Building a Solid Selection Pipeline

Unposed group of creative business people in an open concept office brainstorming their next project..jpegBy Kathi Graham-Leviss

Why is selection so important now?

For a number of organizations the time is right for taking a long, hard look at investing in selection. As the economy recovers, pressure on the current workforce to meet the needs of growing demands is sure to follow. At the same time many people are applying for jobs that do not suit them. Allocating resources toward the creation of a formal employee selection process might, at first glance, appear as a cost to an organization. However, the benefits associated with the implementation of a selection system make it a sound investment.

In the absence of a formal selection system, organizations tend to rely primarily on resume screening and applicant performance in an interview. The interview process is often an unstructured, loose discussion focusing more on personality than important, job related information. Research indicates that strong performance in an unstructured interview does not effectively predict strong performance on the job. Candidates are often measured on their ability to make a good impression. For example, extroverts may engage others quickly and be charming without having the critical thinking needed for long-term success.

A failure to focus on position specific factors often results in selection of employees ill-equipped to perform successfully on the job. Some issues likely to arise include an inability to understand and apply training in a timely manner and a tendency to become dependent on others to get the job done right. A recent study showed that organizations that fail to address these issues quickly and accurately are likely to struggle due to poor performance and mismanagement of human capital. In a survey of 700 executive managers in the United States, they found that each manager loses an average of 34 days a year managing poor performers – employees who are not meeting the established performance standards of the organization. This translates to approximately one hour a day for each manager, or 12 percent of their time! Imagine how much more productive these managers could be if they didn’t have to worry about poor performers. Finding a way to establish that an applicant possesses the knowledge, skills and experience necessary for the job is a much more effective use of time and resources.

Components of the Selection Pipeline

Creating a process that effectively predicts applicant performance follows a simple, straightforward process that makes intuitive sense. The process begins with a thorough job analysis that leverages persons from the target group who are expert in the expectations and demands associated with the position. The focus is on capturing the essential knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for success in the position being targeted. The gathered information is categorized into simple, well-defined areas, or competencies necessary for success in the job. Based on the competency model, trained professional can select valid and reliable tools to assess the extent to which the candidates demonstrate such competencies.

The best companies focus on building a strong culture that is part of the brand that it provides customers, Southwest Airlines and Starbucks are examples. This selection for culture often involves matching on values. When employee values match the company’s values, retention and engagement are significantly higher. The most successful organizations hire employees who look forward to coming to work.

A behaviorally focused, structured interview is another key component. Having relevant behavioral interview guides to augment selection testing is a key to involving hiring managers in a meaningful way. In these interviews, relevant experience and other softer skills (values, work style, personality) can be assessed. The testing portion of the selection process is narrows the interview pool and allows for selecting the best candidates among a pool of well-qualified ones.

The final result of the process is a business-relevant test that increases the level of talent of the organization. A legally defensible, effective tool is also important and supports diversity goals by ensuring that talent is what differentiates candidates.

A Case of ABB

In preparation for launching large marketing campaigns, ABB, a major US pharmaceutical company was increasing the size of their sales division. In particular, new sales account executives were being added. The ideal candidates must be able to multi-task, quickly develop rapport with gatekeepers and respond flexibly to needs. Pharmaceutical sales roles require the ability to work a complex sales process and to interact with a highly educated client base. This means that sales representatives have to be bright with good problem solving skills.

ABB incorporated the competency model into the hiring process for an Account Executive position. In this process, a competency survey was used with experts on the job. This process forces choices among competencies in recognition that all competencies are not equally important. This is a critical step because it will help the organization effectively differentiate between candidates on the competencies that matter the most. A candidate may be strongest in areas that are less critically important to the job, for example, presentation skills and only average on the top five competencies. The competency model prevents the hiring managers from being dazzled by a quality that is not one of the most important attributes. The top five competencies as identified by two managers, the sales trainer and a current top sales rep were:

  1. Seizes opportunities
  2. Demonstrates flexibility
  3. Builds customer loyalty
  4. Gains buy-in
  5. Maintains endurance

For each of the competencies the behaviors that are most important are clearly defined. This information assists in reviewing the resumes and screening for examples of the behaviors in candidates past job performance. The table below shows the important behaviors for a key competency. The job analysis process looks both at how important a behavior is and how often that behavior is performed.

In addition to competencies, the level of required critical thinking skills is identified. Problem solving skills can be objectively measured with validated critical reasoning test items. This job requires average to above average problem solving skills.

Values and motivators were identified to help select candidates who fit with ABB’s work environment. In the case of the Account Executive, the key values include Achievement, Power and Influence and Adventure. The job analysis report provides interview questions for each of the key values.


1. Give an example of a time you had to work on a novel assignment. How did you approach theassignment? What was the outcome?
2. Describe a time you felt it was necessary to take a risk at work. What was the situation? How did you respond? What was the result?

Many candidates were given the assessment and only the top group moved forward in the process. A good selection process will typically provide the top 30% of candidates for interviews. This ensures that the managers have a pool of qualified, pre-screened candidates to evaluate.

No candidate is perfect. A reasonable candidate in terms of fit, Bill Smith, scored high on several of the top competencies. The scores are in percentiles with over a 60 percentile being considered above average. Mr. Smith’s scores are above average on the most important competencies for the job. This aligns with his resume which shows a successful track record of new account penetration.

1 Seizes Opportunities 93
2 Demonstrates Flexibility/Resilience 89
3 Builds Customer Loyalty 86
5 Maintains Endurance 79
7 Develops and Maintains Relationships 79

Yet, his problem solving skills are not in the range that we would like to see. He will tend to rely on his past experience and standardized protocols for resolving problems. The fact that he is average numerically is a bright spot as these Account Representatives have to structure contract details that must be accurate.

Critical Thinking Score

1 Reasons Logically 26
2 Reasons Numerically 50
3 Reasons Verbally 44

Two of Mr. Smith’s values are in alignment with the position. He seeks achievement and influence which are important in the sales environment. He will strive to be successful and work hard as he is achievement oriented. His score on Adventure, however is low. This indicates that Mr. Smith has a preference for predictable repeatable work. He is less comfortable with ambiguity and going out on a limb to solve a problem than most candidates.

Values Score

1 Achievement 91
2 Power and Overt Influence 98
3 Adventure 12

Mr. Smith is likely to be a high performer in most regards. He brings the majority of the attributes that are desired in the position. However, his scores on critical thinking are a bit less than desired. This places some limitations on his ability to independently handle ambiguity, see implications to new problems and find creative ways to remove barriers in closing the sale.

Interestingly, his values also reflect the pattern that while high achieving, he prefers a predictable environment. These are areas that can be focused in on follow up final round interviews. The organization can also be alert to placing him with an appropriate manager and ensuring that training is thorough.

By using the job analysis and the assessment for pre-screening, ABB was able to identify a pool of reasonable candidates and then to dig into the data further to understand each candidate individually. Job analysis is a critical element because it sets the bar clearly enough to allow for such specific analysis and comparisons of candidates.

Mr. Smith was hired into the organization and has a development plan that provides him regular training and mentoring on the common scenarios that he will run into in his role. The more experience he gets at ABB, the more that the work will feel predictable to him ensuring his long term success and fit in the organization.

Checklist for HR Leaders

The following tips will ensure that your selection process results in the right outcomes for your organization.

  1. Job analysis sets the bar.
  2. Select on both “can do” and “will do” factors.
  3. Consider matching to corporate values
  4. Align interviews and testing
  5. Measure your results


Selection Process Diagram