Tag Archives: hiring

Hiring is a Team Activity

In an earlier article, I said, “Hiring new people for a team should always be a joint decision that involves team members.” After all, who has more at stake than the people who will work with the new person day in and day out?

Consider what happened when a well-intentioned manager decided to hire without involving the team. His rationale was the team had fallen into group-think and needed “new blood” to shake them up. When I visited, I found a fractured team. The new member struggled for credibility. Half the team wouldn’t speak to him. The other half of the team spoke to him–and resented their former teammates for ostracizing him. The team wasn’t stuck in group-think any more, but they were too busy bickering to get much done.

Whatever the issue–workload, projects that require specific technical or domain skills–involve the team in the hiring process. You’ll increase the chance of a good fit and gain commitment to help the new hire succeed. Plus, sharing power with the team helps create partnership.

Describing the Ideal Candidate

Teams often have a good idea about what’s missing on the team and where the bottlenecks are. They know when they no longer have the capacity to keep up with an increasing workload. Look at the current work, and the near-future work. Examine the current skills and work approach of the team. Then, work through a job analysis such as the one posted here.

Developing the Question Set

Involve the team in generating a list of questions that will reveal the candidates’ qualifications. Questions should focus on the skills, qualities and characteristics from the job analysis. Once you have a list, arrange the questions in logical groupings and prioritize them based on elimination factors along with required and desirable elements from the job analysis.

Finding Candidates

Team members may know others who are likely candidates. Activate those social networks! But don’t rely on the team to fill the funnel and sieve the candidates. Enlist HR to recruit and screen. Winnow down the likely candidates through phone screens. Bring the team back into the process when you have a handful of suitable candidates.


Assign one team member to each question area to avoid subjecting the candidate to the same questions over and over, and ensure all areas are covered. If the team members are sufficiently skilled, have them do one-on-one interviews. Or have a lead interviewer present in all interviews and assign a different team member present for each interview segment. The team member can ask the bulk of the questions, but the lead interviewer is there to listen for areas to probe for more information. This is a good option if the team hasn’t been involved in interviewing before.

In the United States, some questions are illegal, while some are okay if you ask everyone the same question. I don’t expect team members to know these rules. Invite your HR representative to brief the team on what’s appropriate and what is not.

You may want to do some practice interviews so team members know what to listen for, how to probe for deeper insights and recognize red flags.


Auditions provide a candidate with the chance to demonstrate relevant skills. Unlike solving puzzles, these auditions relate directly to the work the candidate would perform. You can ask a person to write a small function in a language he claims to know. You can sit him down in front of a product and ask him to test it (after you’ve given him enough background information so he’s not completely lost). You can ask a designer to review an existing design and add some new feature. No matter what the job, you can devise a way for the candidate to show his stuff.


Some companies seem to think that as long as a candidate can solve cognitive puzzles and answer technical questions, they’re good to go. Technical skills are a necessity, but not sufficient to succeed in most organizations. This is especially the case when team-based work or communication with other humans is involved.

Pairing–whether to program, test or design–gives a window into technical skills and much more. More and more companies are bringing in top candidates to pair for a half or full day. You will need an NDA (nondisclosure agreement), and possibly need to cover some expenses for the candidate who is probably using a vacation day to participate. But at the end, you’ll know much more about how the candidate responds to new situations, and how he approaches problems. You’ll know how something about how he enters groups, and his ability to interact with people on the team. You’ll know whether the candidate is confident enough to ask questions, admit when he doesn’t know something and is willing to learn from others. You will avoid hiring someone who will rub everyone on the team the wrong way.

So you’ve involved team members in various ways. Now what? It depends on how much you want the team to invest in the new hire’s success.


From a legal perspective, an agent of the company must make the salary offer and complete the legal aspects of hiring. But choosing which candidate is the best fit is a shared responsibility. Bring the hiring team together and pool the information. Check for elimination factors and see who you are left with. If you end up with only one candidate, your work is still not done.

Create a gradient of agreement to gage the level of support for the candidate. When there is only lukewarm support, keep looking. If support is bifurcated, explore the reasons for both strong support and opposition. In some cases, hearing another point of view will change some minds. But if not, move on. If you hire someone abhorrent to one member of the team, you’ll have problems in the long run. (Of course, if there is someone who is opposed to every candidate and has no credible reason, you’ve got a different problem.) Strive for consensus–you want the team to support the person, not tolerate him or her. Over-rule the team at your peril–because if you do, you will own every problem with the new hire.

