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How to Hire Winners

“How to Hire Winners”

Ramp up your recruiting with aggressive outreach, keen selection criteria.

Ah, the price of fast-growth success. Your company charges ahead on all cylinders. But all that progress leaves you racing to plug personnel holes.

Hiring the right people can deplete your time and energy. You may wind up madly checking references, negotiating pay packages and cobbling together orientations on the fly. And if promising new hires turn into duds, you must repeat the cycle.

The solution? Create a system to recruit newcomers quickly and efficiently. Set up a structured interview process that allows you and your managers to compare notes on finalists in a fair, consistent manner. Court candidates by respecting their time, listening to their concerns and answering their questions in full. And once you make a hiring decision, follow through by giving the individual the tools and information to make an impact, pronto.

While recruiting in this tight labor market can prove vexing, fast-growth businesses face special challenges. Don’t assume that candidates will tolerate sloppiness or improvisation just because you’re growing at a torrid rate. If you appear too harried, preoccupied, exhausted or otherwise distracted to treat candidates with respect and make them feel important, you’ll make a tough task much tougher. (For insight on "Recruiting the right salespeople," see Page 7.)

Hit hot buttons

The key to hiring superstars is to anticipate and address their needs while you’re courting them. Whether you seek support staff, salespeople, technicians or managers, you need to design a job offer that’s "holistic": It must appeal not just to a candidate’s wallet, but also to the individual’s overall personal and professional goals.

Weigh each of these five areas before you interview for a job opening:

  1. Money. The obvious biggie isn’t really so obvious when you consider total pay. Rather than dicker over a single number such as annual salary, fold base pay into a larger, more impressive package that includes all forms of equity, bonuses, incentives and major benefits, ranging from health insurance to paid time off.
  2. Personal challenge. You want to attract hard-charging employees who strive to learn, grow and get ahead. That means you should outline how a specific job can promote career development and personal growth. Also consider to what extent a new hire will gain exposure to cutting-edge technologies, history-making initiatives or brilliant colleagues. Speak in grand terms. Dare the cream of the crop to come aboard.
  3. Fit. Ideally, everyone you hire should view their new job as a promotion from their previous one, a natural progression based on their experience and expertise. Furthermore, identify the type of person you want to have around. Look beyond standard prerequisites to assess the kind of personality that complements your current workforce.
  4. Organizational culture. List the attractions of working at your company, from exciting new products to flexible hours. Craft candidates’ impressions of your operation by giving them VIP tours and allowing them to mingle freely with staffers.
  5. Stability. Emerging-growth businesses may strike a conservative candidate as too risky. Some folks may hesitate to move from a larger, more solid employer to an "unknown." Play up your strengths as an entrepreneurial hotbed of ideas, where the right leaders can pounce on opportunities and take responsibility.

Invest in HR

A rite of passage for any fast-growth company is hiring a personnel manager, a step that often leads to establishing a full-fledged human-resources department. Many entrepreneurs wait too long to make this leap.

For Mark Miller, president of Prince Industries in Carol Stream, Ill., it took a 100% turnover rate in 1999 to convince him to hire an HR manager. "Until then, it seemed like an unnecessary expense," says Miller, who runs a 200-employee job-shop manufacturer. A year later, his turnover rate has sunk to a manageable 20%.

If these warnings apply to your company, it’s time for HR:

  • Newcomer blues. In their first month or two on the job, you notice that new hires seem unusually flustered, frustrated and fed up. That may indicate a need for a stronger orientation program to expose them to your company’s people and procedures. Assign a "buddy" to every new employee who can answer questions, offer advice and make introductions.
  • Crisis hiring. Faced with backlogs, your supervisors fill positions haphazardly. They do their own cursory interviewing and hasty hiring without guidance from you, the senior management team or outside recruiters. They cannot afford to be choosy. As a result, they often hire people who don’t even last 90 days.
  • Lawsuit mania. The threat of a discrimination suit looms over every hiring manager. If you’ve survived a few near misses in which rejected applicants threatened to sue you, consider yourself warned. Inexperienced or untrained supervisors may ask illegal questions or reveal biases that undermine the hiring process.

Though hiring an HR manager won’t instantly solve these problems, a knowledgeable personnel director can bring consistency and professionalism to your recruiting efforts. You can measure your return on investment by reduced turnover, stronger compliance with state and federal employment laws and higher-quality candidates and new hires.

Most entrepreneurs insist that they want to hire great people. Easy to say, tough to do.

The real test is recognizing individuals who possess "the right stuff" during the interview process. In many cases, the truly great gems may not strike you as superstars from the moment they walk through the door. You must overcome two obstacles to evaluate individuals fairly:

  • Resist the "cloning preference." This sometimes subconscious desire to hire clones of yourself can lead you to disregard candidates who seem too dissimilar, even if they would thrive at your company and bring relevant skills to the job.
  • Suspend judgment. First impressions can cast a shadow over the interview. If you take an immediate liking to someone, you might disregard red flags that surface later. Same goes if you dislike the candidate from the get-go; you may look for evidence throughout the interview that this person will make a bad fit.

