opposite, and needs to be valued for what they’ve done, they’re probably already resting on their accomplishments.
Now, to be clear, these aren’t binary checkboxes. These are clues, they’re leads. When you’re faced with one of these warning signs, this is the thread you should start pulling to see if the sweater comes apart. It won’t always be a sign of danger, but you won’t know until you investigate. And if you don’t investigate, you’ll find out sooner or later anyway.