Dr. Who?: The Art & Science of Hiring

EpiBone is hiring! Which shifts my mind from the usual scientific questions of “What,” “Why,” and “How” to the often more challenging question of “Who?” Who best suits a certain role? Who completes a team? Who is who they seem to be?

A seasoned entrepreneur/investor, Cyrus Massoumi of Zocdoc, recently led me one step closer to an answer. While we were chatting on the phone, Cyrus said, “If I could recommend you read one single book, Who (by Geoff Smart and Randy Street) would be it.” And so I ordered it as soon as we hung up. And scheduled a workshop with our leadership advisor, Lori Dernavich.

It’s a fascinating read — a diagnosis and treatment of the all too common problem of unsuccessful hiring. I’m learning about gut-based “voodoo hiring methods” like “the sponge” and “the art critic” that describe how we so often (erroneously) approach hiring without any training. I’m also learning about how to leverage my day-to-day networking activities to increase the flow of top talent to the company. Before launching EpiBone, I’d thought I had hiring figured out. As a grad student and post-doc mentoring many other students, I became adept at sussing out candidates’ technical prowess. But I benefitted from the academic pipeline that pre-filtered for only the best candidates to come my way. And my intuitions alone fall short when we’re filling jobs whose descriptions could change every four months (as they are wont to do in startups) and when people-skills trump technical skills in importance for identifying A-level candidates.

What’s been most surprising to me is the idea that just because an endeavor is creative and utilizes our EQ, doesn’t mean that there’s no systematic way to approach it. When I was first exposed to the principles of systematic creativity in business school (Inside the Box is now one of my favorite books), I experienced the same sense of cognitive dissonance. How could something as ephemeral and probabilistic as people be approached systematically? Isn’t that somehow sacrilege? And yet, as we know in probabilistic games, we can indeed tip the scales, and this book helps codify how.

Yes, there is a place for the gut in all this. But the gut needs some rational structure in order to succeed. Wise hiring is especially important for the many fledgling companies that are building the burgeoning fields of synthetic biology and personalized medicine. Startups are fragile things, where success rides on the cohesion of small-but-powerful teams. Even for a scientist, it turns out, “Who?” may be the most pressing question of all.

I highly recommend the book, invite you to share your thoughts about best practices for hiring, and welcome you to share our job postings!