…because some thoughts are worth remembering
Hiring was one of the most important responsibilities I had as a co-founder and the chief executive at LavaNet. As one of the first Internet Service Providers in Hawaii, we differentiated ourselves by aiming to be the best vs. the biggest in the market, a philosophy which directed us to prioritize hiring people who shared this vision. Because commercial Internet access was still young (we got questions like “so, what is the Internet?” at trade shows), tools and procedures to hook up computers to the Information Superhighway were not for the faint of heart. It came down to having solid communication skills with ample compassion for both our technical and sales people. We received hundreds of resumes. Once they were sorted, and we had a few finalists, we started introducing the Mastermind game before the candidate got to have a group interview with the staff.
Mastermind is a board game for two people where you guess the colors and the order of the pins your opponent picked. Here is an online version of Mastermind.
I remember getting a lot of push back from my staff. “What if they already knew how to play the game? They would have an advantage over candidates who didn’t.” or “Winning the game doesn’t prove you can solve other problems as well.” I assured them that it wasn’t the winning of the game I was concerned about.
Here is how I used Mastermind to gain better insight of the candidate who has already been qualified for the particular position (with a phone interview, a completed job application, face-to-face interview with me and a hiring manager, reference checks, and an on-the-spot writing exercise):
1. Explain that we are interested in interacting with them as one of our top candidates, by using this game called Mastermind.
2. Ask if they have heard of it. Explain the rules by giving them the rules in writing. Have them pull up the website with the online version of the game. Have them ask you questions about the rules of the game.
3. Stress to them that they are not being graded for how quickly they solve the puzzle, or if they can solve the puzzle at all in the number of turns allotted. The purpose is to create a situation where we are communicating as a team. Their job is to tell me what their strategy is for each of the step, and why.
4. Have them play the game a couple of turns. When you feel like they are getting the hang of it, ask them specifically why they made a particular move (because the chances are, they haven’t communicated their intentions as much/well as you wanted them to).
5. When you are sure they have mastered the rules of the game by watching them play, change the goal of the game in midstream. Pose them a specific challenge, such as “What if I asked you to ignore the original goal of guessing the line-up, and instead if you had to confirm that the left most pin was red. How would you move next?”
6. There are also other questions you can ask, such as “What if you were to teach this game to someone else. What strategies would you convey?”, or disagree with their move by suggesting another, and see how they respond.
7. Depending on the time constraint, I might have them play another round smoothly to give them closure on a positive note.
More than any one indicator/factor in hiring, playing Mastermind has been given me the least false positives in my hiring decisions (meaning, if the interaction with them went well for the game session, they ended up being excellent hires). It doesn’t mean that they will not be your star employee if they played “poorly”. It gives you a peek into how they might interact with you under a stressful condition, how they might respond to you when you provide criticism, how quickly they can pivot when our target is changed, how clear and thorough are they in explaining their thoughts, how do they respond to their own mistakes?
One of the pieces of advice I have given to new managers making hiring decision for the first time, is to close their eyes and pretend to go through a regular work day with them: assigning them a deadline, praising them for good work, pointing out the errors they made, having to be adamant, seeing them being part of a larger group, etc. If the new managers can imagine these scenarios and feel good about how they are when interacting with the candidate, they’ve taken the first step to be a committed supervisor. Mastermind helps you to imagine these scenarios, testing their logic skills doesn’t mean much to you. (To think of it, it’s probably a good communication exercise to do for people who are already hired!)