Running A Business

Five Suggestions When Hiring Key People

Sep 17, 2012 • 5 min read
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      Not long ago I had a meeting with a small business owner who was looking for some insight into a marketing team staffing challenge she was facing. She’d unsuccessfully been down this road before and made hires based upon promises made by attractive-looking potential hires. “They talked like they knew what they were doing, but just couldn’t deliver,” she said.

      Although I am not an HR professional, I’ve had to hire my share of people over the years. Figuring out what you need, determining the right timing, and hiring the right people isn’t easy, and isn’t only a challenge for Main Street businesses—it’s a problem for everyone (it’s just more obvious when you make a mistake on Main Street). When she asked me what type of person she should be looking for and I started to describe what would be important to me, she said, “That’s who I thought I hired. They just didn’t know what they were doing.”

      I said, “You hired the wrong person.”

      No kidding. I think she was a little frustrated with me after that. However, finding the “perfect” person can sometimes be like finding a unicorn. You get the picture.

      Staffing key people is a challenge to be sure. What’s more, it’s a lot like the old Fram oil filter commercial, “You can pay me now,” or “You can pay me later.” Hiring the wrong key personnel is expensive because you sometimes end up going through the process more than once.

      I once worked for a company that hired a senior marketing executive who looked really good on paper. He had the type of resume we were looking for, he had experience doing what we thought we wanted him to do, and he seemed to be a nice guy and a good cultural fit. He came highly recommended from our VC firm, so our CEO hired him. My colleagues and I were able to meet all the candidates during the screening process and we all liked him.

      He failed miserably. It was an epic fail.

      Not only was he in over his head, when the pressure was on he started throwing us all under the bus. 17 months after he started, he was let go. I think the biggest mistake our CEO made was to keep him as long as he did. Sure, he looked good on paper, he could talk the talk, but when push came to shove he couldn’t do the job he was hired to do.

      The guy who replaced him was one of the best leaders I’d ever worked for. He was smart. He was talented. He knew what needed to be done and inspired all of us to help make it happen. When he joined the company I was looking for a way out, he gave me a reason to stay. Finding people like that is critical to success for Main Street businesses. But how do you do it?

      Although I can’t claim to be the font of all wisdom in this regard, I do have some suggestions:

      1. Treat Resume and Experience as Data Points Only: Far too many companies rely too heavily on the resume (I blame HR departments and resume scrapers). I look for things like past success rather than experience, cultural fit, and a  demonstrated willingness to learn as three of my top criteria. I’ve found over the years that highly-motivated people will learn, and learn quickly, those skills that might be lacking. You’ll learn a lot about someone by talking to them about the things they are passionate about. Sure, they need to have the skills you’re looking for, but I’m convinced that the right basic skills combined with a willingness to learn, and great cultural fit are where I have found my best employees. I’m a big fan of looking for aptitude rather than a resume of experience with a bunch of “thud” factor.
      2. Don’t Be Stingy: Not always, but this is an area where you often get what you pay for. What’s more, you don’t have to be the highest paying employer to get good people, you just need to make sure you’re not trying to squeeze the most talent out of people for the least amount of money you can get away with paying. Be fair. Pay what you can. I had an employee once who could have made a lot more money working someplace else, but I worked very hard to create a good work environment, which was worth leaving a few bucks on the table for him. He knew I was paying him the best I could and wasn’t trying to be stingy. Although money is important, it’s not the only thing that motivates people.
      3. Have a Vision and Make Sure You Articulate It: This fits hand in glove with #2. Make sure you can articulate your vision to current and potential hires. The best people are looking for something more than “just a paycheck.” They want to contribute to something bigger than themselves. A clearly articulated vision of why you’re doing what you’re doing and how they can contribute will inspire the best people to jump on board. One of the reasons I work at Lendio is because I believe in the vision our CEO, Brock Blake, personally shared with me. For my colleagues and I, our company vision is important. I’ve observed that to be the case in most organizations.
      4. Don’t Hire The Best You Can Find, Hire the Best Person for the Job: I’ve worked in organizations that made big hiring mistakes because they hired the best candidate out of the resumes they received—which isn’t always the best candidate for the job. Sometimes, and I’ve observed this to be the case with key employees, the first round of interviews and resumes doesn’t produce the right candidate. Settling for the best of what’s available is often a mistake. I once worked for a boss who would always caution us about making sure we were hiring the best for the job and not just the best available. “We’ll be better of waiting and trying again,” he would say if we didn’t find the right person and were about to settle. Yes, it means more work for everyone, but it’s well worth it in the end.
      5. Have an Audition: I once worked with a team that would invite those we thought would be a good fit to spend the day with us in what we called an “audition.” For the most part it wasn’t about skill set, but more about cultural fit. We usually knew by the lunch hour if we thought it was going to be a good hire. We found a number of key people this way—we also avoided a few bad hiring mistakes too.
      6. Be Willing to Cut Your Losses: You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to hire the wrong person from time to time. It’s hard to admit defeat and let a senior person go, but sometimes it has to happen. A bad hire in a key position is expensive. What’s more, I’ve observed that most of the time it’s painful for everyone involved to let a bad decision linger. Usually, everyone knows there’s a bad fit. This isn’t a suggestion to indiscriminately hire and fire at every excuse, but it doesn’t make sense to allow one bad decision to lead to another.

      I don’t think there’s any way to make hiring key people easy. I do think the above suggestions will help make a successful hiring process a little more attainable. What do you do to make sure you hire the right people for key positions?

      About the author
      Ty Kiisel

      Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business financing and trends accessible in common sense language devoid of the jargon.

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