Hire Like Google — Project the ‘Career Trajectory’ of Your Candidates

Feb 23, 2015

job movementI frequently get asked the question “What is the one thing that recruiting functions should be systematically doing, but for some unexplained reason, it doesn’t do it?”

Well, one quick answer to that question is “to project the career trajectory of potential hires.” Which simply means to assess whether a candidate, after they are hired, are likely to progress and develop at top speed, average speed, or below average speed in critical areas like learning, promotion, leadership, and innovation.

It’s of course a common practice now when you review a candidate to look at their job history, but with such a limited backward view, you are likely to make a major hiring error. If you really want to guarantee that any new hire will grow, develop, and successfully ascend through your corporate hierarchy, you must also project or forecast their likely future career growth path. If you haven’t heard of plotting a career trajectory before, it’s actually a common practice in corporate succession planning, where you must determine if an employee has the high level of potential necessary to continually develop and eventually move into higher level jobs.

It may help to think of someone’s career as a moving picture that can be accelerating, leveling off, or even stalled and heading into a downward slant. If you’re not aware of it, growth trajectory charts or maps are also regularly plotted for stocks, economic indicators, population growth, diseases, and product lifecycles.

There is no universally accepted definition of career trajectory, but I define it as a forecast of at least three primary career growth factors. The initial factors are 1) their speed of promotion, 2) their length of stay at the firm, and 3) their likely career direction (will they stay in or leave the business function that they were hired into). Knowing the potential career trajectory of all applicants allows you to focus on recruiting the few candidates who are likely to have an accelerated career development rate.

Plotting a Career Trajectory May Be New To You, but It’s Common For Others

Agents regularly plot the career trajectory of musicians and actors before they sign them. Major league baseball teams also do an exceptional job of projecting the career trajectory of draftees, rookies, and seasoned veterans. MLB general managers routinely use this information both for hiring and for trading away talent that is likely to soon begin a downward trajectory. And if you’re still skeptical about hiring people based on their career trajectory, read the book “How Google Works” (p. 110), because its authors not only recommend hiring based on career trajectory but they also give examples of how it has been used successfully in the past at Google.

Google’s hiring committee currently assigns a mentor to those new hires with an exceptionally high projected trajectory in order to ensure that the new hire meets their trajectory. It also uses a variation of this process to ensure that new hires will have the capability to grow into the one or two “next jobs” that most hires will invariably move into. Incidentally, you may already be doing a form of projection if you ask for a candidate’s salary history and use it to plot their future salary demands and growth. 

Key Components to Estimate in a Candidate’s Career Trajectory

Even if you don’t currently do it, it makes sense to estimate a candidate’s career growth rate and the potential job level that a candidate may reach within your organization. Some of the career trajectory factors that you should consider projecting include:

