How to Recruit & Hire A Players

Greg Schott was CEO of MuleSoft from 2009 through its IPO and subsequent acquisition, in 2019, by Salesforce.

If I had to pinpoint the secret sauce at MuleSoft, it would be the caliber of our people. Specifically, the process we developed to assess and hire top talent. Now, as an executive chairman and board member for several other high-growth tech companies, I continue to insist that hiring A Players throughout the organization is the key ingredient to a business’s success.

Hiring a great team is, in fact, a CEO's most important job. Below, I describe how to stack your company with A Players – people with the intellect, drive, resilience, problem-solving skills, collaborative orientation and the ability to get stuff done.

I think of talent as the main ingredient in the recipe for an organization. If you don’t start with quality ingredients, it’s nearly impossible to build a great company. The founders may be able to make it work for a little while, but at some point the quality of an organization is a function of the quality of its people. Of course, there are plenty of ways that leaders with incredible teams can ruin their companies, but without the essential ingredient – great people – there’s little chance of long-term success.

Below is a proven process I’ve used for effective hiring. Be advised: It’s a time-consuming, team effort, but if your goal is to build your company with A Players, it works.

“In the last year, I interviewed every final-round candidate – about 800 in total. It nearly killed me, but I kept asking myself, 'Is there anything more important?' ”

Three Approaches to Hiring

Over the years, I’ve observed three hiring-manager personas:

Slashers: These managers hire fast and loose – “If they aren’t good, I’ll fire them and hire someone better.” This crushes morale as the effects of subpar employees and frequent firings (even when justified) take their toll.

Saviors: These managers believe they can hire B players and turn them into A Players by dint of their superior management skills – “I know they don’t seem like an A Player, but I’ll manage them to deliver greatness.” This approach rarely works because A Players are typically defined by their innate motivations and capabilities rather than responding to management.

Builders: These managers understand it takes great people to build a great company – “Let’s accept nothing less than surrounding ourselves with people who are better than us.” In contrast to the above two personas, builders resolve to hire only A Players for their teams – even when they’re growing quickly, even when the labor market is tight and even if they needed to fill a role yesterday. This requires a rigorous process and a heavy time commitment for the entire org.

Hiring A Players Takes Time

For CEOs, there are two main principles to understand about the time and perseverance required to hire A Players.

1. Put in the time. At MuleSoft, as we grew the company from 20 people to 1,700, I spent about 25% of my time each year on hiring. In the last year, I interviewed every final round candidate – about 800 in total. It nearly killed me, but I kept asking myself, “Is there anything more important?”

For CEOs, what is urgent can take over what is important, and other priorities can dull your focus on recruiting and hiring. To truly prioritize hiring, you need to believe in your bones that it’s your number one job and repeatedly make clear to other team members that it needs to be theirs, too. When I see functional leaders who are hiring, say, 100 people in a year and are not involved in every hire, I ask, “If you need to interview 200 candidates for those positions and spend 200 hours doing so, can you think of a better use of your time?”

2. Maintain your high standards, even if that means taking longer to hire. A rigorous hiring process isn’t quick and may even be unpopular with your leadership team. At MuleSoft, hiring often felt onerous and, frankly, stripped us of some agility.

“You don’t trust us,” some managers said. My standard reply: “That’s right. On this one issue, I don’t trust you, I don’t trust myself.” None of us as individuals can be trusted on hiring because it’s too easy to “fall in love” with a candidate, especially when we’re desperate to fill a position. A rigorous process keeps the emotion out of it.

If you think a role might take three months to fill, and you haven’t found an A Player by month four, don’t lower your bar. Instead, double down on expanding the search.

I can recall a few cases where we lost candidates because our process was too protracted. But that was uncommon. In general, I’ve found that A Players appreciate a rigorous process. Candidates who are close to taking another job but seriously interested in your company will usually let you know – at which point you can expedite accordingly.

“Far and away, the best way to validate exceptional talent is with backchannel interviews.”

