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Samantha Sineni, Partner & CEO, FORMATION. Media

Samantha Sineni is the Partner and CEO of FORMATION. Media. After going through a rough patch of one bad hire after another, she's finally perfecting the process of choosing quality candidates that will last.

Can you share a little about your background and experience in hiring and building successful teams?

When I first pivoted from my initial venture into digital marketing, I was working as a freelancer. As the workload grew, I needed help completing the work so I could shift my focus to client acquisition and keep expanding. In a little over one year, I went from a team of one to bringing on a business partner, establishing collaborative partnerships and building out a team of 9 freelancers.

What are the top 3 qualities you look for when hiring anyone.

  1. Communication. I started this business because I couldn't tolerate office life. It made no sense to me why I couldn't go to the gym in the middle of the day or that I had to request time off to go to the doctor, so long as I completed my work correctly and on time. This is how we operate now. Our team can set their own hours and work from wherever they want. In return, we ask that they communicate more often. We want to make sure we're not sending messages wondering where they are, or giving them a project and not hearing about it again until the day it's due. We also want them to be good communicators to ensure they fully understand the project requirements and the brand they're working on. In the past, we've seen people who aren't frequent communicators fail to clarify certain things and deliver work that's a total miss. We'll have to prod them a bit to figure out what happened, whether it was a misunderstanding of what was asked, they didn't understand the client, or they had roadblocks preventing them from completing certain tasks. It's important to feel comfortable reaching out and opening up a dialogue about the work. On that same note, we want them to be able to speak to us about any hang ups they have to help us improve our processes. If a team member is having issues, we encourage them to speak up so we can prevent it from happening again. Good communication is essential for the success and happiness of everyone involved.

  2. Time Management. Given that we are flexible with hours and location, time management is key. A good candidate needs to understand how long each project will take, including revisions, factoring their other deadlines and personal engagements. It's important that they're realistic and not optimistic about their turnaround times, because once the scope is set, that's the amount of time they get. If a team member can't manage their time properly, it puts more work on everyone else and creates a stressful environment where the work is rushed instead of strategic.

  3. Practical experience. This is less important for entry level roles where we're constant of the need for refining and teaching. However, if we're filling a role above entry level, we need someone who has already made the common mistakes people often fall into when they just start. This applies to the client work, in understanding digital marketing and how to achieve the best results, and in how they approach their work in general. An applicant with more experience will typically have an established workflow, methods of prioritizing and tracking tasks, the ability to work with a team, and an understanding of client expectations.

What are some examples of questions you might ask during an interview to determine whether a candidate possesses these key qualities?

What does your workflow look like after accepting a project? How do you track your time? How do you prioritize your tasks each week? What platforms do you prefer for communication? If you accept a project and find that you may not be able to make the deadline, what do you do? What's the worst experience you've had with a client and how did you handle it? Can you provide an example of a time where you did not achieve results you promised and explain how you handled it?

If you had to assign weightings to the above qualities, which would get the highest weighting, and why?

Practical experience would come first, with the assumption that time management and good communication are part of their development as a professional. We have been in situations where experience has been greatly exaggerated, so we don't accept yes or no answers anymore. It's important to have the applicant elaborate on that experience and provide examples so we can gauge their level.

How do you assess people for qualities like adaptability, resilience, and a growth mindset during the hiring process?

We'll present situations that we've dealt with in the past and ask about their personal experience with it. If they haven't had any, then we'll ask what they would do. For example, how do you handle a client who keeps changing the scope of the project? How have you dealt with clients who frequently request tight turnaround times? What would you do if a client didn't like your work? Has a client ever been unhappy with you and how did you mend the relationship?

In terms of growth mindset, we'll usually ask them what they really want to be doing and what role they want to have long term. Many people tend to fall into a career path but eventually move on to something they really enjoy. On the same note, some people are looking to build an empire for themselves where others are looking for stability. We've worked with people who are curious to learn everything and anything and others who know what they like and want to focus on just that.

We'll also ask what they want to learn. This helps us figure out if they're actually interested in growing in the field. If they hadn't thought about it before, they're usually either lacking the experience to know where to go next or their heart isn't really in it.

How do you balance evaluating a someone's technical skills with their soft skills and overall fit for your team and company culture?

Technical skills will outweigh soft skills more often than not. If a team member always delivers quality work on time and continues to grow their skillset, I'll be lenient with everything else because we have trust. In an interview, if someone shows a solid portfolio and speaks from a place of expertise, we don't need them to fit into the culture if they don't want to. Eventually, we won't even need them to communicate often.

With one of our team members, I'll send them a message saying, I have this project are you available? They say yes, I'll have it done by this date. On that date, they deliver the result, I say thank you and we don't speak again until the next project. In their interview, we established up front that they'll respond to the initial email within two days regardless of how much time has passed. They've established a maximum of 1 week turnaround time and have broken down how long it will take them to complete the tasks on average. They showed an extensive portfolio of a variety of projects and discussed their creative style. And the clients have always been happy.

Conversely, we've been in a situation where we hired someone based solely off their soft skills and we found that they weren't a good fit. Their technical experience was a bit below what we needed, but the thought process was that soft skills are much harder to teach. We intended for them to learn on the job but there was just too big of a gap to catch them up. When taking that approach, I recommend looking for a proven track record of learning. What did they study in school? Do they have any certifications? How did they learn what they know now? It's even beneficial to ask how they're staying up-to-date with current events. If you're hiring someone based on soft skills alone, they also need to be curious.

Is there one particular source you tend to find the best candidates?

We have a recruiter we work with, Ciara Cartwright. She's given us most of our quality leads. She's forming a network of professionals that are actively looking for work, so there's already a level of initiative that's been taken by the candidates to grow professionally in their industry. We like to see someone that's setting themselves up for success and working toward making a larger impact, and we find that people active in a community are more ambitious and up-to-date on the current trends.

The one caveat with candidates that have a strong personal brand is that it's not always substantive. We haven't run into this with our recruiter, however we've hired people on our own who have made some big promises and we came to find that they really didn't have experience. It's important to recognize a good sales person vs. a talented employee.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to build a hiring process?

Take your time. On-boarding is costly. A bad hire can really throw a wrench into your operation and create more work than not having anyone in that role. Worst case it could even cost you good employees. Do your due diligence and make sure the answers they give are provable.

Where should people follow you to find out more about your work?


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