The Jenga World of Hiring

Recently, the vice president of finance and operations put in her two-weeks notice as she was presented with an opportunity that would take her closer to home in Southeast Asia (I'll call her Jane). It felt like a blow, and I knew that although this was a great move for Jane, I had to move fast to replace her given how critical her role is to the company. To help us with the hiring process, I asked Jane to bring in candidates with similar backgrounds, yet no one compared to her. It was only after a few interviews that I realized that I wasn't approaching this situation correctly.


Replacing people is tricky since people are inherently unique. It's also costly when you consider the time and money, shifting of resources, training efforts, recruiting costs, forward momentum lost, and sheer emotional toll associated with change and breakups. Often people report that employee turnover costs about 150 percent of the annual salary of the vacant position. It's expensive for any business, but it feels especially expensive for smaller ones where the strain of covering duties and filling job vacancies is acutely felt by everyone.

The incentives to act quickly are there, but is hiring a replacement to fulfill that vacant position really the right move? It's hard to see what you need when you're in recovery mode.

As soon as she resigned, my knee-jerk reaction was to find someone as soon as possible to take care of every single task that Jane handled and do as great of a job as she did. We know employees are unique -- that carbon-copies don't exist -- yet we still hope to find them, especially when the needs are great and the stakes are high. How many times have you heard someone say, "We need somebody who is a [name of crazy-good person]. Find me another [name of crazy-good person]" when fulfilling an open position or adding a new one? I was looking for that clone, and it felt like I was taking one piece out of a stable Jenga tower and trying to force fit a different sized or shaped piece into that same spot: What if there was a smarter solution?

To answer this question, I used the rest of the time with Jane to think about the needs of the company. I started to question WHY I was looking to simply replace her. I needed to stop and reframe the situation. So, we switched strategies and had internal people learn the basics of invoicing, paying bills and running payroll. It was more efficient to train current employees, who had the availability and capability, than to spend resources searching for a non-existent replica. We had to see this as an opportunity to do more than fill a position or redefine a role; we needed to reimagine how our finance and operations departments were run in general.


That weekend I went to work looking for potential candidates on career websites, from controllers and bookkeepers to general managers and CFOs. I personally reached out to more than 20 people of whom about 12 responded, and after quick vetting conversations over phone and email, three interviews were set for the following week.

This was my opportunity to find someone who fit the company and then design their role to make them ideal for the position. And in this process, I should revamp some of our other employees' roles to optimize everyone's responsibilities.


The saying goes, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," and that's always the case in these scenarios. As soon as I found out about the need to hire, I leveraged my staffing company UX Hires and found some great candidates. I started UX Hires as a better way to staff within the UX community. At the time, terrible recruiters who didn't know the difference between an information architect and a UX strategist were bombarding me with potential hires, and starting a recruiting firm dedicated to UX was my way of solving for that problem. So now with UX Hires, I was able to come in that Monday and ask for help. And even though finance people are nowhere near their sweet spot of expertise, my team was able to find three more additional candidates for this open position by the end of the day. Part of their great performance was that they know how to recruit well, and the other part of it was that they cared so much about filling the role that they were driven to make it happen.

The benefits of recruiting for yourself definitely shine through when you're in this predicament. Our director of recruiting, Lois Siegel, put it best, "You're not just placing an individual, you are helping to build a better company." The competitive advantage in this case is that our recruiters know our company culture firsthand since they are a part of it every day.


So after taking time to evaluate how to structure everyone's role to better the company and making sure that I was bringing in talented candidates, I formulated my game plan for how to approach this challenge. Instead of trying to force-fit the next block into my foundation, I was going to build upon the amazing team I'd already built.

The three people that I found on my own were brought in as well as the three potential candidates sourced by UX Hires. Each one had a 30-minute scheduled interview on Monday. Although some were as short as seven minutes, others kept my attention well into an hour. Once I felt they were close to what I was looking for I brought in other members of the team to dig deeper into their skill sets and experience (another plus of owning a placement agency).

I will say that in hindsight I should have set up a round of speed-dating style interview sessions so more team members could have one-on-one time with each (rather than having two team members interview a candidate at the same time) and provide more input on the selected employee. After all the interviews were completed, we had four strong candidates. I went home and reflected on what I really wanted once more. I wrote down the scenarios in which I could have really used a senior finance and operations person's support, and I decided to use that as a questionnaire to further explore who might be the right fit for us.

Each question helped us gauge certain aspects of their personality and whether or not they aligned with ours. Here are some of them followed by what their answers really meant to us:

Question 1: We're talking to a potential client and have been emailing back and forth. After the first meeting, it seems as if some sort of privacy agreement needs to be reached. They are in a hurry and do not believe in NDAs. We trust them and really want the project. How would you handle this? What agreement is necessary for the next steps to be taken?

Answer: The right candidate would give an answer that demonstrated a clear agency understanding and a recommendation either way (no hedging). The "correct" answer was to let us proceed without an NDA because a lot of people do not use one and have a plan to include the important clauses in the statement of work.

Question 2: Although there's a day-to-day management component of this job, there's also analysis, strategy and real business decisions that you'll get to make. Tell me an example of an analysis that you conducted that you're proud of because it greatly impacted a business decision (can include data collection, data manipulation, interpretation, and/or recommendations).

Answer: The right candidate would offer a real creative solution, drawing from previous experiences and successes (there's humility in bragging if it includes giving due credit to the team as well), and a clear ROI. (One candidate did all of this, and I was left thinking, "I wish I had this person on my team!")

Question 3: A big responsibility of this role will be forecasting future revenues. Let's say we made $XXM last year. What would you forecast as this year's revenue, and what would you base that on? What are your assumptions?

Answer: The right candidate would rely on actual metrics -- understand that the numbers matter -- and point out that projections are really tough and need to be consistently reworked, revised when new information becomes available.

Question 4: What if anything impressed you most during our interview? Do you have any hesitations about joining us?

Answer: The right candidate would answer with no hesitation and have something concrete to share about their interview, what impacted them, and how they'd thrive in our company's culture.

These are just 4 of the 12 questions we asked. After all the answers were collected, they were exported to a matrix where team members could rate their answers (on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the best) and sum up the total. We also weighted the questions so the more strategic ones mattered more. It was in the analysis of the matrix that I believe we were able to move swiftly in making a hiring decision. Instead of spending three weeks or more on this hire, I locked myself in my office with most of the senior operations team and talked out each pro and con for over three hours. We left the room with a decision to invite two of the candidates back for a second round on that same Friday. Then, after meeting each candidate again, we confidently chose the final person.


My life's mission has always been to reframe the way people approach problem solving, and last week put us to the test as we sought to fulfill a vacant position in the best way possible. Rather than being an expensive problem, this employee's resignation became an opportunity to quickly re-examine roles and responsibilities, and consider what would be possible if I didn't just simply hire a replacement.

Instead of toppling our tower, this sudden vacancy gave me the opportunity to focus on what I'm supposed to do everyday -- continuously improve the way we operate and make sure our foundation stays strong so that we can continue to grow. Everybody's jobs did change, and we shuffled, restacked responsibilities in a way that didn't destabilize our company's foundation. Rather, it opened up new opportunities for us to aim higher.

What is the hiring process like at your organization? Is the goal to simply fill holes or pile more responsibilities on employees without forethought? You can bet I'll be thinking about Jenga (maybe even challenging a co-worker to an actual game) the next time we have a hiring opportunity.

A version of this article was originally published on the author's company website.


Lucas, Suzanne, "How Much Employee Turnover Really Costs You," Inc., online article,, Aug 30, 2013, (accessed Apr 12, 2015).

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