By Tamara McLendon —
We’ve had the good fortune to expand our team by four new people in the last month, and we’ll plan to add two more next month. As we’ve worked our way through the hiring process many times now, we’ve learned some lessons about what’s really most important to us in a new hire and what processes serve us best. As a professional services company, it’s not just about skills and knowledge. It’s also about attitude and behavior.
We’re currently making good use of two complementary ideas as we’re hiring, both of which help us identify people who are a good fit for our culture – who have the right attitude and behave in positive ways that are good for the team and our customers.
The People Analyzer
First, we’ve incorporated one of the key take-aways from the book Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business, by Gino Wickman.
- Are they the right person? Do they share the values of your organization and have an attitude of ownership and teamwork?
- And are they in the right seat? Do they understand the requirements of the job you have available, do they really want that job, and are they capable of performing well in it?
He uses an individual assessment tool that he calls the People Analyzer – a sort of ridiculous name for a really useful spreadsheet. Your columns are your necessary cultural factors and attitudes, along with the three necessary characteristics for how the person engages with the specific position: Getting it, Wanting it, and being Capable of it (GWC).
We’ve used this tool as we’re hiring, and also with existing staff to ensure that we’re know where there’s work to be done. It helps us identify people who are great for the company, but in the wrong position. If it’s possible, they get reassigned into a position that’s a better fit. People who are on the line, get coaching and training in an attempt to help them reach our threshold. It gives us a shared vocabulary to talk about areas of improvement.
It’s also cuts through the dithering that we tend to do while considering whether a low performer should be terminated. It sucks, and we’d love to avoid it, but it’s necessary. By removing the emotions from it, we all clearly see what needs to be done. It’s somewhat startling how quickly you find out whether people are a good fit for your company, and whether they’re in the right job.
Here’s what it looks like in action. This is a truncated version of ours, with fictional employees:
|Employee||Honest||Responsible||Accurate||GET IT||WANT IT||CAPABLE OF IT|
Your rows are each of your employees. Your columns are the characteristics of historically successful Longleaf employees. In addition to what you see above, our real spreadsheet has columns for: Team-Oriented, Problem-Solver, Coachable, Accepting of Change, and Self-Directed Learner. We quickly assess each individual’s characteristics, marking them as always acceptable, so-so, and lacking.
In the example above, Tom is above the threshold in all but being Accurate, so he’ll receive some coaching or training there. He gets it, wants it, and is capable of it. He’s the right person in the right seat.
Jerry is a concern. He’s below our acceptable threshold for being Honest and Responsible. He’s above the threshold for being Accurate, and if these other two characteristics were his only issues, we’d offer him some coaching and training, and reevaluate in 30 days. But the deal killer is that, while he gets it and is capable of it, he doesn’t really want it. Our decision here is whether to coach for Honesty and Responsibility and also move him into a more suitable position, or let him go as soon as possible.
This example is for people already on staff. Clearly, it’s harder to get this level of knowledge about a job applicant that you’ve just met. We try, and it’s a useful exercise, but we also apply a second assessment technique.
‘Brown Shorts’ Interviews
The second tool we use is the major lesson we learned from the book Hiring for Attitude: A Revolutionary Approach to Recruiting and Selecting People with Both Tremendous Skills and Superb Attitude, by Mark Murphy. He relates the story of Southwest Airlines, which uses an unconventional interviewing technique to quickly cull out applicants who aren’t a good fit for the company’s values and culture.
He suggests an interviewing methodology that focuses on eliciting the behaviors you are trying to assess, right in the interview. After identifying the characteristics of your highest performers, just as you use for the People Analyzer above, you formulate your questions to identify people who share those characteristics.
By doing this part first, before even assessing whether someone has the necessary skills for the job, he claims that you avoid getting carried away in the excitement of finding the right skill set and overlooking some obvious red flags in the person’s attitudes or behaviors.
At Southwest, Murphy says, they invite all of the applicants into a room. Most are wearing what they’d consider to be interview-worthy suits or business formal wear. They’re invited to change into more casual clothing, which is provided in a range of sizes (hence the “brown shorts” title), since it’s going to be a long day, and they might as well get comfortable. Anyone who chooses not to change is weeded out on the spot.
It seems a little insane at first to eliminate people based on whether they are willing to get so casual in such a high-stakes meeting, but it’s important to remember that the Southwest culture and brand is one that encourages employees to relax and have fun, even when the stakes are high. They’re encouraged to banter with customers, to have a sense of humor as they solve problems, and to take initiative and ownership in each role.
A person who is too rigid won’t fit in, and won’t be able to flip that switch to be a comfortably casual person during customer interactions.
Southwest’s culture is about casual and fun professionalism, and that’s how they identify the right people. So what is our culture, and how we do we identify the right people? Our culture is based on those success characteristics from the People Analyzer above: Honest, Responsible, Team-Oriented, Problem-Solver, etc. We call our style of communication, internally and with clients, “Friendly Professionalism”.
Great. So how on earth do you interview for that? For the usual job-seeker, it’s their job to give the answers that they think you want to hear. They’re not trying to give answers that will help you both judge whether they’re truly a good fit. Even if they wanted to, they don’t yet know enough about your company to know what that would be.
The book suggests formulating your interview questions to get at each of those characteristics, and then to prepare a rubric that includes example responses so that the interviewer isn’t depending on their one emotional response to the candidate. Instead, they read their notes, recall the answer, compare it to the rubric, and then assign a score.
The questions also need to be directed so that, whether the applicant knows it or not, they’re giving you the information you want.
The example that sticks with me is for natural problem-solving tendencies. If I ask someone, “Are you a problem solver? Do you enjoy it?”, of course, they’ll give me an enthusiastic “Yes.” If I ask them, “Tell me about a problem you encountered and how you resolved it,” they’ll tell me all about it, but that won’t give me a clue as to whether they’re a natural problem-solver.
But actually I ask them, “Tell me about a challenging problem you encountered at work.” Full stop. If they tell me about the problem and then also tell me about the solution, in detail, with enthusiasm, now we’re onto something. If they tell me about the problem, and they tell me that they passed the buck, or blamed someone else, or complained that it was too hard, that also tells me something I need to know.
I also ask the question, “What is something you could have done to improve the working relationship you have with your current manager?” They have a couple of options. They can tell me that they can’t imagine any way to improve it, because they’re super-human and never makes any mistakes. Or they can tell me that, while they had a great relationship, they probably could have communicated more clearly, or taken greater initiative, and (bonus points) they had already taken action toward that goal.
That tells me a few things. They pay attention to cues from their manager and take them seriously. They are open to feedback and improvement. And they’re not afraid to be vulnerable and open with an interviewer who has the power to hire them, or not. This is a person who would fit well within our culture.
After the interview, all of the points are tallied, and anyone who receives a high grade is scheduled for an in-person technical interview with the hiring manager.
This approach has worked well, whether we’re putting ads on LinkedIn or are working with a recruiter. It works whether I’m doing the interviews, or I’ve delegated it to another trusted and long-term leader on the team.
By putting culture first, we’re side-stepping the issues that we used to have – people who weren’t enthusiastic about the work, who didn’t take pride in a job well done, and who weren’t good teammates.
We can train for technical skills. It’s much harder to do that with values, attitudes, and natural tendencies to action. By starting with those factors, we have the best chance of hiring people who will be successful in our environment and of retaining them for the long-term.
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