Fledgling engineering teams and hundred-person juggernauts, boom times and lean years–Adil Ajmal has experienced them all. As an engineering leader for nearly 20 years at companies like Amazon, TenMarks Education, Intuit, Posterous and Homestead, he’s repeatedly grown teams from scratch or just three engineers to dozens–before jumping to another brand-new startup to do it all over again. He’s hired for entry-level positions, VPs, and everything in between. Now CTO for LendingHome, having finely honed his recruiting craft, his candidate close rate is exceptional.
Over the course of thousands of interviews, a curious truth emerged that informs Ajmal’s approach: The secret to closing isn’t offering the most equity or saying just the right thing during an offer call. It’s closely listening to and noticing what motivates each candidate during the entire process, and then explaining precisely how your company will serve those needs. This sounds straightforward–but given that people seldom know what they want, tell the full truth, or represent themselves accurately in interviews–it’s anything but.
Ajmal believes it’s crucial to suss out what’s really driving your prospective hires, then carry that thread throughout the hiring process so that you’re not relying on a single closing conversation. The trick is to be closing the whole time. Here’s how to get that under way early.
Deciphering What Drives A Candidate
Closing begins with your first candidate interaction. That’s when you should start asking yourself the all-important question: What does this person want to get out of the role, and the company, and can we realistically make it happen for them? The recruiting process needs to be designed to investigate and answer this question. “You have to figure out each candidate’s motivation from the beginning. If you don’t know that, then it’s hit or miss when you’re trying to close. The more you know about what truly excites each person, the better you can tailor the entire process,” says Ajmal.
Engineers in particular may hold their cards close to the vest, so you’ll need to develop keen people-reading skills to really boost your chances. “If you ask somebody, ‘Are you excited?’ they’ll say yes. And that doesn’t get you anything,” says Ajmal. The trick is to ask targeted questions to find out what excites them. Consider asking simple things like:
- What in your career or life are you most excited about? Never ask them directly if they are excited about the job in question, Ajmal cautions. And if a ‘why’ is not inherent in their answer, then always follow up with that and see what you can glean from their response.
- What fun stuff are you working on these days? This is usually revealing because “fun” is very relative and very different from person to person based on what they truly enjoy.
For engineers driven by problem solving, Ajmal points out, enthusiasm for the job manifests as curiosity; they’re motivated by meaty technical problems. “Drill deeper into that curiosity,” he suggests. “Ask them, ‘What problems are you most interested in?’ If you’re not getting anything from those questions, there’s a good chance that you’re going to lose them. But if you see something that you can connect to, start digging into that story.”
Other times, this might reveal that the candidate is less motivated by a problem than by the opportunity to make a difference. These candidates need to hear you define your mission and explain how their role supports it. “LendingHome is in the mortgage business, but our mission is not just to be the best mortgage company,” Ajmal explains. “Our mission is to have a positive impact on people who are going through the biggest purchase of their lives.” Mission-oriented candidates want to connect to the emotional core of what they would be doing.
You can identify these people because they’re very focused on the impact they would like to make, versus understanding the technical problems they’ll encounter. They will talk about their desire to improve things for a particular audience. They’ll talk about what solving a problem will actually do for that audience in a broader sense (i.e., what will it empower them to do more easily or accomplish). They will often be excited about improving something they’ve experienced firsthand. Examples to spot might include:
- They want to help small businesses because a parent or someone in their lives was a small business owner.
- They want to work on an education app because they want to improve outcomes for students, etc.
- In the case of LendingHome, they want to improve the mortgage process because they or one of their friends just went through it and it wasn’t great.
If you hit a wall and can’t suss out a candidate’s driving interests at all, try asking what they’ve gotten out of their previous positions. What are the most important skills, assets, or experiences those roles yielded? Pay close attention to the choices they make, Ajmal counsels. “The way they approach that question, and the kinds of things they speak about, gives you a very good idea of what they’re looking for in their next role, too.”
How To Close With Three Types Of Candidate
Once you understand a candidate’s motivations, says Ajmal, you have to make that your North Star throughout the recruiting process.
If you’re trying to close a problem-solver, you might continue to share some of the thornier goals or features your team is currently working on. You want to give them as much of a window into the tough challenges that actually exist at the company as possible.
If you’re trying to close someone who’s mission-focused, you might want to stack their interview panel with people who feel similarly and can speak compellingly about how the company’s objectives align with their values, and why the mission matters to them personally. You want the candidate to see themselves reflected back across the table so that they know they’ll be able to make the impact they’re seeking.
If you suspect a candidate is driven by compensation, make a point to ask them early on about how rewarded they felt in past roles. Ask them what they are maximizing for in their job search and how they’re approaching that. People are not used to this question and may be more candid, saving you a longer time investment.
This third motivation should sometimes raise a red flag, though. “The candidates that I don’t usually want to spend much time on are folks who are basically just looking for the next big check. Money is not a great motivation,” says Ajmal. “But it’s actually very common that this is driving the entire process for them.”
Few people lead with cash demands in their interviews, but there are some giveaways. “When they get into the offer process, this type of candidate will forget about everything else that they said they wanted to get out of the role. They become fixated on compensation and often have unreasonable expectations.” Other times, when asked about their past jobs, these candidates might focus not on what they learned there but how they were shortchanged financially or in terms of title (i.e. ‘I was basically a director’), or how they did more work than they feel their title or status in the company represented.
Short of these warning signs, though, few motivations are bad. It’s not a matter of looking for one over another, but rather developing the interviewing intelligence to frame the role in a way that will resonate for that candidate.
A version of this article originally appeared on First Round Review. It is adapted with permission.