To avoid hiring clones of yourself — or otherwise choosing inferior prospects while allowing better ones to fall by the wayside — measure candidates against a written inventory of skills, attitudes and behaviors that you and your hiring managers develop beforehand. This works better than simply comparing a set of candidates against each other and taking the best of the lot.

Also beware of getting too caught up in applicants’ experience and prerequisites. It’s dangerous to focus too intently on what they know at the expense of who they are.

Here’s today’s mantra for enlightened entrepreneurs who shop for top candidates in this tight labor market: "Hire for attitude, train for skill." That doesn’t mean you should hire unskilled but charming rookies. But if you grade candidates solely on their technical competencies, you can wind up with highly qualified but prickly loners who fail to mesh with your team.

In contrast, a motivated self-starter who lacks a mastery of the inner workings of your business may still emerge as a winner. You can teach certain skills, but you can’t overhaul someone’s personality.

Here’s how to hire individuals with the right attitude:

  • Plumb past behavior. The latest research into hiring methodology indicates that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. That means if you want to assess how a candidate will perform, explore how he or she has handled situations in past jobs that may crop up at your workplace.Example: At many emerging-growth businesses, employees must improvise to satisfy customers. They may even need to set aside rules or temporarily overlook guidelines to solve a difficult problem. So a good interview question is, "Can you tell me about a time when you broke the rules?" The best respondents will share anecdotes that illustrate their willingness to take responsibility under pressure or their ability to adapt to rapid changes.
  • Mimic your stars. Before you start interviewing, analyze the characteristics of your top performers. Describe their personalities. What traits do they possess? How do they communicate? How do they act when they’re angry, scared or frazzled? Once you uncover your best employees’ behavior patterns, you can then hire people who exhibit similar behaviors.
    Example: You notice that your standouts show curiosity and test their assumptions before acting. You isolate a behavior they often exhibit, such as "runs experiments to test theories." Armed with this information, design interview questions that help you gauge to what extent candidates act the same way, such as, "Tell me about a time that you experimented with a new way of doing something."
  • Stage rehearsals. Chatting with candidates across a desk has its limitations if you’re trying to measure someone’s attitude. Many people interview well but show their dark side when they’re actually on the factory floor or making sales calls. Devote part of an interview to watching someone work. How? Arrange for a "demo" by putting candidates to work briefly or, if that’s impractical, staging a simulation.
    Example: You’re hiring a customer service specialist, so you ask finalists to interact with real customers by answering a few phone calls or working behind the counter in one of your stores. Observe their behavior, especially when they’re caught off guard or faced with a situation that they’re unsure how to handle.

Ask great questions

Some of the most popular interview questions are also some of the least likely to help you make a wise hiring decision. Asking, "What’s your five-year plan?" or "Do you like working with people?" won’t give you much insight into an individual’s true personality.

As a rule, ask backward-looking, reflective questions, rather than forward-looking, speculative questions. Prodding a candidate to discuss detailed experiences from past jobs, as opposed to sharing lofty career goals or dreams, provides you with a better understanding of the individual’s behavior.

Run each of your interview questions through this test: Are you asking candidates what they have done in the past or what they would do in the future? The more you explore the past, the better.

Examples of excellent questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you were tempted to quit a job.
  • What was the worst argument you ever got into with a boss/colleague/customer/employee?
  • You mentioned that you’ve led project teams. Can you give me more details on the toughest project team you led and what you accomplished?

If the position you’re filling requires certain strengths, customize questions so that you can determine if candidates possess those assets. Example: If you need frugal employees who treat the company’s money as their own, then ask, "Tell me about a time you saved your company money" or "What’s the most blatant example of how your old employer wasted money?" (followed up with, "What did you do about it?").

Expand your hunt

Your search for quality hires may have turned desperate in the past few years. Your growing company must draw from a shrinking workforce, leading to patchwork solutions such as hiring temps, outsourcing key functions or, worst of all, forgoing faster growth until you can bring in the right people.

Scour the Internet for resumes, but don’t stop there. Turn your staffers and business associates into an extended recruiting network. Offer generous referral bonuses not just to your employees, but to vendors, suppliers, consultants and customers who direct you to outstanding candidates whom you eventually hire.

If you need to hire support-level personnel, never stop wearing your recruiting hat. Carry two-sided business cards that give the standard information on one side (name, title, company, address, phone). On the back, print a recruiting pitch such as, "We’re looking for people like you. Call me to learn more."

Enlist key resources within your community to help you fill openings. Contact local colleges’ career-planning directors, U.S. military training facilities in your area, outplacement firms and vocational schools. Offer to give tours of your business to representatives of these organizations. By forging alliances with such groups, they’ll recommend top candidates in return.

Writer: Morey Stettner is a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H. He is the author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "The Art of Winning Conversation" (Prentice-Hall, 1995).