It’s an Investment

Preparing team members to participate in the hiring process will take time–time to coach the team on which questions to ask and which ones to avoid; time to teach the team what to listen for; and time for practice interviews. Is it worth it? Yes! Interviewing is a broadly applicable skill. The abilities to formulate questions and to listen for what is said and unsaid are invaluable in speaking with customers, clarifying problems and devising solutions.

The person who makes the hiring decision has a vested interest in having that person work out. Including the team in the hiring process ensures that the manager is the most invested party. Because the team chose the new candidate, they will be more willing to show the new person the ropes and explain the context and domain. They’ll be more likely to offer help and encouragement. By having the whole team involved, you’ve created a support group to aid the new person with integrating into the group and become a productive member of the team.

Most importantly, involving more people in the hiring decision shares power and creates partnership. And if you want to get the best out of people, that’s what you want to be–partners.


If you want to learn about hiring–soup to nuts–get yourself a copy of Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds by Johanna Rothman.

This article originally appeared on Gantthead.com.

ScrumMaster? Coach? Agile Coach? The needs of the team and work define the role.

No matter the name, the  intention of the role is to help teams learn new skills, continuously improve, and make the transition to a new way of working.

Some people say it’s a technical role, others claim that the role is primarily facilitation. I say, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to hiring an agile coach or ScrumMaster.

Understand the Needs of Each Team

Every agile team is alike in some ways and different in others. Agile teams are alike in that they strive to work cross-functionally to deliver working software. Most of them work in iterations. But from there, differences abound. Some teams need to learn solid engineering practices. Others need help with a specific skill such as automated unit testing. Still others need coaching to become a functioning team. Many need help making the mental shift to working in feature-slices that fit into sort iterations.

If your company is just starting out with agile methods, you may not know yet what teams need. Rather than hire a generic coach who may or may not fit the needs of the team, look to an expert help you. “Help” doesn’t have to be a prolonged and expensive contract. It can be a short assessment to gauge the areas where teams need support to make a successful transition to a different way of working.

Consider the Qualities, Preferences, and Style for the Role

What exactly are you looking for in an agile coach? Understanding of the agile method you are using is obvious. What about the personal qualities, preferences and other skills needed for the role? I’ve worked with teams that needed a field marshal personality–someone who won’t be cowed by the alpha-geeks on the team. And I’ve worked with teams where a subtle touch was all that was needed, and the only thing that would have worked.

When you consider the qualities, think about disqualifies, too. I would disqualify someone who believed that there must be no deviation from canonical sources on agile methods. People are more like to accept a change when they have a hand in shaping it. So allow for shaping, but hire someone who can keep an eye on the why. That way, the team will retain the intent and essence of a practice as they adapt it to fit their unique circumstances.

I would also disqualify the coaches who have only one style, or have faulty ideas about coaching and change processes. One self-proclaimed coach bragged about making people cry in his prior assignment. Cross that one off!

Put the Two Together

Once you’ve considered what the team needs, you’ll have a list of technical skills, agile method knowledge, collaboration skills, and qualities. You will not find the ideal candidate. So note which ones are required, which are desirable and which ones are will definitely disqualify a candidate.

Consider the interactions, responsibilities and deliverables. These factors highlight the primary relationships, expectations, and integrating aspects of the role.

Consider using a role analysis such as the one I did for a ScrumMaster/Agile coach role.

Treat this Like Any Other Job Opening

Whether your are seeking internal or external candidates, treat this as any job opening. Create a job description, screen the candidates, use behavioral interview questions and auditions to find the best-fit candidates.

When you find a candidate who has the skills, desire and potential to fill a servant leader role, make sure that the organizational incentives are aligned to support the new role rather than holding the old behavioral patterns in place.

Changing a Title is Not Sufficient

Some managers decide that changing a persons title from “project manager” to “coach”  is sufficient. It is not. Supporting a team and helping them up a learning curve requires a very different set of skills and preferences than those essential for project management.

Some project managers can make the transition. They understand how to create the enabling conditions for a team, how to set appropriate decisions boundaries, when to step back and when to step in. But even good candidates for the role will need role models, coaching and support to make the transition.

Don’t count on the unreliable “flip the title, flip the switch” method to fill the need for coaching new agile teams. Discern who has the potential to adapt to role that relies on personal effectiveness rather than positional authority.