The Process for Hiring A Players

There are many components of a rigorous candidate assessment and hiring process, and traditional interviewing and reference checking are not among them. To the contrary, those are low value activities that can easily lead you astray.

The process begins with sourcing a diverse set of potentially exceptional candidates by casting a wide net. The list below is focused only on the assessment process. Far and away, the best way to validate exceptional talent is with backchannel interviews, if you can find them. The next best tool is conducting exercises / test drives.

Compelling position profiles

Typical (read lame) job descriptions outline responsibilities and specify requirements (degrees, skills, experience), which unnecessarily narrow the applicant pool. By contrast, attracting A Players starts by creating a detailed position profile that describes the person you’re looking for, with as much flexibility as possible about the actual job requirements.

My favorite example is Jeff Bezos’ first job posting for Amazon, which stated, “Successful applicants must have experience designing and building large, complex systems in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible.” The posting also cast a wide net for credentials, asking for “a BS, MS or PhD in Computer Science or the equivalent” and stated that familiarity with web servers and HTML “would be helpful but is not necessary.”

Assessment scorecards

Multiple team members must review candidates from multiple angles. Scorecards should be used to track, codify and easily share each hiring committee member’s findings and observations. Scorecards also identify A Players by enumerating the attributes that a company values.

At MuleSoft, we evaluated each candidate in categories specific to their roles as well as four additional areas:

  • Cognitive ability
  • Track record/performance
  • Cultural fit
  • Motivation and drive

Each member of the hiring team (including anyone who conducted interviews, oversaw exercises or checked references) was required to rate candidates on a scale of 1 to 5 in each area as well as in subsets of each. For example, candidates were given overall cognitive scores as well as separate scores rating their intellectual curiosity, problem-solving abilities, performance on exercises and insightfulness during interviews.

Backchannel references

Without question, backchannel references are the most valuable inputs for assessing candidates. Instead of relying on references the candidate provides, use your network to find people who have seen the candidate in action. Aim to get the perspective of at least two credible backchannels and more if you can find them.

Hiring managers should reach out to backchannel references themselves, instead of relying on HR. In fact, I’ve found that HR professionals tend to be leery of this type of outreach, fearing they could harm a candidate’s career by alerting their current employer. Of course it’s critical to be respectful and smart about such outreach. But over the 10-year period in which MuleSoft hired around 3,000 people, I’m not aware of a single case in which a backchannel adversely affected a candidate’s career.

Sometimes, a five-minute phone call can tell you exactly what you need to know. A backchannel reference who worked with one MuleSoft candidate told us, “I didn’t know she was looking. Hire her now before I do. She's a rockstar.” Because the source was objective and credible, their word was gold. I trust a backchannel source who has seen a candidate in action for years far more than my ability to judge that candidate in a 45-minute interview.

Those conducting backchannel reference checks (and all reference checks) should have a list of detailed questions and topics, designed to elicit the most meaningful information and telling insights.

For example:

  • How would you rank this person's overall technical competence in their specific area?
  • How many people were peers of this person and where did the candidate rank?
  • Would you hire this person again? Why or why not?

Optimizing candidate-supplied references

If you can’t find a reliable backchannel reference to interview – for example, if a candidate is coming from a completely different industry or is earlier in their career – here are techniques to amplify the benefits of candidate-supplied references:

  • Don’t ask for just three references. Instead, ask candidates for a list of people who are in the best, most objective position to discuss their performance.
  • Note who’s not on the list.
  • If a candidate lists a supervisor, ask who the supervisor reports to. Why not reach out to the VP of engineering for a product the candidate led or, if the company is small enough, the CEO? Most A Players will have found a way to make themselves known.
  • Follow up on resumé claims. If an engineer has a product launch as a key accomplishment, ask to speak to the product manager.

“When interviews are carefully structured, so that each interviewer has a unique list of questions, you can dig deeper in a specific area of a candidate’s background.”

