Trial by Water: A Story about Spilled Pitchers, a Nun, and Hiring

All startup teams face the challenge of hiring. When it comes with rapid growth, it’s often a temptation to just fill slots as efficiently as possible. That said, I’ve observed that most founders are actually pretty thoughtful about hiring. They want relevant skill, they want passion for the problem they are solving, and, increasingly, they are trying to screen for cultural fit.

Here’s the rub: the environment created by a hiring decision imposes artificiality on both the hiring exec and the candidate. The hiring exec is usually focused on two things: 1) interviewing and 2) checking with references and relationships in their networks. The candidate (if she’s worth her salt) has prepared well for the interview, including research on the company and position, Glassdoor reviews, interview practice, etc. Both sides often try to get creative so as to stand out. Sometimes the creativity comes off as irritating, but it can also really work.

The point here is simple: be clear on values and culture, then find ways to test for those that allow you to see the person as their authentic selves. Exercise a little creativity, and you’ll figure out a way to do it.

So, where’s the artificiality? As a hiring exec, there’s no opportunity to really see the candidate unscripted. People’s real selves come through under pressure and stress, and heaven knows startups are brimming over with both. So how can you really understand how someone will behave in those circumstances? Well, someone who hired me once accomplished this in an incredibly creative way.

In 1993, I flew up to Eugene to interview for a CEO succession opportunity with PeaceHealth’s Oregon region. My first interview that day was with the head of the organization at that time, a nun from a Catholic order called the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. We knew each other fairly well because I’d managed a McKinsey team that had consulted for her a couple of years prior to this.

After a full morning’s worth of interviews with various members of her team, she and I walked across the street to a local diner for lunch. After we placed our orders, the server came back to fill our water glasses, and as she picked up mine, she tipped over a full pitcher of ice water into my lap. Half day left to go in my interviews, and I’m now in a soaking wet wool suit. The first thought that entered my mind is what most of us would think: “Great. I could lose this opportunity because of a sloppy server in the restaurant.” Fortunately, my better nature took over before I could say what I was thinking. The server immediately began apologizing, and I said, “No problem, really. It happens, it’s not a big deal. Let’s grab some napkins and wipe things up. It’ll be fine.” The sister and I finished lunch and then headed back to the offices for the rest of the interviews.

My next meeting was with a very influential physician leader that I had gotten to know during the McKinsey work. After a few minutes waiting outside his office, he motioned me in, invited me to take a seat, and, with a wry smile on his face, said, “Well, I hear that you passed.” I must’ve looked confused, because he explained, “At lunch when the water was spilled — it was staged. The sister cares a lot about how executives treat the little people. So she always wants to see candidates in a situation where she can see their true selves and how they treat people who could do absolutely nothing for them.”

That was the first experience I’d ever had in my career that was anything like that. When I’d interviewed at McKinsey, it was very formulaic: problem solving skills, communications skills, presence and polish. And all of that is fine, because it was a culture that placed a high value on that. At McKinsey, everyone you worked with was very much like you — resumes like you, IQ like you, ambitions and motivations like you. I was used to a lot of homogeneity. So making the transition to an organization that had everybody from $7.50/hour housekeepers up to million dollar a year cardiac surgeons was a big, big change.

That interview experience reinforced in my mind that hiring for alignment with mission, values, and culture is absolutely critical. For PeaceHealth, it was paramount that the leadership not feel, act, or have any pretense that they were better or more valuable than any other employee. It’s something you’d find in many management books but the first time I’d seen it in action.

The beauty of the way the sister tested me is that there was no preparation for what was going to happen. It hit me, and I had to respond as my authentic self; no time to think and evaluate. PeaceHealth’s mission included the words “…and treat each person in a loving and caring way…” Spilling water in my lap created a real-life test to see if I would do exactly that. Brilliant.

The point here is simple: be clear on values and culture, then find ways to test for those that allow you to see the person as their authentic selves. Exercise a little creativity, and you’ll figure out a way to do it. The results, in hiring people that are a true fit for the company you are trying to build, are well worth the effort.

Post a comment