Agile coach is a critical role and the person who fills it needs to be up to the job. A competent coach will help the team learn how to work cross-functionally, fit their work to short iterations, and help them avoid adapting their way back into waterfall.  A coach who is a good fit will have the specific skills and qualities to help a specific team. If you are serious about realizing the benefits of agile methods, be serious about filling the role of agile coach.

Hiring for an Agile Team: 4 Reasons to Up Your Hiring Game

Most companies have policies that govern the selection and hiring process for new employees. Not a bad thing.  But I’ve noticed that in many of the companies I visit–especially the big ones–the guidelines put far less rigor around hiring people for dev teams than for management roles. (Occasionally, I see the opposite. Might write about that at some point in the future.)

I agree with the need for due deliberation in hiring managers at any level.  Managers can have a big impact, and it makes sense to hire carefully.  Many companies take a broad stripe approach to hiring managers. They look at management skills–but also assess psychological make up, interpersonal skills, and ability to work with others. At senior levels, the candidate often interviews with the other people he or she will work with. They gauge the candidates style, fit, and personality–and gain commitment from the work group, not only the hiring manager.

But when hiring technical people, many of these companies take a narrow stripe approach. They look only at technical skills and domain knowledge.  Both are important, of course.

But there’s an assumption there that personal qualities and interpersonal skills don’t matter as much, and team buy-in is irrelevant. There’s also an assumption that people developing software work independently as individual contributors, and they are relatively easy to replace if they don’t work out.

But, if you want to develop strong, creative, capable teams, you need to up the hiring game at the dev team level.

Here are four reasons why:

1)  A person working on an agile team is not  an “individual contributor. ”  He or she is expected to work interdependently.  In agile teams, people collaborate, negotiate, make trade-offs, handle conflicts.  These interactions require a high level of interpersonal skill and emotional intelligence.

2) Even junior members (in terms of experience, age, or skill level) are expected to exhibit a high degree of self-management.  They make commitments to other team members, follow through on commitment, manage their own work level and task completion. They need to know how to ask for help, and be comfortable admitting when they don’t know something.

3) People on agile teams need to have excellent problem-solving skills–beyond those needed by an “individual contributor.” An individual contributor needs to solve problems that are bounded by his task assignments. Problems of coordination and dependencies are often someone else’s job.  People on agile teams work together to solve technical problems, handle issues, and interface with other teams.  The manager isn’t doing the bulk of the integrating work between tasks and solving problems–team members are.

4) People on agile teams need an exceptional ability to learn and apply that learning–both in growing “generalizing specialist” skills and in improving team processes.

You can learn a lot about these factors in an interview if you use behavioral interview questions.  But not enough.  But it is very difficult to assess how someone will fit into the team, unless the entire team has a chance to meet him and interact. It’s hard to assess how people code, test, problem-solve, unless you see them in action. That’s why auditions are so useful.

Further, the broader the interview team, the more people will be invested in the new hires success.  They won’t have the cop-out of saying “your problem, I didn’t choose him.”

For some ideas on a hiring process for agile teams, see my article Hiring for a Collaborative Team.  And buy yourself a copy of Hiring the Best by Johanna Rothman.

ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches: More than a Title

As I said in an earlier column, it’s not enough to slap the tile of Scrum Master or Agile Coach on a project manager, manager, or whatever other warm body happens by.  It’s also not enough to look for the keywords “CSM” or “coach” on a resume.

If you are serious about helping teams learn and thrive as self-organizing Agile teams, get serious about ScrumMasters and Agile Coaches. Start thinking about the work, the role, and the job–not just the job title.

Here’s my initial take on a job analysis of the role (using the job analysis template from Johanna Rothman‘s very useful book, Hiring the Best.)

First, I considered the qualities, preferences, and skills. Second, I thought about the sort of knowledge and understanding that’s essential for the role.  Then, I thought about elimination factors, patterns of thought and behavior that would eliminate a candidate from consideration.  Of course, you can’t just ask yes/no questions for any of the characteristics on this table. You have to do behavioral interview questions and auditions (see Hiring the Best if you need a refresher on interviewing and auditioning candidates).

