Guidelines for building a great team, from the recruiter who hired 4,300 people for Hillary Clinton in 18 months

Tell me a little about yourself.
Tell me a little about yourself.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Very few companies hire 4,300 people in 18 months. But a presidential campaign does—while working hard and on a deadline.

Until Hillary Clinton’s loss in November, Nathaniel Koloc was head of talent for her presidential campaign, which means he oversaw a massive hiring effort that needed to be both fast and flexible. Koloc says his first priority was providing interviewing and hiring guidance to leaders in states and local offices, the people making decisions on the ground. “Relatively few people in the professional world have ever been trained to hire well,” he says.

Here are some of Koloc’s guiding principles:

Make hiring a priority.

“We had a lot of cases where folks would put their hiring work after everything else—they would do all their work for the day and then at 6pm or 7pm or 9 pm look for candidates,” Koloc says. “If you’re trying to hire great people to have more balance on your team and have good outcomes, that’s the number one thing you should be doing.”

Hire people who will take new approaches. 

“If your team is trying to do something that is new in the world, nobody is going to be doing the exact same thing that they did before,” Koloc says. “It’s dangerous to have people who show up to a new situation and say, ‘We should do it like this, because we did it like this before.’ You don’t need people who have done exactly that thing before.”

If you want diverse candidates, you may need to look for them.

“A lot of times people underrepresented in politics don’t know that it’s an option to work in politics,”Koloc says. To combat this, Koloc’s team ran Facebook marketing campaigns targeted at African American and Latino communities. The result was a large percentage of workers who came from outside immediate campaign circles. He says about 20% of people who worked at the campaign headquarters were cold applications who had no connection with others working on the campaign, and 48% had never been on a campaign before.

Sell the role, but be accurate.

“There were some people who would assume that everyone would be excited to work in politics,” Koloc says. Those people would do nothing to sell the job, and subsequently had a lower rate of candidates accepting their offers. “On the other end, some were trying to scare people away,” Koloc says. “It’s a hard job. You don’t sleep a lot you get told no all the time you get people screaming at you.”

The best approach is to be accurate about what is difficult about the position—that establishes a trusting relationship with a new employee—but also to highlight the good in the job. “This is hard, but it’s meaningful, and you’re going to learn a lot of valuable skills,” Koloc says as an example of how to approach a candidate. He adds: “It’s really important to know how talk to 90 people and hear no 90 times, and on the 91st time still have energy.”

The best interview question is a pretty boring one. 

Says Koloc: “Ask someone, ‘For the last two jobs you had, what were you hired to do, what resources were you given access to, and what happened?’ On a résumé, you can embellish and squirm. But in person, you can’t really do that.”

Koloc encourages hiring managers to dig deeper into specific experiences, for example: “‘You said you ran an account—what was the budget?’ If they implied $100 million account, and it’s actually $100k, that’s a different story.”

Give people test scenarios.

When the Clinton campaign hired for its travel team, interviewers asked candidates what they might do if it were 3am on a Tuesday, they’re on call, and Hillary Clinton’s jet broke down.

“There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer,” Koloc says. “But even whether they think to say, ‘I alert my boss,’ it gives you a sense of [what kind of] judgment they’re going to have.”