Hiring Replacements for Your Top Performers

5 min read · 7 years ago


Recently, my vice president of finance and operations put in her two-weeks notice (I’ll call her Jane). It felt like a blow, and I knew that although this was a great move for Jane to return to her family in Southeast Asia, 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. In fact, employee turnover costs can amount to nearly 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.

Don’t Search for Carbon Copies

As soon as she resigned, my knee-jerk reaction was to find someone immediately to take care of every single task that Jane handled. 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 a position? 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?

Revamp Roles

To answer this question, I started to question WHY I was looking to simply replace her. I needed 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, so we could use this as an opportunity to reimagine how our finance and operations departments were run in general.

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 could revamp some of our other employees’ roles to optimize everyone’s responsibilities.

Recruit for Yourself

The saying goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and that’s always been the case in these scenarios. That weekend I went to work looking for potential candidates through my LinkedIn network and 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. After quick vetting conversations over phone and email, three interviews were set for the following week. Yes, it was the weekend, but as the CEO of a small company, it’s important to take an active role in the hiring of such an important position.

I also leveraged my staffing company UX Hires to find additional candidates. I started UX Hires as a better way to staff within the UX community since recruiters who didn’t know the difference between an information architect and a UX strategist were bombarding me with potential hires. And even though finance people are nowhere near their sweet spot of expertise, my UX Hires team was able to find three more additional candidates 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.

Try Speed-Dating Interviews

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.  Each of the six candidates had a 30-minute interview. Although some interviews were as short as seven minutes, others kept my attention for well over 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).

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 candidate (rather than having two team members interview a candidate at the same time). In the end, we had 4 strong candidates. I reflected on what I really wanted once more and wrote down the scenarios in which I could have really used a senior finance and operations person’s support. I decided to use those scenarios as a questionnaire to further interview the top candidates.

Build a Hiring Matrix

After collecting the interview answers, we exported them to a matrix where team members could rate the 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 three hours. We left the room with a decision to invite two candidates back for a second round on that same Friday. Then, after meeting each candidate again, we confidently chose the final person.

Reframe Hiring

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 every day: continuously improve the way we operate, and make sure our foundation stays strong so that we can continue to grow.

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.

Mona Patel is Founder and CEO at Motivate Design and UX Hires. She is the author of Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate, and Think.

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