QualityR/DPreferenceR/DSkillR/DDemonstrated UnderstandingR/D Elimination Factors
InitiativeRWorking in a team environmentRTeam coachingRAgile values, principles, methods, practicesRDirective
FlexibilityRFinds satisfaction in helping others succeed.RFacilitationRTeam and group dynamicsRDefensive
OptimismRAgile practicesRWorking thru influenceDJudgmental
ResilienceRAbility to explain the "why" behind agile practicesRLow threshold for frustration
DeterminationRInterpersonal skillsR
DiscernmentRTeam dynamicsD
SupportiveRSystem thinkingD

R = Required, D = Desirable

After I had a handle on the skills, qualities, and characteristics, I considered the interactions, activities, and deliverables for the job. I summarized it all here:

Who interacts with this person?Team members
Product owner
Manager(s) associated with team members
Other coaches
Primary roleCoach
Secondary roleFacilitator
Secondary roleIntegration with other agile teams
Secondary roleOrganizational change agent
Management componentManage his/her own impediment backlog
Job grade level (consider pay and message to the organization)For purposes of pay level, look at interactions and scope.
ActivitiesCoach one or more teams.
Ensure team enabling conditions are in place.
Create or advocate for those conditions if they are not in place.
Facilitate team meetings (e.g., sprint planning, sprint demo, retrospectives, decision making meetings, etc.)
Ensure that information radiators are up to date.
Develop additional team radiators to address issues unique to the team.
Advocate for the team (e.g., block unnecessary meddling)
Help the team see their own process and improve their processes.
Coach on agile practices
Guide the team in adapting process to fit the local reality w/o losing the intent.
Coach on interpersonal and collaboration skills.
Coach on technical practices
Identify impediments
Use influence skills to remove impediments
Transfer knowledge and skills to team members so the team becomes more self-sufficient.
Up-to-date team radars
Impediment backlog
Knowledge transfer
Essential Qualities and PreferencesInitiative, flexibility, optimism, determination, resilience
Working in a team environment, supportive, not cowed by authority
Desirable Qualities and PreferencesDetachment, discernment
Able to navigate conflict
Essential non-technical skillsCoaching, interpersonal skills, Agile practices
Desirable non-technical skillsFacilitation, influence
Essential technical skillsDepends on which team the coach will work with
Desirable technical skillsDepends on which team the coach will work with
Minimum education
Minimum experienceOne year coaching a team. Two years working with an agile team
Demonstrated understanding of:Coaching
Agile values, principles, methods, practices
Team and group dynamics
Working through influence
Cultural fit factorsThis is in some ways a cultural change role. The candidate must fit the desired cultural pattern, but not be so far from the current culture that he's rejected.
Elimination factorsPreference for directing others, defensiveness, judgmental attitude, low threshold for frustration

Of course, what you look for in an agile coach or Scrum Master will be somewhat different. Each team has different needs for coaching. A given team may need more (or less) help with specific engineering practices. Another team may need more help with retrospectives or planning. The key is to think of this like any other job. ScrumMaster or Agile coach are not a plug-and-play roles. You need to look for fit–with your culture and with the needs of the team.

Hiring for a Collaborative Team

If you’re a hiring manager, you know that a typical hiring process emphasizes technical skills, functional skills, and industry knowledge. Interpersonal skills are near the bottom of the list, if they make the list at all. However, if you’re hiring for an agile team, or any other team that must collaborate to succeed, put interpersonal skills near the top of the list.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should ignore technical and functional skills or take a nice person you meet in the street and train them from the ground up. Look for a near fit on technical skills–you can train on that. Focus your attention on skills and characteristics that are a prerequisite for collaborative working relationships. A desire and ability to work collaboratively, self-management and a proven ability to navigate conflict, and self-awareness are key traits to look for. It’s not that people can’t learn interpersonal skills, but these skills are much harder to impart and often require a degree of intrapersonal change, and not everyone is willing to do that for a job.

Screen Out the Lone Wolves

Self-organizing cross-functional teams, shared code ownership, and team goals aren’t for everyone. It may seem obvious, but this is an oft-overlooked fundamental. People who crave star status and individual achievement aren’t bad people; they are a poor fit for a self-organizing team. Even when the candidate has fabulous technical skills and experience, move on. The lone wolf won’t be happy on a highly interdependent team, and you won’t be happy about your hiring decision either.

