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chapter 22

The reality is that above-average results are only consistently achieved by above-average people who know what they are doing. Approach every new hiring as an opportunity to significantly upgrade your TEAM. Always set your sights on hiring the best person for the job. If that individual is better qualified than yourself, so much the better. Do not hire a clone of yourself — hire someone with a whole different point of view who complements your own strengths.
One of the key reasons for The Home Depot’s dramatic success in becoming the second-largest retailer in the U.S. in a relatively short time was Bernie Marcus’s approach to hiring. When Marcus was staffing his purchasing department after founding The Home Depot, he said to me, “You have to understand — I don’t just want a good paint buyer; I want to hire absolutely the best paint buyer in the U.S.” Today, Marcus would say, “in the world”.
The Container Store retail chain in the U.S. is consistently highly ranked in surveys of the best American companies to work for. Its CEO and founder Kip Tindell stated that one of the foundation principles of his organization is: “One great person could easily be as productive as three good persons. One great equals three good… We try to pay 50 to 100 percent above industry average. That’s good for the employee, and that’s good for the customer, but it’s good for the company too, because you get three times the productivity at only two times the labor cost.”
Steve Jobs believed that the difference in performance between the best worker on computer software or programing and the average is at least 25 to 1. He said, “The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world. And, boy, does it pay off.”
The first step is to write down both the basic competencies and the most critical qualifications that any successful applicant for the position must have. Keep them limited in number. Next, prepare or review the job description for this position. Then, think through who should be involved in the hiring process.
Using a Hiring Committee
Most managers mistakenly assume they are an excellent judge of character and have terrific skills for selecting the right person for the job on their own. The best hiring decisions are made when a group of three to five individuals work together in screening the applicants, interviewing the top candidates in a uniform manner, and then making the final choice, subject of course to someone carefully checking the selected candidate’s references.
While this may appear to involve utilizing an excessive amount of “resources” in the hiring process, the total direct and indirect costs of mis-hiring mistakes are substantial. For most positions, they amount to anywhere from two to five times the annual salary, especially when the value of missed opportunities is included.
When you are faced with having to hire someone in a key position who will report directly to you, form a hiring committee consisting of yourself and two or three other individuals who will each bring a different background and perspective to the decision. Ideally, the hiring committee should comprise a mix of genders and people from both subordinate and equivalent levels in the organization to that of the position being filled.
Finding the Right Candidates
Ask for help from your peers and other managers in identifying potential candidates within your organization. Use to search for possible job candidates in your city and region. Depending on the level of the position, consider using a search firm to assist you in the hiring process. Basically, you want to cast the net as wide as you can in obtaining the best qualified applicants both internally and externally.
As Peter Drucker emphasized, what really counts are a person’s strengths, not his or her weaknesses. In particular, you need to hire individuals who have the right strengths for their jobs. This also means you have to really think through the critical success requirements for each position beforehand.
Reach agreement with the other members of the hiring committee on the key attributes the candidate must possess beyond the following “givens”:
  • A proven track record in prior jobs, recognizing that someone’s past performance is the best indicator of that person’s future performance.
  • A high level of intelligence and “smarts” (which does not necessarily correspond to the amount of formal education someone has had).
  • Lots of energy, enthusiasm, passion and excitement.
  • A good sense of humor and a curious mind.
Together, screen the résumés of all the applications and then select the four most qualified candidates for personal interviews. Stress with everyone on the hiring committee the importance and benefits of recruiting for diversity. The strongest organizations are definitely those with a rich mix of employees with different backgrounds, cultures, experiences and perspectives. In looking for the best candidate, you need to draw from 100% of the adult population, including women, minorities and people with disabilities. Regardless of any legal requirements to do so, failing to take this approach puts you at a serious disadvantage in building a highly committed, successful organization.
For front-line positions, there are obvious benefits to having your TEAM mirror the composition of your customers. This includes ethnicity, languages and gender.
Develop a simple Career History Form to send out to your selected applicants prior to their interview. Such a form should ask applicants to give details on all jobs held over the prior five years, including the name of each supervisor, a list of principal responsibilities, reasons for leaving, and the starting and ending compensation for each position held. This form will give you valuable information to help guide the interview. If your organization has a human resources department, discuss the use of such a form with your representative in that department.
The Interview
Clearly, the amount of time and resources devoted to hiring for a position depends on its importance and level in the organization. For entry level, non-managerial positions, a one-on-one, 20-minute interview and only checking two references may be sufficient. The higher the position, the greater the “investment” you have to make in ensuring the right person is hired.
Sometimes, it may be worthwhile to start the interview process by asking each candidate to perform some type of ten-minute mini-project, such as to write a letter to a government official on a particular controversial issue. Give the candidates the choice of either using a computer to write the letter or writing it by hand on a pad. This livens up the interview process and tests the ability of candidates to operate under pressure. The results of the mini-project for each candidate should then be distributed to the members of the hiring team before the interview starts.
Always resist any tendency to shortcut the hiring and interviewing process. Be careful about putting too much credence in your gut instincts when it comes to hiring someone you have just met. “Falling in love” with a job applicant prior to proper screening and interviewing frequently leads to serious hiring mistakes.
Follow a consistent, structured format for interviewing each of the candidates in a similar manner, having the same people asking the identical scripted principal questions in the same sequence. The four main areas to cover are personal background, education, work history/job experiences, and non-work interests/activities. In each case, utilize a funnel approach where you commence by asking a general question and then drill deeper down into that subject with more specific follow-up questions.
At the start of each interview, the lead hiring manager or interviewer should introduce the candidate to each of the other members of the hiring committee and then make some general comments to help put the candidate at ease. Offering the candidate a glass of water or something else to drink will also make him or her more comfortable.
