Chapter 7 – Hire Better

There are few topics as flummoxing to many business owners as hiring.  Why is it that some employees can be so thoroughly outstanding that when you walk in the building you feel instantly better just knowing they are there to spread their magic around?  And, why is it that some employees could give the most ornery daycare three-year-old a run for their money?  Ah, such is the mystery of business.  Only, it isn’t a mystery at all.  Odds are, the bad apples are simply bad hires, extrapolated.  And the great employees? Well those might have been just happy accidents, but you can hone your process to significantly up the odds of getting more of them, and less of the daycare crowd.

For most businesses, the toughest hire is the first one.  Especially if this is the business owner’s first time at running a business, this one is usually pretty hard.  First you have the debate as to whether you can afford to hire someone (and whether your sanity can last not hiring someone).  Second, you have to figure out how to find someone and what to ask for.  Third, you have to figure out how to talk to them to be able to tell if they are the right person or not.  Fourth, you have to figure out how to alter your identity to this weird new thing called “boss”.  And fifth, you have to figure out ways of managing this person, and figure out how to keep them happy.

When you have finally decided to hire someone, it is critical you realize one fundamental truth.  The job of “you” is already taken. Unless you are planning to hire this one person, give them everything you do, and skip off to Bali (which would probably be an unmitigated disaster), realize that since you are not looking for someone to do what you do that you are not looking for someone exactly like you.  So many business owners will rush out and hire mini-me’s, only to find conflict later when too-many-chefs syndrome kicks in.  Of course you like yourself, you have built a thriving business, and you have a lot to be proud of.  However, you need to realize that although you like you, you do not want to hire you.  You want to hire the perfect person for the role you have in mind, not yours.

The process of finding the right person is not only important because it is your first hire, it is also important because most first-hires work with less supervision than subsequent ones.  That is, most first-hires are brought on because you need to carve off some of your workload and give it to someone else.  Odds are, the workload you have left yourself will still keep you plenty busy, and you do not have time to do your workload and constantly supervise someone else.

Additionally, what I am hoping to save you from learning the hard way (if you haven’t already) is that bad hires are really expensive.  They are expensive on your time, they are expensive on your profitability, they are expensive on your sanity, and they are expensive on your soul.  So much bloody, smoking carnage is left behind after a bad hire is finally relived of their duties, and it is my hope to hopefully be able to save you some of this unnecessary damage.

To start the process of finding the right person, I like to get really specific about what I want.  I know this sounds easy, but it is amazing how so many business owners want to take a short-cut in designing the position.  If you want to have any hope of having your needs met, you need to know what your needs are.  So, be honest about what you need.  Don’t put too much in the position so that only a clone of you would know how to do it, but also don’t skimp if the job description is incomplete.  Figure out what your pain points are, as well as the areas where hiring another person would make you more money, and put them all down.  Be as thorough and complete as possible.  Get as clear of a picture of this job as possible.  Once you have a very clear description of your job, now it is time for step two.

Now, I have never met someone else who does this, but this technique has always worked beautifully for me (and for the business owners I have given it to).  That is, with your clear and complete job description in hand, next create a clear and complete description of the ideal person for this job.  Take all of the pieces of the role and design the ideal person for the job.  What sort of personality would do best in this role?  What sort of experience do they need?  What should they be good at?  Do they need to be educated?  If so, how much and in what?  Work to figure out as many different ideal traits your ideal employee to be would have.  In addition to identifying all of these traits, challenge yourself to see if there are any biases at play.  That is, is this a role that could be done a number of ways, or is there truly only one best way?  If there is flexibility in how this role could be done, make sure you build flexibility into your employee description.  As with the job description, be as thorough as possible so that you can imagine a very clear picture of the person you want.  Once this description is complete, make a deal with yourself that you will not hire anyone unless they are at least as good, if not better, than your description.

Next, with your job and employee descriptions, craft your job ad.  Use the two to not only clearly state what you are looking for (highlighting the most important aspects of each document in the job ad), but also to write a job ad that would appeal to the person you want.  That is, if you put yourself in your ideal candidate’s shoes, would you be excited to reply to the job ad you are writing?  If not, work at it some more.  You know you have a wonderful place to work, and you know that you want the best candidate out there, so work to put out the best bait you can.