  • What is their retention trajectory? — perhaps the most important trajectory factor is retention. If you’re going to sink a lot of training and development dollars into an individual, it makes sense to at least estimate how long they are likely to stay with your firm. Look at their average stay at previous firms in order to estimate how long this candidate is likely to stay at your firm.  Knowing that an individual is likely to leave the firm early on may also encourage their manager to begin retention efforts almost immediately. Incidentally, simply because a superstar may not stay long is not a sufficient reason to reject them, because having LeBron for one season will likely create much more economic value than having an average player for three seasons. Incidentally, if your organization is slow to promote, you need to assume that someone with a steep promotion trajectory will likely leave your firm in order to get the promotion that they feel that they deserve. Individuals who may continue to grow in the area of entrepreneurship may eventually leave the firm in order to start their own (estimating it has been called “the garage factor”). In these cases, it makes sense to forecast if and when it is likely to happen for both new hires and current employees.
  • What is their learning curve trajectory? — self-directed rapid learning with a high level of intellectual curiosity may be the most important competency. Plot the learning curve of prospects to see how rapidly they learn new knowledge and whether their rate of learning is increasing or decreasing. If they don’t yet have an advanced degree, it may also make sense to project whether they have the interest and the capability of obtaining it while they work at your firm. Start by reviewing their resume for indications that they are continually learning in advanced areas. During the interview ask them to outline their personal process for continually staying “on the bleeding edge of knowledge.”
  • How many job levels will they achieve? — if a candidate appears to be highly promotable, it makes sense to estimate how many job levels they are likely to achieve during their first few years. Look at recent promotion rates in their resume and how quick they learn and pick up the new “next-level skills” that are required before one can be promoted. You can also calculate the average number of years before a person in the position will move up to the next level and the probability that any one employee will actually make that transition successfully. Obviously it makes sense to make an overall assessment as to whether this individual’s career climb is accelerating or whether they have already reached their apex, so that the likelihood of a future promotion is low.
  • Project whether they will become leaders — the baby-boom retirement wave ensures that every organization will need more leaders. Estimate how quickly any individual is likely to develop team and business unit leadership skills. If you promote your first-level supervisors quickly, you will need to ensure that 10 to 30 percent of your new hires will have the capability of becoming a manager/supervisor within three to five years. Having a history of being selected as a leader, being put into leadership development programs in the past, or whether they currently qualify for your own leader development program may be an indication of their future leadership trajectory at your firm.
  • Project whether their drive, ambition, and initiative will wane — many individuals start their career with a high level of excitement, initiative, ambition, and a strong work ethic/drive. However, unfortunately in others those drive-related competencies eventually decrease. As a result, it makes sense to project whether their current work ethic and level of initiative is likely to continue or when it will likely taper off as their tenure at the firm increases. Incidentally, it’s inaccurate to assume that drive, excitement, work ethic, ambition, and initiative are somehow correlated with age.
  • Estimate whether they will continue to innovate — in a world where innovation and speed are critical for high-profit margins, it makes sense to estimate whether a candidate’s ability to innovate and move fast may be accelerating or whether it could be plateauing. Their previous rate of idea generation, their publication record and even the number of patents they apply for may be one of the indicators that their current rate of innovation is likely to continue.
  • Will they develop a big-picture strategic view? — the most valuable new hires already have a strategic forward-looking perspective. But if you’re hiring someone in the early stages of their career, it makes sense to project if and when they are likely to develop a strategic “big picture” perspective and the tools that accompany it.
  • Project whether they will become fast and accurate decision makers  fast, accurate and consultive decision-makers are extremely valuable individuals. So it makes sense to project if and when a candidate will likely reach the next higher level of decision-making, whether it be intuitive or data-based decision-making.
  • Project whether they are likely to stay in the same function or business unit — in some cases a key new hire may be an essential part of your plan for building up a particular function. In those cases,  project whether they are likely to stay in that function (staying within the function is known as “natural” or vertical progression). This is because a career history where they have branched out into other fields may indicate that a new hire is likely to eventually “jump” to another function. Their interest in exploring may help the firm overall but it can create a problem if you need them to stay within your unit and become an essential part of the team for an extended period of time.
  • Project their future compensation costs — in addition to their current salary expectations, project whether the new hire will have a continuing pattern of expecting above-average compensation and a more than average frequency of raises. This makes the hire more expensive over time and it becomes problematic if your organization is slow to increase compensation.
  • Project their WAR (Wins Above Replacement) — using a concept proven in major league baseball, project the average performance decrease if the employee is replaced by an average performing hire after 1, 3, 5, and 10 years. Obviously if the replacement produces at a significantly lower level, retaining the employee is more important.
  • Project whether they will adapt to your culture — many firms make the mistake of assuming that a new hire must be a perfect fit for the manager and the organization. However, if the individual has a history of successfully and quickly adapting to new environments and cultures, you might be able to project that they will be able to rapidly adjust to your culture, even though it is different from their last firm.
  • Project the career trajectory of your current employees — if you take a broader perspective beyond recruiting, go beyond projecting the future of candidates and new hires and to also look at your own current employees. You should project their likelihood of growth, promotion, movement into leadership, and retention, so that their managers can encourage their movement and remove roadblocks that might unnecessarily slow the current employee’s growth.
  • Miscellaneous areas to project — depending on your organization’s needs, you might also project or forecast career growth in additional areas including confidence, commitment, presentation skills, forecasting skills, Internet visibility, technology use, industry contacts, the ability to delegate, and their ability to influence others. 

Recruiting Those With a Trajectory That Is About to Explode Has a High ROI

From an economic perspective, projecting a career trajectory or vector allows you to more accurately assess the likely long-term value that a candidate will add to your organization because they will stay longer, get promoted faster, innovate more, and because they will soon develop into superior leaders.

Another primary goal for projecting the career trajectory of candidates is to identify hidden talent who will produce a high ROI. The return is high because candidates who are in the early stages of career development will be cheaper salary wise and at the same time, they will also be in less demand (and easier to recruit) than those who have a well-established career record and trajectory. Taken together means that it is a coup if you successfully recruit early career development candidates whose careers are about to explode (e.g. Jeremy Lin), but that other hiring managers have missed because they failed to project their career growth.

Be sure that you’re not hiring someone who has only had a recent short-term “career spurt” that is unlikely to last. And if your development function is strong, perhaps hire people who have a frozen or downward career spiral that can be stopped and redirected with the right development and management approaches.