Exercises/test drives

Test drives are well-crafted exercises that give candidates an opportunity to show what they can do. Many companies now have engineers perform coding exercises, but why wouldn’t you also ask executive-assistant candidates, for instance, to plan a three-day conference in Atlanta? Have sales candidates present their current product and manage your objections, “Shark Tank”-style. The best exercises are:

A reasonable length. Be respectful of candidates’ time by creating exercises that can be performed in a few hours. In some cases, it may be appropriate to pay candidates who have to take time off from their current jobs to complete the assignment.

Onsite. Take-home assignments are less valuable than those performed onsite, as candidates can crowdsource their responses. And candidates desperate to leave their current employment situations are more likely to pour many hours into these assignments – which may skew your sense of who’s really best for the role.

Structured interviews

I’ll say it again: Standard interviews are largely a useless exercise. They give you a sense of how well someone interviews, not how well they can do the job. And typical interview questions – What’s your greatest strength? What’s your greatest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years? – tend to yield platitudes.

When interviews are carefully structured, so that each interviewer has a unique list of questions, you allow each interviewer to dig deep in a specific area of a candidate’s background, and give your company greater visibility into that candidate’s ability and potential. One interviewer may be charged with assessing the person’s leadership qualities, for example, while others are charged with evaluating creativity, ability to collaborate across functions and cultural fit.

An interviewer assessing a candidate’s creativity might pose these questions:

  • Tell us about a creative idea that changed the game for your team. How did you come up with the idea, and what was the impact?
  • What’s the one thing you would change about our website?
  • If you could make one change to our product, what would it be?
  • If you could develop your own product, what would you build and how would you do it? Why would it be different than anything we’ve seen before?
  • My favorite interview technique is to ask the candidate to take me through each job change on their resumé and give me a 30 second synopsis on why they were promoted, or moved laterally or moved to another company.


The assessment process concludes with a roundtable, where all members of the hiring team discuss their findings and review a spreadsheet containing everyone’s scorecard evaluations. Roundtables should take half an hour or so, depending on the position. The hiring manager serves as judge and jury, while the hiring committee members function as witnesses.

In roundtables, you’re looking for both reasons to hire a person and reasons not to. Important: Ensure senior leaders’ impressions don’t take on too much weight by making sure junior committee members share their feedback first.

Roundtable discussions can raise questions about a candidate that may have been nagging at the edges of multiple interviewers’ consciousness. They can also produce important clarifications. For example, in one MuleSoft roundtable, a hiring committee member expressed a reservation about how frequently a candidate had rotated through departments. But then another committee member shared an insight from a backchannel reference check that revealed in the candidate’s particular department, each rotation actually reflected a promotion.

If you decide to extend an offer, you should conclude the roundtable with a plan to bring all resources to bear to recruit the candidate until their first day of work. We called it the tractor beam – you’ve spent all this time trying to find an A Player and now is not the time to let up and not close them. If you decide not to extend an offer, spend a few minutes to learn why the candidate wasn’t the right fit and tweak the search and assessment accordingly.

Summing Up

Most CEOs would agree that building a great team is their most important job. If you get that right, everything else follows.

But how many leaders devote a quarter of their time, which is what it takes to hire a team of A Players, to the process? How many senior leaders spend far more time considering a $100,000 software purchase than selecting a salesperson or engineer who, if successful, can have orders of magnitude more impact?

Takeaways for Hiring A Players

  • A CEO's most important job is hiring A Players using a rigorous and proven but often time-consuming process.
  • Create position profiles that describe the ideal candidate rather than listing specific job requirements.
  • Use assessment scorecards to evaluate candidates in categories like cognitive ability, performance track record, cultural fit, motivation and drive.
  • Backchannel references are, by far, the best method to assess candidates. Traditional, candidate-supplied reference checks are typically useless at best.
  • Exercises and test drives are the next most valuable assessment tool behind backchannel references.
  • Structured interviews with unique, in-depth questions allow for a better assessment of candidates' abilities than traditional interviewing.
  • Conclude the hiring process with a roundtable discussion to review evaluations, share insights and strategize how to recruit the candidate.