After Alex Trebek’s tragic passing in late 2020 from pancreatic cancer, Sony and Jeopardy!’s producers began a job search with no shortage of public attention and scrutiny. Viewership consistently exceeds 70 million a week. As a frame of reference, hit shows like Game of Thrones and The Big Bang Theory around 20 million on a regular basis hover.
To this point, Jeopardy! leaders are searching for someone who can become an indelible part of millions of viewers’ lives and routines. Indeed, I have memories, especially from the summers while in middle and high school, of Jeopardy! bookending my afternoons. It would often end a day of adding to my total books read for a school reading competition, or studying Spell Bowl words or academic competition material for the coming year (it was like my own personal geeky happy hour). As their viewership stats attest, I’m not alone. After almost 40 years with Trebek, the new host must earn the loyalty of long-standing viewers while simultaneously positioning the show for sustained growth in a dynamic landscape that includes podcasts, smartphone games, streaming, and no shortage of media competing for our attention. Similar to most roles, retention and performance are core – but also a pressing imperative to grow and add to the business.
The search is intriguing because a portion of it is on display for anyone to observe with candidates taking turns as guest hosts. Jeopardy! producers, and Trebek even before his illness, have openly shared their criteria and insight about the hiring process. What’s interesting is that their approach follows many talent acquisition and hiring assessment strategies that are often overlooked.
1. Begin with the end in mind.
With accomplished individuals across industries ranging from Anderson Cooper to NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers – it’s easy to get swept up in what each pillar of their respective industry brings to the role. There is a tremendous amount of noise around each candidate, interview, or point of evaluation that can inaccurately sway our decision-making, regardless of our industry and the role. Furthermore, in hiring it’s easy to forget that newbies will not have mastery of the role on day one. Jeopardy! understands this and in a recent episode of The Wall Street Journal’s, The Journal podcast (which inspired me to write this), Executive Producer Mike Richards described all the responsibilities of the host ranging from delivering all the content, ruling on every answer and clue, delivering the play-by-play and color commentary, to showing mastery of 61 clues that must be delivered in precisely 21 minutes.
Ultimately, Sony executives own the hiring decision. Richards shared that Sony has specific viewer metrics, that measure the criteria they are looking for, that are tracked and a process for gathering data from everything from focus groups to surveys to guide decision-making. The biggest takeaway is that key stakeholders agree on the criteria for gauging potential before evaluating candidates.
The new host will need to earn the loyalty of viewers (and hopefully even expand Jeopardy’s reach) as they grow into the role. A goal of any hiring process is to know what competence at day-one looks like and how to measure potential to contribute to the strategy of the business over time.
To this end, Jeopardy! leaders established key attributes and competencies in simple bullet points (including traits like accepting feedback and being open to coaching, and the ability to build a rapport) that they believe are required to grow the viewership – and cultivate new generations of viewers.
2. Take your time.
The Jeopardy! team is dually seeking a job replacement while also processing grief and a major transition for all involved. When there’s a sudden, let alone tragic, departure of a long-standing and adored member of the team, just keeping operations on time is a challenge. Indeed, producers jumped in as guest hosts as leadership took the time they needed to establish the criteria and methods needed to run a successful search. Establishing criteria, determining the best assessments for the hiring process, and a candidate workflow takes time and intentionality.
3. Strategize potential candidate sources.
As we’re in the midst of a candidate shortage, the importance of sourcing and recruiting a strong flow of candidates is on a lot of our minds. Even in a labor market that favors employers not much can happen without qualified candidates. To this point, Jeopardy! has an understanding of potential professional backgrounds that are likely to have the potential to perform. For example, news professionals (like Katie Couric – who could be a real candidate or may just be hosting for the experience) bring a spectrum of job-related competencies to the table. Richards shared they actively recruited others with related knowledge, skill, and experience relevant to the host role.
They also honed in on key qualities that support their culture and continued success in the role. Not surprisingly, they need someone smart who naturally enjoys, and will continue to learn. Openness to coaching and feedback was another key trait they valued for performance, and the culture of the team. Similar to Jeopardy!, you can also think about what experience, work history, or backgrounds would add to your role and work from there to build a recruiting strategy.
4. Educate your candidates to build a realistic awareness and understanding of the job.
One of the most exciting parts of the podcast I listened to (twice, if we’re being honest) was the intention around educating potential candidates about the role. Unfortunately, about half of us left a job at some point in our careers because it wasn’t what we expected. For high-volume roles the cost of uninformed candidates rises quickly damaging your ability to executeand for leadership, few things are more damaging that instability. Richards and his team walk through ‘the good the bad and the ugly’ of walking into the daily lives of 70 million people and where they are most likely to struggle. With a candidate pool possibly including Mayim Bialik, LaVar Burton, Savannah Guthrie, Robin Roberts, Aaron Rodgers, (and, of course, Ken Jennings), level setting on the reality of the role and the tough stuff they may not recognize is crucial. Richards shared on WSJ’s podcast that several candidates have thought it ‘looked easy’ but after learning more it was solidly “not my deal.” This is the ultimate utility of a process we call, a Realistic Job Preview. You might not have a Blossom/Big Bang Theory, Reading Rainbow/Star Trek, or TODAY show luminary calling you and you likely don’t have the resources to have in-depth conversations with every qualified candidate. Realistic job previews are one way to educate your candidate pool at scale. We’ve collaborated with organizations in the healthcare, hospitality, tech, and manufacturing to build online experiential exercises, videos, an engaging content that fully inform each candidate about what to expect. We often build non-scored situational tools that give candidates a vivid understanding of where they align, and where there are gaps, between their values, preferences, and skills and the culture and demands of the job. Even if a new hire is meeting expectations, pushing through a job or culture that fall short of their expectations, is draining at best.
5. Incorporate validated hiring assessments to evaluate potential to perform and increase efficiency.
Without question, Jeopardy!’s host search departs from most recruiting, hiring, and assessment endeavors. It’s worth noting, however, the intention we shared earlier in how they established criteria, creating what might be behind the scenes, a detailed model of performance dimensions and competencies. With performance defined they can accurately assess performance through each candidate hosting the show.Snapping back to reality for most of us, we cannot speak to and interact with every qualified candidate –and accurately judging potential across multiple candidates is rife with error. Humans, no matter how experience, struggle to accurately judge performance on multiple criteria while keeping our own biases, and just the noise of the day, out of our decisions.Hiring assessments, whether delivered online or as part of an in-person experiential exercise, can effectively reduce your applicant pool by highlighting people who are likely to struggle on those core criteria. This can allow you to focus your search – and know potential vulnerabilities to guide your interviews. In addition to assessments like online tests, or in-person experiential exercises, a structured behavioral interview is another kind of assessment. By establishing set questions aligned with the role and means of evaluating responses you can build commitment across your organization for how to hire. This is powerful for working with even a small team – but even more important when you’re seeking to hire consistently for performance and culture across departments, regions, locations, and even countries. Final Jeopardy!
Building a winning team is hard – but with the intention and the strategies we shared, and used by Jeopardy!’s leadership, your odds are much higher of winning than a contestant on the show. By defining performance, aligning leaders and stakeholders, taking your time and continually evolving your recruiting and sourcing strategy, educating candidates, and incorporating validated and precise assessments that measure your criteria – you can set the foundation for building a team of A-Players.
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The ‘Jeopardy!’ Showrunner on the Search for a new Host. Podcast. April 30th, 2021. The Journal. By the Wall Street Journal.
Who will be the permanent host of Jeopardy!? These are the top contenders. Adrienne Westenfeld. Esquire. May 6th, 2021.