Hiring Fail – The Hard Lessons Learned Hiring & Firing Over 30 Search Professionals

My SEO career started in 99 at NetMarketing (love those guys) where I managed a team of about 5 interns. Then I went to Aon for 3 years where I had no team I was responsible for to now at SEER where we have a team of 17 search professionals and 2 admins. So I’ve had two good stints where I have made / influenced hiring or firing decisions.

I guess I have a bit of a unique perspective in the search space given that in the last 6 years I have hired over 30 search professionals/interns, do the math a lot of people don’t work out, but we try really hard to build a unique company that attracts the best talent. We've gone from me starting this out of my 3rd floor apartment to a company that is doing well, with a bright future ahead, but I like sharing the bumps, the turbulence, with others who are growing their companies as a way of helping.

I think having gone through those trenches has given me some insights worthy of sharing, as all of us struggle to find better and better people. Personally I don’t think there’s a shortage of search professionals out there, there’s a shortage of people who strive for greatness everyday in general, and that desire is so critical in search especially.

As someone constantly hiring search professionals, I hope sharing my learning’s illustrated in this post will help you in your journey of finding the right people.

Hiring Mistake #1 - Being too positive is a negative in the hiring process I am one of those people that tend to believe in people a little too much. This is a very bad trait in the hiring process. Overly positive people will sometimes bestow on people values that they really don’t exhibit. When it comes to interviewing my advice is:

be hard be tough be honest

Believing in people too much in life is good, in hiring it is bad and can easily cause you to hire wrong – which you should blame yourself for.

Being brutally honest is key, in that way when your new hires come in, they don’t have an expectation that you / your company is something you are not.

How I am working on this issue I am far from having solved this issue, considering the last two people who accepted offers flaked out right before they started (Thank God b/c our two newest people would smoke them, but still it set us back).

#1 Fire quick We tell interviewees about our level of intensity for performance in search, or the required attention to detail (since I have none) and we let them know that people without those traits never last more than 3-4 months here. So for their benefit let them know your deal breakers. Always remind interviewees that if they leave their current job thinking they do have those critical qualities and get to your company and show that they don’t have those qualities that they are out of a job. It’ll make them think twice about leaving their current situation, which is a good thing.

#2 Get scientific Less gut, more data is my saying. We apply ROI and KPIs SEO, why not bring data into the hiring decisions? I was lucky to have taken a DISC profile about 5 years ago and it pretty much nailed me exactly. I then had our people who were already hired take the DISC profile. Lo and behold the vast majority fit a certain similar set of traits.

Having now looked at 15 or more DISC profiles over 5 years, not everyone fits the same criteria, but the people who have consistently worked out as superstars all into the same top left quadrant. Would I not hire someone because of this? NEVER, but if I have 3 great applicants and I am looking for another factor to differentiate, you better believe I’ll use it. Its interesting that when I have offered someone a job that didn’t fit the profile they almost never work out, maybe I should put a little more stock.

Again, for our business it has been amazing to see how many of the people who have worked out well, and were profiled long after they were hired, fit a similar criteria. There’s a ton of variability within the quadrants from person to person, but for someone who is admittedly weak at seeing people for who they really are in interviews, it’s nice to have a bit of a scientific approach to back up the gut or SEO tests we give people.

Another great by-product is seeing how people take criticism. Inevitably, the results of a disc profile (here's mine) won't be all roses, and some people are adamant that its got them wrong, in my experience, every single person who had major hangups with the results of the profile, did not work out here. I LOVE people who can look themselves in the mirror and say yeah, that is something I struggle with. I'm not saying the DISC is 100% accurate, just sharing my experience.

Hiring Mistake #2 - Don't send a boys to do a man's job (or a girl to do a woman’s job)

Sometimes it's just wrong to hire someone at the wrong point of their career. At times you need experience and if you hire someone that's too green there's a potential they will never be able to fill what you need. Which again is not their fault, it is yours.

I made this mistake once, hiring someone that was actually great even though we had to let them go. The job that we needed at the time was well beyond their skill set, it was way too early in their career to manage the tasks we required of them. Now that we have more defined roles, this person would be welcomed back in a heartbeat, just in a role that fit their skill set.

How do I deal with this issue? I don’t really, and here’s why. Luckily, if you take great care of your team, give them great projects, and great clients, you will have low turnover at the top. As that happens you’ll find that you won’t need people to fill top roles, because they are very rarely (if ever) open. As your top folks move on, you’ll find that you have some superstars below them ready to pick up the slack and show you what they can do.

