Understaffed and under pressure, it can be tempting to choose a favorite candidate early on, hoping the (very) limited data from resumes or initial interviews will translate into job success. But here’s what our team has seen in searches at every career level, from associate to CEO: it’s often a different—and maybe surprising—candidate who secures the offer. The track from first impressions to the final hiring decision isn’t a straight shot.

Unpacking the Realities of the Job and the Market

Defining a job can be challenging and often goes much deeper than a typical job description. But you have to clearly define what you are looking for to see what’s available in the market. Diving into the specifics—the challenges of the role, current and upcoming projects, who the person will work with on what, and performance expectations—is a crucial starting point. We work with clients to provide as much of this in-depth context as possible (for practical tips, read our guide to effective job advertising) and focus on the specific job competencies required to deliver results.

Ultimately, the combination of skills and experience you’re looking for has to be realistic. The narrower and more specific your criteria are, the smaller the number of people who can meet them. For some highly technical roles, there may be a small candidate pool no matter how you slice it. But for most positions, we recommend being as open and inclusive as possible in the early stages of your search. (Here’s an article to help you do that.) With more options to choose from, your picture of the “favorite” candidate could shift significantly.

And that’s a good thing.

Part of understanding the job and the market is recognizing that there are many ways to build competencies. A candidate may have taken a unique path to learning essential skills, but that doesn’t hinder their ability to do the work. In most cases, candidates with alternate paths to competency can benefit your team. They can offer insights and approaches that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Research by world-renowned expert on diversity in the workplace, Katherine W. Phillips, backs that up, “… if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity.”

Taking a More Holistic View of Competency

To get consistently good hiring results, you need more information than how candidates present themselves on paper or in a single conversation. You need multiple lenses to determine who has the skills to do the work better than their peers. There are candidates who are good at talking about work, those who are good at writing about work, others who are good at doing the work, and an infinite number of combinations in between.

Long story short: you can’t accurately evaluate a candidate based on one type of interaction.

Interviewing is a particular kind of communication style; some people are naturally good at it, and some are very practiced. Just because a candidate interviews well does not mean they can do the job well. A charismatic interviewee may put a glimmer in your eye after round one, but the hardworking collaborator could prove to be exactly what you need after discussing the work sample test with your team.

Work is complicated, requiring candidates to draw upon an array of different types of skills. Your interview sequence should mirror that in the closest possible approximation to what the job requires. That’s why we recommend a structured interview sequence that allows you to see every aspect of a candidate’s capability and working style without devolving into endless interviews:

  • The initial screening call and writing prompts
  • Structured interview
  • Work sample test and accompanying discussion

You’ll be able to see how candidates think, talk, and write about the work and, through the work sample test, have an opportunity to do some work with them. (As a side note, many clients ask us about how to create an effective work sample test in the era of ChatGPT. Here’s some guidance on that.)

Fewer Assumptions, Better Hiring

Hiring a top performer requires continual learning and adapting. Your priorities are going to shift as you learn more about what you need, what’s out there, and where the two overlap. From refining your goals and accounting for the market to evaluating candidates in different contexts, each step empowers you to shed assumptions in favor of a more informed approach. Your initial favorite may not get the job, but the candidate who can drive the most impact will.