Once you have your job ad done, it is time to place it.  There are a zillion resources covering where to place your job ad, so I am going to assume you don’t need any help there.  The only thing that I will add is just like with the job ad, make sure you are placing it in a place where you know (or at least you think is a very good bet) your ideal candidate frequents.  That is, don’t post a job on craigslist that only a very small number of highly-specialized, highly-skilled people in your town can do.   If you need to pay a few hundred dollars to fish where the fish are, that is almost always money well spent.

So, now you have your job placed, and you are getting resumes in.  Ok, now what do you do with them?  Fortunately for you, you already have your ideal person designed, so going through the resumes will be a lot easier (since you have a yardstick to compare people to).  Using this as a guide, you can quickly eliminate people who are not even close (and if it is a down job market, you will get lots of those).  Knowing what you are looking for will save you a ton of time here, and it will help save the time of the applicants who really aren’t qualified (and you would just eliminate later anyway).

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that some people, ok lots of people, lie on their resumes.  Most lies are not outright lies.  Instead, most are, *ahem* embellishments of the truth.  Almost everyone tries to make themselves sound more important than they probably are, and the important thing is to just know this phenomenon exists and take appropriate action.  Always check references, always confirm work start-stop dates, and most importantly, always trust your gut.  Almost everyone can sense, at least on some level, when they are getting sold something that is not all it seems to be.  Like anything else, trust these feelings (and do what you can to see if they are true).

Alright, so now you have placed your ad, received a big ‘ol pile of resumes from hopeful applicants, and now you are ready to interview.  As there are a kagillion books already written on the subject, I will assume you have (probably lots of) other resources to turn to to learn how to interview.  What I will pass along, though, are some key items that are either so important they bear repeating, or they are items I have never seen in any book.

With regard to whether to do phone interviews or in-person interviews, I will often do both.  I will especially do both if this position will be talking on the phone a lot (and double-especially if they will be talking to customers).  Also, I like to do both because often people will “play” better one way or the other.  This is something I have always known about myself.  I need to be able to see my audience to perform my best, and I know that I can come off a little flat on the phone.  In person, though, I know I really shine.   So, I like to get a look at people from all angles, and I am usually glad I did.  I have met lots of great employees that did not come off well on the phone, but ended up being wonderful employees.  Additionally, I have had people who could kill over the phone, but would wither from the intimate scrutiny that an in-person interview can provide.  The goal, of course, with the interviewing process is to get as clear of a picture of an applicant as possible, and I just find doing both in-person interviews and phone interviews to give a nice, usually overlapping, look into what a candidate is really like.

A lot of people will ask how many interviews they should do.  Well, my definitive answer is that it depends.  I probably would not do three interviews for a loading dock worker, and I probably would not just do one interview for a director of marketing.  As a rule of thumb, I would say that I would do at least two for all salaried positions, and at least three for all management positions.

Now, what do I look for when I am interviewing someone?  Well, first and foremost, I want to know if they want the job.  People who go above and beyond in their preparation for the job score big points with me.  Of course, with this type of effort, I also want to see humility.  That is, I don’t want someone who thinks they can just use brute force to succeed in this role.  I also don’t want to hire someone who thinks they already have all of the answers and doesn’t have anything to learn from anyone else.  I want someone who wants to talk as much as they want to listen.  With that being said, though, if I am hiring for a director of marketing job, and you show up to the second job interview with a custom marketing plan for my business, you will get a gold star.

The second thing I look for is character.  This can be an incredibly difficult thing to measure, and even when you do, it is a crap shoot, but there is still value in trying.  As funny as it sounds, one of the most telling interview questions I have (and it is a simple one) is “What are your hobbies?”  Often, this can tell me more about someone than the previous 45 minutes of questions about their resume/work-history.  At the end of the day, I look for character more than any trait.  Why?  Well, because it is something you cannot train, or change, in a person.  You are buying their character when you hire them, and their character will be what they bring to work every day.  And, for more senior roles, I am not really impressed if one candidate knows more of something anyone could read in a book than another candidate.  For me, character almost always trumps knowledge, and I want someone who I can train, and who is dedicated to learning what I (and the business) have to show them.  Of course, experience is still very important (especially for an advanced role), but time and time again I find my best hires are usually defined by their character, not what they know.