Hiring Mistake #3 – Experience means less than you’d think

If you are in a constantly changing industry, that is a moving target, don’t overweight experience in your hiring decisions. The fact that your industry is a moving target is a blessing, this allows you to not require people with tons of experience and instead allows you to bring on people who are HUNGRY and green who are often going to blow right by the EXPERIENCED folks.

In my industry (Search Marketing) the day to day of search is done differently by so many different companies that if you truly feel your company is at the top of its game, you’d be amazed at how many people coming in with 3-4 years experience in your industry end up being outpaced by some of your entry level people. It has happened to me, I've seen a HUNGRY intern beat the pants off of a 4 year SEO vet, cause they had more hustle. Many of the new jobs of today (like search) is about tenacity, NOT tenure.

I can teach someone the same things a 3-4 year search vet (at a slow moving company) knows in 6-8 months. What I can’t teach them the tenacity, attention to detail, the desire to push harder and harder for each client, each day.

I’ll take those traits over experience any day, and you should consider that too. There are a LOT of 3-4 year SEO’s who are working in companies that don’t push them.

These are the types of companies that are thrilled with 25% increases in search traffic year over year.

So be careful with “experience”, instead go for “expertise” and in SEO they are not synonymous. Take people like: Gab Goldenberg, Garrett French, Melanie Nathan, and Rhea Drysdale - sure on paper I might have 2,3 or 4 times the years of experience, but that means NOTHING! Don't fall to the experience trap. Here's how I have tried to avoid it:

1 – By taking great care of me existing team. (Yes, this will become a recurring theme). Find ways to make your company retain the best people who come in your doors. They are more likely to stay around. The longer they stay around, the less likely you are going to NEED to bring someone in with 3-4 years experience because you won’t have ridiculous voluntary turnover with your best people.

The result of this in our company is that we are always hiring entry level people (who don’t need all the SEO experience in the world) as such we get to train them in “our way” and bring them up in our way from the beginning and avoid the 3-5 years of ego experience that someone else might bring.

2 – Hire more than 1 person for a job. Ok now this is risky and requires three things:

1 - strong cash flow 2 – comfort firing fast 3 – very strong pipeline (in other words you turn down a LOT of good opportunities regularly).

I’ll tell you when you are hiring people 1-2 years out of school or interns it is a lot easier to hire two people at once for one job. In this way you can test both of them out live in your company, with the assumption that one won’t work out in 6 months.

Remember, no amount of interviewing is ever going to replace actually seeing that person working in your company.

The approach above is better than hiring one person, finding out they weren’t great, and then to also find out that your #2 candidate is now at another company and unavailable.

In the rare instance that both people turn out to be ballers, then you’ve hit the jackpot. You have two A level players, and all you need to do is go find projects to keep them busy…if your company is truly good at what they do, you should be able to pick up enough projects to keep them both busy. We recently did this with interns, we hired 3, and kept 1. The one we kept is a MONSTER! Well worth the effort. Remember the key is hiring them all around the same time, so you are only training once really, which you would have to do if you hired 1, 3, or 5 people.

Disclosure – As I was writing this I started to think of the fairness of this approach. It requires YOU to be really honest with people during the interview process. That is how you can stay on the right side of this ethically, let them know!

For interns or very entry level people, start them as contractors with definite end dates, that is always fair because they know there’s a definite end. It would be extremely unethical to hire two people for a job, and have them both quit their current jobs when you know darn well you can only hire one, and that you don’t have a sales pipeline or the cash flow to keep them both.

Hiring Mistake #4 - Going for passion – fizzling firecrackers Today with social media and everything else out there people can come to your company with all the misguided passion in the world. They will talk about wanting to set the world on fire they use words like “Crush it” “Kill it” “Passion” they use of buzzwords that we hear from some of our favorite social media personalities and we fall in love with them the same way we love our social media rock stars, like Gary Vaynerchuk. These people fizzle out like a cheap firecracker (to paraphrase Mike “the situation” from Jersey Shore). You must avoid these people, its hard to resist them because they sound right on the surface; they always say the right things. As you interview them you can easily become mesmerized, you’ll start thinking…”YES! They get it.” But be careful.

Here’s how I avoid them: DIG DEEP – these people are like snake charmers! Don’t accept surface answers in their interviews. Most of these people have their hands in so many things that they’ve never concentrated on one thing, focused on it, and truly “crushed it”.

“And what else” is a critical question to ask in their interviews, you have to probe deep to see if they really are a rock star with real passion or someone who has passion for something for 6 months then ends up with a new passion, leaving you with a fizzled firecracker.

