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How to Hire Passionate People: CEO Jim Whitehurst

How to Hire Passionate People: CEO Jim Whitehurst

By: Jim Whitehurst, author of The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015)

While it would be wonderful if everyone in your organization and every new hire brought that same level of motivation and passion with them into work every day, that’s not always possible. So how does an organization like Red Hat find people who believe in the same mission as it does?

Rethinking the Interview Process
First off, we have observed that the conventional interview process does a mediocre job of identifying if someone is truly a fit with our culture.

While we can ask lots of questions to determine someone’s skills and experience, it can be difficult to assess if they are truly passionate about the organization and our mission or just excited about the prospect of landing a job, any job.

Cultural fit is a hard thing to tease out in an interview. When it’s core to your company, you must find ways to ensure that you’re hiring the right people. When W. L. Gore makes its hiring decisions, for example, it looks for candidates who are driven, but not just by their desire to climb the corporate ladder. To help assess that kind of cultural fit, Gore relies on teams of its associates during its hiring process.

Rethinking Employee Referrals
Red Hat also finds passionate people by relying on Red Hatters themselves. The Red Hat Ambassadors program -- an associate referral initiative -- was started because we recognized that good people know other good people in terms of both their skills and their potential fit for an organization’s culture. As the tagline for the program says, “No one can spot a potential Red Hatter better than a current Red Hatter.”

While Red Hat always had an informal employee referral  program, it wasn’t until we formalized the process by creating the Ambassadors program two years ago that we began to see internal referrals skyrocket from about 29 percent of all new hires to more than half.

Once again, the details of the plan did not come down from on high; a cross-functional advisory board assembled to lead the program’s implementation. That helps explain why we went beyond the typical corporate approach of simply handing out cash rewards.

What we have in place now is a structured program, similar to a tiered airline program in which you can achieve a different status based on how much you fly. In our case, we wanted to create an aspirational incentive plan that would reward associates for how many referrals they made that led to new hires. We asked associates what kind of rewards they wanted.

At the first level, a Red Hatter becomes a “Super Ambassador,” earning a T-shirt and sticker for his or her first successful referral. It takes three successful referrals to reach the second level, where associates earn an extra 25 percent cash referral bonus, a sticker, and a coveted hoodie emblazoned with the words, “Mega Ambassador.”

Refer five people, and they attain “Ultimate Ambassador” status, which includes a onetime, 100 percent bonus match (effectively doubling the referral bonus), and the choice of either a cape or a jacket conveying that they are a Red Hat Ultimate Ambassador.

In an annual drawing among Ultimate Ambassadors, they can earn prizes like a new bicycle; perhaps just as importantly, they are invited to join the program’s advisory board. As a whole, the program has been a tremendous success in terms of both getting talent inside the company and feeding the collaborative energy we continue to stoke.

Rethinking Interview Questions
We haven’t been able to completely eliminate interviewing people. But when I assess a candidate, I have changed the kinds of questions I ask. If you stick to only asking traditional interview questions during an interview -- “Tell me about a situation where you failed?” or “Tell me about a situation where you were particularly collaborative?” -- most people have scripted answers.

Instead, I focus more on asking about candidates’ views on where their previous company is going and what they see as its future. How is the company positioned? I want to know if they have enough innate curiosity and analytical and conceptual skills to be able to frame strategically where they stand.

A lot is about discovering if they are curious enough to care and want to know. I don’t want somebody working for me who doesn’t care. To me, curiosity also signals that the person isn’t in it just for him- or herself.

By asking more macro-level questions, I can see where a candidate perceives the company as a whole moving, beyond just his or her individual role in that shift.

If you’re really trying to understand the whole business and clearly have opinions about it, that says you’re not spending 100 percent of your time just making sure you nail your own job. It means you’ve clearly built relationships and talk to other people within the company. When someone brings that kind of perspective to an interview, that’s a telltale sign that he or she has the potential to be a great team player.

Like connecting with a company’s mission, this does not require a top-down corporate mandate. Almost all leaders have an opportunity to shape who is on their team -- either by hiring or deciding who can transfer in or out.

Recognizing that passion is a key criterion for a high-performing team and screening for that in your personnel decisions can bring tremendous value to your own team.

The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance by Jim Whitehurst

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance. Copyright 2015. Red Hat, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat and author of The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance

Author Bio:
Jim Whitehurst
is CEO of Red Hat, the largest open source software company in the world. Before joining Red Hat, Whitehurst held various positions at Delta Air Lines, most recently as Chief Operating Office, responsible for operations, sales and customer service, network and revenue management, marketing and corporate strategy. Prior to joining Delta he was a Partner at The Boston Consulting Group. To learn more, visit theopenorganizationbook.com.