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Always Hire the Poet

  • Posted by Kevin Ament | 3 min read

Tips for interviewing, evaluating, and choosing quality talent for your agency

Hiring decisions are some of the most important to the health of your agency. The right hire can inject passion, creative problem-solving, positivity and a service-orientation that are infectious to colleagues and refreshing to customers. A bad hire can damage team morale, sapping energy and productivity while delivering bad customer experiences that hurt your brand and bottom line.

Problem is, it can be hard to tell one from the other based on just a few conversations.

Rarely are we required to make decisions with such long-lasting repercussions with so little data as we are when hiring. A résumé and one-hour interview provide little more information than you would get from a conversation with your seatmate on a flight from St. Louis to Chicago, yet from this limited interaction you are inviting someone to spend eight hours a day, five days a week with you and your team for years. Thankfully, there are interviewing methods that can improve the odds of collecting examples from the candidates’ current and prior work experience that will make it easier to make results-based, not gut-based, predictions on how likely they are to do the job well.

At Progressive, all hiring managers use a behavioral interviewing method called targeted selection, which focuses questions on past performance (e.g. tell me about a time when you had a difficult conversation with a customer or teammate) rather than hypothetical situations (e.g. how would you handle an upset customer or disagreement with a teammate?). We ask candidates to structure their response using a “STAR” format: describe the situation (what position they were in, what responsibilities they had at the time, what was the context for the example), the task (what was the problem they were trying to solve, interaction, or objective of the work), action (what did the candidate specifically do) and result (what was the outcome, how was it measured, was it successful or not and what did they learn).

Asking for real examples of past success (or how they managed through difficulties or learned from failures) minimizes generic, cliché or embellished responses and forces candidates to pause, reflect, and choose carefully–actions that are more likely to lead to thoughtful and relevant examples, while revealing aspects of their working style, thought process or personality that hypotheticals miss and that you can further probe for understanding.

Select questions that target the specific behaviors you want to see in a candidate for a particular role (e.g. collaboration, conflict-resolution, problem-solving, leadership, proactivity, ability to multi-task, deadline-mindedness, service-orientation), have multiple interviewers use this method, use the same questions for every candidate, and inform the candidate prior to the interview that you will be using this approach so they can prepare accordingly, and you are much more likely to gather examples from each potential hire that are directly comparable and that reflect the specific skills and aptitudes they will need for success in the new role.

Through this approach, hiring teams have more objective, evidence-based conversations and are better equipped to hire the candidate who has a proven track record of success over a candidate that may be more charismatic or articulate in person, but who doesn’t have equivalent experience or results.

However, the science of interviewing can benefit further from the unique perspectives and experience of seasoned interviewers.

Most managers at Progressive have additional questions they ask outside of targeted selection that they’ve found to be helpful in making good hiring decisions.

For example, I like hiring poets. I’ve hired two in my career from a robust set of candidates, and in both cases they were articulate, conceptual thinkers who could go really deep examining a problem from multiple angles, were passionate and had a track record of being tenacious. That’s no surprise, given majoring in poetry is something pretty much everyone in your family, social circle and university counseling organization tell you NOT to do, so poets tend to be tenacious, persuasive, and willing to take risks to follow their passion. Both hires ended up being excellent fits for the communications and marketing strategy roles I was filling. 

I asked a number of managers from different business areas to share their own advice on picking the right hire, and the questions they ask that reveal something valuable about a candidate that targeted selection may not uncover.

Here’s what they shared:


Kevin oversees Progressive’s Agency Marketing team. He’s an avid sentence diagrammer, audio book binger, ghost pepper grower and exotic ice cream churner.