We’ve hired only one “unicorn” coach for every forty coach candidates — 2.5%. That’s significantly lower than Harvard’s acceptance rate! We spend around 160 hours per coach hire, exclusively on the hiring process. And that doesn’t even include the recruiting and training that we also do. This article gives you a look under the hood at our rigorous process for interviewing prospective coaches to select the best Spike coaches in the world.
I’m calling them ‘unicorn’ coaches because they’re very rare and truly exceptional. We have been humbled but not surprised by the level of interest in becoming a Spike coach, and we have respectfully had to pass on a lot of extraordinary candidates including former Ivy League professors, Olympic medalists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, award-winning movie directors, countless top university alumni and more. This is because the unique design of our program requires that we only hire coaches who have mastery-level competency in all three of the following, typically unrelated, domains of expertise: adolescent coaching/education, entrepreneurship/innovation, and college admission counseling:
Coaching Adolescents. We look for people who have an educator’s mindset and heart. They must also have direct or indirect experience as educators. In other words, they need to have a knack for both building trust/rapport with teenagers in a one on one setting AND challenging them to grow. They are good — yet judicious — communicators, highly empathic, care deeply about kids and find deep meaning in the prospect of helping transform young people’s lives.
Entrepreneurship/Innovation: All our coaches need to have entrepreneurship or innovation experience. This is usually as the founders of businesses or social ventures, but can also take the form of artistic, academic, athletic and other endeavors that have real-world impact. Our coaches need to be able to bring their own personal experience to their Spike coaching. But experience alone is not sufficient; they also need to understand best practices in the world of innovation and entrepreneurship as well as leading innovation frameworks, like Design Thinking and Lean Innovation.
College Admissions: Since college admissions are usually top of mind for our students, it’s important that our coaches be able to address their students’ concerns and questions. All our coaches have gone through the US holistic admissions process to the most highly selective colleges and been admitted to a top US college or university. We give preference to coaches who have college admissions counseling experience but that’s not a requisite as we do train coaches in this area and also have a dedicated, internal college admissions team at The Spike Lab to support all our coaches in this area. Therefore, although important, mastery in this area of expertise is less critical as compared to the other two domains described above.
Here’s a quick look at our hiring process:Pre-screen (Internal)
We ask all coach applicants to send us their cover letter, resume and fill out a 15 minute questionnaire to help us gather enough information to filter out unqualified applicants.
1st: Screening Interview — 30 minutes (30-60 minutes prep expected)
This is a short, casual conversation for both The Spike Lab (TSL) and the coach candidate to get to know each other. We want to know if the coach is a potential fit for the role, and the potential coach needs to know as much as possible about the role and our organization to avoid them wasting their time and ours on this long interview process. It’s very important to us that candidates find out upfront if this is the right position for them.
2nd: Mock Coaching Interview — 1 hour (1 hour prep)
Just like the coding interview, when software developers are expected to do live coding in an interview to assess how good a programmer they are, we do a coaching interview to assess the candidate’s coaching aptitude. In short, we observe the coaches doing their future job — Spike coaching. To assist with this process, we provide the coach candidate with some of our curriculum and, for context, a write-up of the situation. We then ask them to coach one of us, role-playing as a teenager named Sam!
3rd: Entrepreneurship and College Admissions Interview — 1 hour (1 hour prep)
As noted above, our program is unique in that it requires coaches who are very strong in three very different areas of expertise: adolescent coaching/education, entrepreneurship/design-thinking, and college admission counseling. The 2nd interview focuses on the former and this interview focuses on the other two. During this round, we ask a long series of strategically selected questions that help assess the candidate’s depth of expertise in these two areas, like “How would you respond to a student who asks, ‘How many APs or HL classes should I take?'” or “What is Human-Centered Design and please give me a recent example of how you’ve implemented in your life recently?”
4th: Student Advisory Session — 20 minutes (0 minutes prep)
At the end of the day, the coach needs to have a special ability to connect with and wow adolescents, and the only way we’ve found to screen for this is to ask students directly! We have the coach do a short advisory meeting with one of our students (current or alumni) and the student gives us candid feedback.
Parent & Student Feedback (Internal)
Our coaches can’t just be amazing, they also need to be perceived as amazing by our families (parents and students). So as a reality check, we send the coach candidate’s profile to a number of our current and alumni families and ask them to give us feedback on the coach candidate. Namely, we ask, “if you/your child were to do the program again and if you couldn’t be coached by your current/former coach, how would you feel if we assigned you to this coach?” We compile their feedback and ask any follow-up questions if necessary for further clarification.
5th: Final Round Interview — 1.5 hours (30 minutes prep)
To conclude, we have a final interview, the goal of which is to ultimately get us to a point where we feel like we know the coach well enough to be comfortable making a final decision. This includes:
- Coach identity and Purpose: Using some of the exercises from our curriculum, we request that coaches reflect on their own identity and purpose.
- Innovation Abilities 360 Assessment: In advance of the interview, we ask coaches to self-assess their innovation abilities (see the list in this post). Furthermore, instead of asking for traditional references, we ask coaches to request other people who know them well to similarly score the coach candidate’s Innovation Abilities. We combine these scores and discuss it in the interview.
- Real-time Collaboration: We play a collaboration game together! This is a popular game that we all win or lose together depending on communication ability. It’s a quick way to get a more accurate feel for their communication style in stressful situations.
- Candid Discussion of Obstacles: Before the interview, all the round 1 to 4 interviewers come together to discuss the candidate’s profile — strengths and risks. Then we very openly share with him or her the ‘risks’ that we have identified and give them a chance to clarify the situation.
Whenever I’m asked “what differentiates The Spike Lab?”, my immediate answer is always, “our coaches.” Before starting The Spike Lab, I had mentored and advised hundreds of adult entrepreneurs, and I can say that Spike coaching is several magnitudes harder. The relationship is deeper (more trust and personal connection required), the breadth of expected expertise is much wider (business acumen, teenage pop-culture, coaching skills, college admissions, self-discovery/identity and more), and the amount of substantive and emotional care support is significantly greater (networking, role-playing for meetings, teaching how to use LinkedIn, help writing a resume, sending subject-relevant articles and books, knowing family well, understanding full schedule and personal issues and much more). As we now quickly grow far beyond the founding team of coaches, Larry, Theo and I know that the only way to continue to get the types of initial outcomes we were seeing in the early years of The Spike Lab is to to have the best “Talent Model” possible, and we obsess over it — iterating and improving all the time. By Talent model, we mean (1) to have the best recruiting process and training program to find and prepare our coaches, and (2) to have the best organizational model, culture and compensation to attract and retain them. In other words, the above interview process is only one part of our talent model. As we grow, it’ll be the most important differentiator of our program — even more so than our proprietary Spike incubation curriculum — to ensure that we maintain our place as the highest quality Spike coaching program in the world.
I invite you to follow this link to meet our incredible group coaches!