Watch them on Twitter, most of them are talkin’ loud and ain’t saying nothin’! Don’t take their number of followers or any metric like that as an indication. Here’s an analysis I did on some people in my post on social media strategists who are more like chatty Cathy dolls than strategists.

Using tools to analyze them like Klout which will help you see if these people are influentials who are really up to something, or just a fizzled firecracker.

Wanting to “crush it” and “crushing it” are two VERY different things. Remember that.

Hiring mistake #5 - The personality types to keep and train and the ones to fire immediately.

Personality Type A - Swamped Sally - this is the person who whether they have 1 project or 10 projects will always work 60 hours per week. These are the people who get value from telling their friends that they are always so busy at work instead of seeking ways to be more efficient they love being able to say they are swamped whether they truly are or not. In the past I have let people like this go, but have learned (the hard way) that these folks are often very good and just need some help. Here's what I typically do.

Make it a priority of yours to sit down with them regularly and do a little prioritization of their tasks, so expect to spend more time getting them from point A to point B – it is worth it!

The investment is worth it because you’ll lower their stress level (which should help you retain them) and you’ll also be able to train them over time to self-prioritize as they see how you prioritize their lists. Remember hiring is as much about getting things done, as it is helping people grow as individuals and porfessionals.

Don’t expect these people to be your process improvement folks, truly great leaders when they get swamped start seeking out ways to improve processes to give them time back. So following rule #2, don’t hire these people and expect something of them that is just not how they are wired.

Personality Type B - Mr. ambiguous – I think most of us are involved in search because is a very provable medium. Every day, when you wake up, you look at numbers you know when you lost and have go back to the drawing board and improve. You also know when you’ve won. Have you ever heard an athlete say, maybe we won? NO! The score is the score. Great search professionals embrace this instead of running from it.

We search professionals hate ambiguity. The game is going to be won or lost and we are all okay admitting success and failure.

How I avoid these people

1 – At the resume level these people can sometimes be found out. Their resumes typically doesn’t include numbers, facts, and cold hard statistics. These are probably not people who get a rush out of knowing that they increased some metric by 200% or decreased a cost metric by 25%. Their resumes should give you an indication.

2 – During the interview, ask questions about the impact of the things they highlighted on their resume. If someone says they increased productivity / streamlined processes I want to know how much. I want to know the impact, and to be brutally honest, if I need competitive, never die, type of person, they will seek out ways to measure themselves as the basis for their impact on their companies / clients.

Again keep in mind the ideal folks PROACTIVELY let you know their impact, you shouldn’t have to drag I out of them / inquire a ton. Personality Type C - The Design Junkies - You can sniff these people out in interviews, they are NOT direct marketers. They are design people at heart trying to force themselves into a search job, don’t hire them or if you want to test them out, test them out as an intern / contractor only.

Real search people, when we see a web site or paid search ad we think in terms of: Page load times Conversions Path to conversions Title tags Keywords Linkable Assets Keyword – Ad – landing page symbiosis Competitors buying their brand name Bounce Rates

They will look at the same site or ad and think: Colors Brand messaging Ideas Icons Time on site

There are some people who I say you should hire and work with them on their traits, this is NOT one of them. I know that I want to hire people who think links, rankings, traffic, bounce rates, and conversions every time they see a site. They hate ambiguity.

I want them to see the title tag and pagerank before they see color, design, or layout. That is NOT something you can train.

Personality Type D - The overly competitive

As with so many traits having that trait is great, having too much of it is a hindrance. Competition is one of these. The overly competitive interviewees will love numbers, they will have that “go hard or go home” attitude, and all the other traits I love. However those traits can at times can take over and cause people to compete with their own co-workers or be over confident with clients. As such I can typically sniff these folks out with one question.

That question is… If you could volunteer somewhere, where you volunteer?

The best people don’t hesitate, they know exactly where they would, because they have spent time thinking about others. Thinking about if they had the time what they would do to make this world a better place, not just their wallets fatter. To me this is the best catch of them all, someone who is wicked competitive when the time calls for it, and able to dial that down at times to think about others. That is why I love the fact that SEER requires everyone to pick a charity that they would like to work with, and we’ll give them all the time (during work hours or not) and money we can to help them help the world - check out where we spend our time.

Ultimately it gets better trust me, as you build AND RETAIN your best people, you won’t be hiring as often, but you must NEVER allow your clients to work with sub par people, and allow those sub par people to represent your brand. When you make a hiring mistake, admit it, let that person go and look in the mirror and try to figure out what you missed, so you can go back and refine the process again.

We love helping marketers like you.

Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates and more:

Wil Reynolds
Wil Reynolds
CEO & Vice President