Weed Out the Not-So-Nice

This is a simple test that will quickly eliminate the not-so-nice. Have the unit admin make the initial screening call to verify employment dates, contact information, and other basics. Pay close attention to how the candidate responds. Is the candidate polite? If a candidate can’t be pleasant to the admin, it’s likely they won’t be pleasant to others either.
This little test may seem simple-minded; and while it is simple, it gives an indication about self-management and empathy. Watch mainly for big red flags: A person who isn’t willing to be pleasant may not like working with people enough to function effectively (and happily) in a highly interdependent, collaborative environment.

Involve the Team in the Hiring Process

I like team-based hiring in general, and for an agile team it’s essential. Having the manager make a hiring decision in isolation belies the very nature of self-organizing teams.
There are lots of ways to do team-based hiring, and some to avoid. Skip panel interviews where the candidate is interviewed by several people at the same time. Panel interviews save time for the staff, but can be intimidating for the candidate. Rather, have a subset of the team spend 45-50 minutes one-on-one with the candidate.
Draw up the question list in advance, and then divide the questions between the interviewers–and don’t make the candidate answer the same questions several times! If you’re interviewing more than one candidate, make sure to ask every candidate the same set of questions. You can add additional questions to follow interesting threads, but be sure you have a common set of questions for all candidates so you can compare them apples-to-apples.

Use Past Performance as an Indicator of Future Performance

Behavioral or experience-based questions are open-ended questions that ask the candidate to describe how he or she has responded and acted in the past. Explore with a combination of requests for scenarios and questions:

  • Tell me about a situation where you disagreed with a co-worker.
  • How did you handle the disagreement?
  • How long did you wait to broach the topic?
  • Tell me about three approaches you use to deal with conflict at work.

Look for candidates who can disagree–a certain level of conflict is healthy–without being disagreeable. What you don’t want is a team where people disagree all the time and can’t work together. Use behavioral questions to explore flexibility, ability to resolve conflict, helpfulness, and comfort with having work open to team review.

Watch the Candidate in Action

Auditions are a great way to see how a person works. If your team is pair programming, ask the candidate to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and then have her pair program briefly with several team members. How does she respond? Keep in mind that this is a very stressful position for many people–looking for a job is stressful enough, and you’re also asking her to jump into unfamiliar code. How does she handle that? Is she okay with being a learner? Is she comfortable offering feedback or expertise?
When you’re serious about a candidate, consider inviting the candidate to have lunch with the entire team. A group lunch serves two purposes. It allows team members who weren’t directly involved in the interviews a chance to interact with the candidate. Don’t be too worried if the candidate doesn’t act like a social butterfly. But do watch to see if he talks to the people on either side of him and shows interest in the conversation.

Make the Hiring Decision as a Team

After the interviews, auditions, and other data gathering, assemble the interview team to share their findings. I like to use a “thumb vote” to test the level of agreement on candidates. Thumb up indicates support for the candidate, thumb sideways means “I’ll go along with the group,” and thumb down means “I object and wish to speak.”
If everyone is thumb up or thumb down, the decision is easy. If a majority of the group is thumb sideways, keep looking. This should tell you that if everyone is just lukewarm about the candidate, he probably won’t be a good fit.
Override the team’s assessment at your peril!

Use Psychometric Tests Responsibly

One manager whose company had adopted Extreme Programming (XP) stated that his company was now hiring for a particular Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I predict that this company will have problems!
Healthy teams have diversity of thought processes, preferences, and psychological traits. A team of people who all think alike or like to do things the same way will run into trouble. Remember that people of all temperaments can be successful. It’s not appropriate to select or exclude candidates based on MBTI type.
Psychometric tests can be a useful piece of the puzzle. But basing a hiring decision on a psychological profile or even using it as the determining factor is not only inappropriate, it’s illegal.

Be Prepared to Answer Candidate Concerns

Be prepared to answer questions about career path and development. Self-organizing teams blur the lines between job functions and flatten job grades. Most companies have some form of job descriptions including job levels, career paths, and salary grades. This is what most candidates are accustomed to, and they may have questions on how this will work on a cross-functional team.
I recommend having as few salary bands as feasible on a cross-functional team, and standardizing compensation for each band.

Putting It All Together

Hiring for a cross-functional, collaborative team requires a different emphasis from traditional hiring practices. In many cases, languages, tools, and functional skills are much easier to train in than interpersonal skills. Shift your focus to finding people who are able and eager to work in a cross-functional, collaborative environment and be willing to accept a near fit on technology and functional skills. Follow these steps and you’ll increase your probability of building an extremely productive collaborative team.