The lead interviewer should ask the first questions about the candidate’s personal background, and then the different members of the hiring committee should take turns covering the other main areas. Throughout the interview, any of the members of the hiring committee should interject follow-up questions that they believe are appropriate.
In the case of each candidate’s work history and job experiences, the interview should include asking what were the three specific things that the candidate liked the most about his or her last job and what were the three things that the candidate liked the least. Each candidate should also be asked, “If we called your last supervisor, how would that person describe your strengths, weaknesses and job performance?”
To help identify what a candidate is passionate about, ask: “Tell me what you’ve done that you are really proud of.” Probe for specific examples of past accomplishments and how the candidate dealt with major challenges and problems. Ask the candidate to quantify any past achievements or performance improvements. Request that the candidate describe a situation where he or she was asked by a supervisor to do something that was unethical or borderline in that regard.
Find out what the candidate does in his or her spare time. Towards the end of the interview, ask what are the candidate’s career goals and what would he or she like to be doing three to five years from now. Finally, always make your last two questions, “Do you have any further questions about the position or our organization?” and then “Is there anything we haven’t discussed about you or your background that we should be made aware of?”
In almost every case, how a candidate performs in an interview is how that person will perform in the job. If the candidate demonstrates unusual behavior in the interview, the candidate will exhibit the same behavior on the job.
Immediately following each interview, have the hiring committee make notes individually on what impressed them the most about each candidate, both positively and negatively. After all the interviews, ask each member of the hiring committee to numerically rank each of the candidates on a pre-determined set of attributes. Then, have a group discussion with the objective of reaching a consensus on who to hire.
Proven talent is definitely a plus but so is a mind-set of wanting to develop and grow one’s capabilities, plus a willingness to tackle challenges and overcome obstacles. Keep in mind that, if someone looks too good to be true, he or she probably is not what they seem to be. Also, be extremely wary of any candidate who committee members do not instinctively like or trust. Avoid hiring people with a high energy level who may not be especially bright. Finally, as Geraldine Stutz, the New York fashion retailer, advised, “When you can’t afford to hire the best, hire the young who are going to be the best.”
Checking References
Before making a final decision to hire someone, ask that person to give you a minimum of four references, including individuals at different organizations where the candidate worked in the past. Put these names and their contact information on a form and ask the candidate to sign the bottom under a statement that says the candidate gives you permission to contact the above references. Request that the candidate advise each reference that you will likely be calling that person.
Sometimes, the best time to call references is after work or on the weekend when they are relaxed at home. At the start of your call to references, explain why you are calling and ask, “Is this a good time for you to talk?” If so, then begin by stating that anything they say to you will be kept strictly confidential. Emphasize that your objective is to determine whether the candidate is a good fit for the job. Describe the position and the principal challenges facing the person taking it.
In the case of references at organizations where the candidate was previously employed, ask, “Can you give me the name of two people I could talk to who worked for this candidate and also someone who worked at the same level?” Try to talk to some of the candidate’s prior supervisors and ask them what were the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses in the job, and would they rehire this person if they ever had an opportunity to do so.
Listen carefully to what references say. Probe the reasons for any qualified answers or hesitations. Try to draw out any reservations that the reference may have regarding the candidate’s suitability for the job. Be careful about rationalizing any negative comments you hear from references.
Often, it is also a good idea to verify an applicant’s educational and professional credentials. If someone lies in his or her résumé, that person is likely to lie on the job and engage in other unethical behavior. Look up the candidate on Google and then on and which both give career information on many individuals.
The Right Start for New Hires
The final part of the hiring process is for you to ensure that every new person hired for your department gets off to the right start. Beforehand, plan out how to best approach the successful integration of the new associate into your department. Line up someone to serve as the new person’s “job buddy” for the first 90 days. Also, arrange for any necessary job training.
It is important that everything is “ready to go” from the very moment that the newly hired individual shows up for work on his or her first day. This includes the organization of the associate’s work area and desk, the setup of any necessary computer equipment, all the required employment forms that have to be signed, security passes, nameplates, identity passes, and any other items the associate needs to perform his or her job. Getting all of these matters well-prepared beforehand tells your new associate more about the organization and its sense of urgency than any words that you can say.
Meet with the newly hired person as soon as he or she arrives for work on the first day to conduct an orientation briefing on the organization, the department, and his or her job responsibilities. Outline the main elements of your leadership mantra. Give the new person the human resources handbook, if one exists, and review his or her written job description. Answer any initial questions the new associate has about the organization, department or the job’s principal responsibilities. Be honest in describing any problems that may exist relating to the job or organization.
During the orientation session, advise the new person that the two of you will be meeting in exactly one month’s time to review how he or she is doing in the job. Let the new associate know that such meetings will also take place after 60 and 90 days.
Next, ask a senior person in your department to take the new associate on a tour and introduce him or her to the designated job buddy who should show the newly hired associate his or her office or work station. Have that senior person and the job buddy both stress that they are there to provide any ongoing support that the new associate requires. Often, it is a good idea for you or the senior person in your department to have lunch with the newly hired person on the first day.
The objective of all this is to make certain that the new associate’s first impressions establish the right tone and character for his or her future work experience and relationship with the organization. Ensuring the new associate gets off to a highly positive, well-organized, strong start will significantly increase the odds of you adding a successful new member to your TEAM.
For more detailed information on the interviewing and hiring practices used by successful companies, I recommend that you read Bradford D. Smart’s book Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching and Keeping the Best People or Geoff Smart and Randy Street’s book Who: The A Method for Hiring. Geoff Smart is the son of Brad Smart. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, said, “The most important decisions that businesspeople make are not what decisions, but who decisions.”


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