On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
The On-Ramps team works together to plan candidate assessment
Thought Exercises: You should do them…the right way.
Hiring is difficult. Candidates, the strong ones, at least, are choosy. There’s a mountain of data showing that interviews are unreliable. We have found that one of the most useful parts of the hiring process – one that addresses these challenges – is what we call the “thought exercise.” The thought exercise is pre-work, (or, as your teachers used to call it, “homework”), designed to tee up an in-depth, content-focused, discussion with candidates. We typically send the thought exercise after a first round interview with the client organization, before a second round of meetings. Some organizations prefer receiving a completed thought exercise before conducting any interview, but we advise against this. We think this approach pre-maturely weeds out great prospects. Remember: the strong candidates are choosy – with friends and former colleagues putting new opportunities in front of them on a regular basis, they are unlikely to do a whole of lot of work for a job that they very likely do not need. On the other end of the spectrum are the hiring managers who fear that putting up any kind of challenge will cause good candidates to bow out. After an initial interview, however, if a candidate doesn’t take the opportunity seriously enough to do some work, that candidate is probably not worth the time your team would spend on interviews. Designing a thought exercise is important. Get it right, and it’s the best cultivation – and assessment – tool you’ve got. To help you out, here are the guidelines we keep in mind.
  1. Make it meaningful – The purpose of the exercise is to give candidates a window into the work they’ll be doing – and to give you a window into what it’s like to work with them. If the assignment is trivial, candidates will think the job is trivial. On the other hand, if the assignment is an untamable beast, well, then, you can guess what candidates will think. The best exercises profile a current, strategic challenge and ask candidates to share a first stab at addressing it.
  2. Make it manageable – Candidates want to work at organizations that respect their time. What better way to demonstrate your value of their time than to give them a meaningful assignment and ample time to do it. We typically give candidates roughly a week to think about the exercise, while setting expectations that it should take 2-4 hours to actually produce the deliverable: a memo, power point, excel or meeting agenda – whatever format makes the most sense for the role and in your organization.
  3. Make it self-contained – Unless you are explicitly assessing candidates’ ability to conduct research, we recommend that you send all necessary materials when you send the exercise. Otherwise it becomes an exercise in culling research, which is rarely the skill you need to assess. In fact, every thought exercise we send candidates includes this language, “Based on the information provided here, as well as what you’ve learned in your conversations to date, please…”
  4. Dive in – We let candidates know that the exercise will form the basis of the next set of conversations. We mean it. By doing an exercise, candidates are giving you the chance to move past the realm of storytelling and into the realm of idea sharing. Take advantage of that opportunity. And enjoy!
-By Michelle Kedem (she/her/hers)