Maren Donovan, CEO and founder of Zirtual, a service that connects busy professionals and entrepreneurs with virtual assistants, is a bit of an iconoclast. With Zirtual, she challenged the status quo and democratized the world of personal assistants by building a nationwide network of virtual employees who perform the duties of traditional personal assistants at more affordable prices.

“It’s a lot less expensive to have a virtual assistant. You don’t have overhead. You don’t have them as an employee of your company,” Donovan explains.

Virtual assistants are also far more flexible than their in-office predecessors. “So many people are working virtually now or on the road, so having a virtual assistant allows you to get everything you’d have with an office assistant for a fraction of the cost and with that added flexibility,” Donovan says.

Talking with Donovan, you get the feeling she should be fronting a punk band, such is her casual, down-to-earth, take-no-crap demeanor. Her bio mentions that she tended bar at “gritty” biker joints in college, and I have no trouble believing that — which is not to say that she’s a bear, but to illustrate her well-earned total confidence. Where I come from, being told you should play with the punks is a compliment.

These days, Donovan is challenging another cultural institution that she feels has outworn its welcome: the hiring process. “I don’t understand why any company does the traditional résumé thing,” she says. “I don’t understand why any company wouldn’t make the people that want the job really, really try for it.”

To that end, Zirtual’s hiring process is a very different beast the résumé/cover letter system most companies use.

Challenging Job Seekers to Prove Themselves

“Honestly, I just came up with it because I didn’t want to read the résumés,” Donovan says of Zirtual’s comprehensive nine-step hiring process. “It feels like the onus should be on the person seeking employment to prove themselves, versus the hiring department digging through hundreds of résumés to find the right match.”

Operating on the belief that “the best way to know if someone is going to be good at a job is to see them on the job,” Donovan and Zirtual designed a hiring process that would mimic the job the candidate was applying for. That way, the company could ensure that only the best candidates landed jobs. “We only hire about 1 percent of the people that apply,” Donovan says.

“We put a lot of hoops in front of [applicants] before they actually get to a phone interview, and they go through two of those,” Donovan says.

The first step candidates go through is leaving a 60-second voicemail pitching themselves as a virtual assistant. “This really shows us their gumption, and it also shows us what they know about our business,” Donovan explains.

Candidates who leave a satisfactory voicemail next take a culture test, so that Zirtual can get a better understanding of the candidate’s personality and evaluate cultural fit. After the culture test, prospective assistants are given a series of tasks to perform. These tasks are dry runs of the sorts things that assistants often do for clients — e.g., planning trips, researching flights, or responding to emails. Candidates are judged on accuracy, turnaround time, and creativity, among other necessary skills.

Donovan herself signs off on every candidate’s final interview. “Every [virtual assistant] is finally vetted through me,” she says. “It is the absolute most important thing to our business to have amazing people, because the people are really our product.”

Maren Donovan, founder and CEO of Zirtual

Learning from the Zirtual Model

Donovan says that Zirtual’s rigorous hiring process definitely ensures that only the best candidates are hired. “I think the reason is because it really takes persistence. It takes really wanting the job to go through our process,” she says. “You have to really love this kind of work. Helping people research travel, planning, organizational skills — you have to enjoy that stuff to go through the process and be very committed to the job.”

Donovan believes that any organization can follow Zirtual’s lead, no matter what they’re hiring for. “Whether it’s accounting, whether it’s a travel agency, whether it’s even a big-box store — there’s going to be certain people who are more dedicated to getting the job, and there are a thousand ways you can test them,” she says.

As an example, Donovan mentions hiring coffee shop employees. If the most important thing for your coffee shop was to have employees with energetic, friendly personalities, you could design a variety personality assessments to identify candidates who were right for the role. Donovan suggests having candidates demonstrate their personalities in videos, or asking them to create new recipes for the coffee house and explain the reasonings behind their recipes.

The key, Donovan says, is designing a hiring process that makes people give “that extra something.” She explains: “Lazy people, people who don’t really want the job, people that aren’t qualified, nine times out of ten, will get stuck somewhere in that process and be like, ‘Screw it, this is too much work.’ You just don’t want those people working for your organization, no matter what the job is.”

As more and more people work virtually, and as more and more assessment technologies arrive, Donovan believes we’ll see the hiring process grow more specific to each job. She thinks these change will not only be beneficial to organizations — who will have an easier time ensuring that all hires are quality hires — but also to job seekers. “I think there will be more great people in the right jobs,” she says. “It’ll free up spots for people that would really love to be a veterinarian or virtual assistant, and then it will also shift out the other workers to find jobs that are more their speed.”

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