If Growth Is Essential, You Must Assess Career Trajectories

In the music industry, “moving up with a bullet” means that a song is rapidly moving up the charts. The same “tagged with a bullet” approach should be used for candidates with great growth potential, in order to ensure that they make the interview slate. A candidate’s rate of progression is an especially critical factor to assess for those job families that require a new hire to rapidly grow in “this job” and into “the next job” at the firm. Candidates with above average “speed” in their career trajectory are the most desirable because they are more likely to be able to move up rapidly in the organization and become future leaders.

If you work at a fast-growing firm, almost every new hire should have a rapidly growing or steep career trajectory. Hiring managers at startups and firms that hire primarily at entry-level should estimate the growth potential of their new hires, because hiring people who can’t develop will directly hamper both the growth and the business results of the firm.

Action Steps for Estimating a Candidate’s Career Trajectory

Let’s be frank: projecting someone’s career path is difficult, just like it is when you are identifying high potentials for succession planning and leadership development. In the case of hiring, it is even more difficult because the person being assessed is switching jobs and companies, so you simply can’t expect them to perform and progress exactly the same way that they did in the past at another firm. But it is possible to get some usable career trajectory results almost immediately if you take the following action steps.

  • Make a rough estimate and then refine the process — don’t assume that you will get perfect career projections immediately. However, the key to success is to start with the basics, even if it’s simply a consensus opinion as to whether the individual is growing in a particular area. If you want to use data right away, start by looking at your own employees and see if there is a predictable career trajectory pattern in key job families (and precursors to it) that you can apply to your candidates. Obviously, after you make a few trajectory projections, monitor their progress to see if they turn out to be accurate over time.
  • Forget hard numbers; just label the factors as accelerating or plateauing — don’t initially try to accurately estimate a precise rate of career growth with a number. When you’re just starting out, perhaps look for individuals who are likely to be plateauing in an important area. As you get more comfortable, move on to four simple characterizations of each of the selected growth factors (i.e. 1) accelerating, 2) on track, 3) leveling off, or 4) decreasing). To make your characterization easier to spot, as an alternative you can use the pattern of a traffic light (i.e. green, yellow, or red) to characterize a candidate. As you get experience in projecting career trajectories, you can add numbers (e.g. I project they will move three job levels in five years).
  • Initially select only a few career trajectory factors — also limit your projections to only a few career factors. Start with projecting these three factors: work ethic, learning ability, and retention. They are a good starting point in part because a new hire’s trajectory in these areas can often be assessed within months of starting. Obviously, you won’t be able to validate your projections on some factors (i.e. like projecting how many job levels they will move) for a few years.
  • Use your projections to change the way you manage them — don’t assume that a likely career trajectory for a new hire cannot be altered by removing obstacles in their pathway. This means that if you project a weakness in a career factor, it makes sense to apply motivational, development, and feedback methods to re-accelerate any of the career trajectory areas that may be showing signs of plateauing. You should also minimize any rules that require an employee to stay in a new job for a fixed number of months/years, because that will stifle the growth of accelerated movers. Next identify “success stories,” so that you can show other managers that a career trajectory can be accelerated with the appropriate management actions. And finally, you might also plot the likely job title trajectories and the average tenure at each step for each major job family, as a form of career planning guide so that employees will know the vertical path that they will most likely take as they progress in their career at the firm.
  • Plot or chart the career trajectory only for key jobs — because most recruiters have a heavy load, it simply doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time projecting the career trajectory for jobs that don’t require a new hire that must continually grow. Prioritize your jobs and candidates and focus on the 20 percent who absolutely must have an accelerating career trajectory.

Final Thoughts

Most recruiting leaders encounter hiring managers who regularly complain about the quality of their hires and how often they don’t fit, stay longer, or how they don’t progress as rapidly as the manager expected. Sssessing the career trajectory before hiring can reduce many of those problems. At the very least, get the hiring team to look at these trajectory factors in order to see if there is a potential problem (a decelerating or plateauing career factor).

Even if you rely heavily on intuition, you need to develop a process that allows you to at least roughly project the future. Incidentally, even if you hire an individual who has a weak career trajectory in a few areas, that projection should serve as a reminder to watch or monitor that individual after they are hired (so that they can be released or counseled on how they can improve in the important career trajectory areas).

Incidentally, periodically assess your own personal career trajectory in order to identify if it is slowing because you haven’t put enough time into your development or to realize that you may be working for a manager or a firm that doesn’t expect much growth in your career future.