Buzzer-Beater Hiring

It’s the finals. The game has been close. Your team is two points down and there are only 1.8 seconds left on the shot clock. The win is so close you can taste it.

You’ve set what you know is a solid play for your team. You’ve discussed it thoroughly by this point and you know Smith is going to get the ball and take a quick 3 point shot. Your player prepares to inbound the ball, an opponent wildly flailing his arms to distract the pass.

He passes it in to Smith.

1.7, 1.6, 1.5…

But at that moment, Smith got a text message. I mean, it was going to check itself.

1.4, 1.3, 1.2…

So he pulled his phone out of his pocket, simply to have the ball inbounded right past him.

1.1, 1.0…

One of the opponents grabbed the ball, just long enough to deplete the clock.

0.3, 0.2, 0.1…


What you needed on your team was someone involved. Someone who was ready to go during crunch time. And this is something that can often be solved much earlier than the time for a “game winning shot”.

It comes with selecting who’s going to be a part of your team. Who’s all in? Who’s excited and engaged? Who’s ready to contribute?

This is something that is really important to consider in the process of hiring. In my experience with management I’ve found that hiring well makes such a difference in the success that comes in the dynamic of a good team.

But what’s involved? It can vary from industry to industry. But I’m a big believer in first impressions.

Being in restaurant management, a large percentage of the many(!) people I have spent time interviewing were looking to be hosts. As a host, you are the first face that guests see as they enter the restaurant. They want to see that smiling face, that immediately warm engagement. We wanted people walking into our restaurant to really feel like guests in our own home as opposed to simply customers that we were shipping in and out.

So if someone walked in for an interview, I was quick to gage her demeanor. Was she excited to meet me? Did she give me great eye contact? Did she exude confidence? Was she smiling?

If the answers to all of these questions were yes, she had her foot in the door and we were off to a great start!

I also analyzed how candidates were dressed. Some walked in with shirts that looked like they’d just finished wrestling a mountain lion in the middle of the desert. Some walked in looking like they were about to go clubbing with their girlfriends. But others looked professional, well put together and told me with what they wore, “Hey Eric! I want to work here!”

Ok. Good demeanor, check! Well dressed, check!

But then came the fun part. Talking to them.

I like talking to people. Getting to know people’s stories is of interest to me and holding a conversation with someone new is a skill I’ve been able to strengthen over time. But it’s important to remember that this is a two-way street. Jeff Haden posted a great article on interviewing and hiring to LinkedIn called “Conduct the Perfect Job Interview in 12 Steps” and I loved the point he made about listening.

Make the interview a conversation, not an interrogation… And once you ask a question, the key is to listen slowly. Give the conversation room to breathe.”

Sometimes, I can be a bit too talkative, I’ll admit it. I’m the one who seeks to fill in any dead silence or open spots in conversations. But in my experience with conducting interviews, I’ve come to realize that the old ratio of listen twice as much as you talk proves to be a huge benefit when getting to know someone who wants to join your team.

I had to ask myself—is this a buzzer beater kind of person. Is this the individual that is going to make our team even better.

Another lesson that I learned, was not to depend on the resume.

This came with some experience. When I first started in management and interviewed people, my eyes quickly darted to the “Work Experience” portion of the resume. Has this person worked as a server or host before? How much time has he spent in the industry? What kinds of restaurant is she experienced with?” But I came to realize that this often wasn’t the main indicator if someone would be a “buzzer-beater” team member.

Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely nice to see people who already had experience in the jobs they were applying for, and for many candidates, it was a step in the right direction toward their getting hired. But I knew I needed to look at more than just that with my management team.

Some experienced servers would come in to interview, but they showed up looking like Scruffy just ran away from home. I couldn’t beg some of them to smile if I tried. Others seemed to be directing their conversation to some ghastly figure who was apparently sitting right behind me somewhere. Others seemed like they had just landed on Earth from a distant planet (and came in peace). Others would have their parents pestering me to give their kids follow up interviews. Some were guilty of multiple of the above sentences. And there were some who were guilty of some of, if not all of, the above issues. And these were the ones with experience.

And then the converse was true. Some were fresh out of high school and were looking for their first job (the position in which I found myself when starting with the company!). Some were seemingly too overqualified in their level of education. Some had experience in every industry except restaurants. But many times, these  were the ones who were truly warm. They knew how to smile and hold a conversation. They’d excel when I gave them and on-the-spot test on how they would greet me if I were a guest entering the restaurant. They’d done their research on the company and could easily tell me their favorite item on the menu when they came in to eat (anyone who simply said Pepperoni Pizza was an obvious bluffer).

Indeed, it wasn’t always about who had the most impressive resume. Sometimes, those who had a good fit matched our culture, our vibe, our positive environment. Long ago, I would’ve thought this was far too “hippie” of an approach to take to hiring. But often, it worked.

I’ll give an example. We hired one woman as a server, whom I’ll call Kelly. She was very experienced as a server and was good at holding a conversation as she interviewed. “Wow,” I thought as I perused her resume before sitting down with her, “this is the kind of person we need here; she’s so experienced!”

So we hired Kelly.

But days into her time with us, we caught her cheating on a server test. She had taken the time to write the answers to the test questions on a sheet of paper and wrap them around a pen. The general manager and I took time to discuss this issue and figure out whether we would keep her. She seemed like she’d be good. She had so much experience and it was only days after our decision to hire her!

But we fired Kelly.

On the converse, we also hired a guy named “Gavin”. He’d worked for years at Disneyland and made candy apples there. That’s not necessarily the type of experience we looked for in a prospective server. But he had a great personality. He was funny. He struck me as dedicated. He wanted to get his foot in the door as a server at our restaurant and he made it very clear.

And despite not having any restaurant experience, we brought him on board as a server, not even deciding to have him take the typical first step start as a host. He turned out to be a great hire. He worked hard and got plenty of great guest feedback. It showed us that it’s not all about what’s on the resume. Someone who fits the culture can really bring a lot to the table.

The bottom line on finding buzzer-beaters… For me, it was not to rely on the age-old adage “experience, experience, experience”, because there is a lot more to making a good hire than just that. Sure, it plays a role, and in many cases that can be an important role. But there’s more to look at to determine who a person really is, as opposed to simply what he’s done. And that can allow one to bring someone on board that can make a business even better!