Once I have gotten to the end of the interview process, and I have 1-2 great fits (if you reach the end and have zero great fits, go back to the beginning), I setup a trial day for the person(s).  This is paid at the same rate I would pay whomever I hire, and I cut them a check at the end of the day.  What I want to see is how they perform in the actual role, behind their actual desk, with the actual team.  Just like the character questions, this experience can be extremely telling.  And, every single time I have done it, I have felt it was the best money I could have spent.

Often, though, the opinions of the rest of the staff can be more important than my own.  Since the staff will be the ones directly working with this person every day, I usually give their opinions a lot of weight.  Additionally, I find that the staff’s opinion is usually far less biased than my own.  Typically they have almost no background knowledge of an applicant before they come in for their try-out day, so the opinions they form are based on what they saw the person do in the job they are applying for.

And, at the end of this whole process, if you have someone who you feel would be great in the role you are hiring for, odds are you are right.  Did all of this take a lot of time, thought, preparation, and effort?  Well, of course it did, that is how important this is.  Plus, this investment is only a percentage of what a bad hire would cost you.  Hiring well is probably the most important skill, and it is a skill, you can hone, and by walking through this type of process over and over again with applicants, you will become really, really good at it.

To end this chapter, a personal story.  I once needed to hire an assembly foreman.  Our assembly business had grown to the point where the individual assemblers could not be self-managed anymore.  Plus, assembly errors were really starting to cost us.  So, I decided to hire a foreman to oversee the assembly process and sit at the end of the assembly line.  I wanted to create a position where one person would be ultimately accountable for our quality, and whose approval would be needed before anything shipped.

So to start the process of finding this person, I went through all of the steps I described above.  I had a thorough job description, as well as a thorough ideal employee description.  This second part took me a long time since I not only had to come at it from a perspective that was not my own (I would be terrible at an assembly sort of position), but I also had to take into account the personalities and needs of the current staff.  I knew that the guys I already had were awesome, and I was not looking for an authoritarian to baby sit them every day.  Instead, I wanted a “shop authority” who would lead by example, not by force.

So, after combing through lots of resumes, the day had come to do first interviews of a handful of the candidates.  All of them seemed pretty similar, well all of them except one.  One of them was particularly more warm and friendly than the rest.  For lack of a better way to describe them, I met with a lot of flannel-clad, barrel-chested types who seemed to harbor discontent for just about every living being.  This one guy was different, though.  We had a great conversation and I genuinely liked him.  Now, normally I try not to let personal preference factor in to an employee choice, but with this guy it was overwhelming.  Plus, I would be interacting with him directly too, so I wanted someone I could deal with.

In a rare move, he was the only one I asked back to a second interview. I did this because not only was he the only stand-out, but also because all of the other applicants were so similar.  It was easier to eliminate them all than try and pick a favorite.

During the second interview, I got to my usual background questions.  I found out that he served in Vietnam, as a volunteer, in two separate braches of the military (yes, he volunteered twice).  I found his attitudes about the whole affair to be quite fascinating, and also show a depth of character I am not sure I had run into before.  And, when I asked him what his hobbies were, and he responded that he liked to build naval scale-models and watch NASCAR, I knew I had found the perfect fit.  After all, who better to put in charge of quality than someone who loves to follow the intricate instructions scale-models require, as well as someone who doesn’t get bored watching cars make left turns for three hours?

He came in for his try-out day and the rest of the staff came away with the same high regard of him that I had.  I offered him the job later that day and he ended up being the best hire I ever made.  Not only did our quality go up, but our shop simply ran better.   Our shop staff came together as a team like I had never seen them before.  Absenteeism went down, productivity went up, and I heard more laughter and fun come out of the warehouse than I had ever heard.  All of this, I credit to this great hire.  And for that, all I can really say is thank you, Casey.  You are truly one of a kind.