Coporate Courtship

Tom Peters

Ask any businessperson the secret to their success. "Hire great people" is the most common response. I don't buy it. Instead, I find that the best firms have a real knack for hiring somewhat above-average people, and then unleashing an exceptional share of their potential.

Surprisingly, the knack begins with recruiting practices. The best follow three obvious tenets, unfortunately ignored by most: (1) spend time, and lots of it; (2) insist that line people drive the process; and (3) don't waffle about the qualities you are looking for in your candidates.

Anyone who has ever applied for any job at Hewlett-Packard or Digital Equipment, for instance, has found that the application process requires a huge investment of time. If you pass an initial screen, you're in for at least a dozen long interviews.

Even more surprising in successful courtship rituals is the virtual noninvolvement of personnel or human resources departments. Recruiting is considered far too important to delegate to any staff "experts." It's a line job, period. Now most companies' line managers give lip service to such involvement. But their calendars give away their actual disinterest.

At HP, a division general manager of a $75 million operation will spend an hour or so with final candidates for a first-line purchasing job. Other interviewers include bosses at two or three levels, numerous peers and potential subordinates; each also spends an hour more. They make the time. Daily committee meetings can wait. Even the receptionist with whom the candidate idly chats at the outset of the first visit will fill out a full-fledged evaluation form.

Moreover, each of the interviewers zeroes in on traits that most people would call mushy and unmeasurable. When I taught in Stanford University's MBA program, I observed students returning from a long day of interviewing at HP, baffled that the interviewers seemed almost disinterested in their ability to manipulate a balance sheet. Instead, HP interviewers were determined to figure out whether or not they'd be good team players. A typical question might go like this: "Recall in detail an experience in working in an intense, lengthy small-group setting." It makes sense, of course, given that so much of HP's work occurs in small teams engaged in high-pressure projects.

Similarly, Stew Leonard, the indomitable Connecticut grocer, considers baking experience or cash-register skills second. First, he seeks outgoing people, who are likely to be genuinely friendly toward colleagues and customers. Judgments at Stew Leonard's about these traits start with the receptionist, too.

Most people argue that it is impossible to judge such traits accurately. While acknowledging their importance, they fail to give them a decisive role in candidate evaluation. However, the Leonards and HPs will tell you that they have become just as adept at judging potential customer courtesy and team skills as they are at assessing mathematical, accounting or other so-called hard competencies. It's simply a matter of homing in on specific behaviors and asking detailed questions that reveal the presence or absence of these vital attributes.

These traits of successful hiring work for a surprising series of reasons. Take all that time spent interviewing. The lengthy set of interviews at HP unmistakably demonstrates that the firm cares enough about the candidate and the working environment to get people at all levels involved deeply in recruitment. Those who are hired start with the company's key values already instilled by the recruiting process per se. Even those who flunk out become fast friends of the firm as a result of the obvious effort.

Heavy time involvement by line managers and peers has an even more significant outcome. It puts the monkey squarely on the backs of the bosses and colleagues of the new hire. It's up to them to justify their choice by making the new person they selected into a partner and a success. Their judgment is on the line. They can't blame any problems on "the jerk recruiters who only care about grade-point averages."

In this vein, I especially oppose the use of a company shrink to interview candidates. It imparts precisely the wrong message about the company's value system. It suggests you are looking for flaws rather than strengths. Further, it is an unequivocal indicator that you value staff experts over line peers. Finally, it makes it tough for line managers, no matter how highly they deem a candidate, to fly in the face of a negative evaluation by the highly paid, jargon-talking psychologist.

One professional service firm's managing partner reduced turnover from 30 percent a year to zero, in a critical professional-skill area where the local labor pool suffered a lasting and severe shortage. He attributes the dramatic change to the transfer of 100 percent of the recruiting process from the "pros" (human resource people, psychological testers and a company shrink) to the line. Similar results are occurring even in auto plants, where first-line people are being given wholesale responsibility for running in-plant assessment centers.

As usual in these columns, success boils down to common sense. Give the charge and the wherewithal to get the job done to those responsible for the outcome. Signal concern to the candidate from the moment he or she crosses the threshold.

Are you willing to turn your back on the staff experts and enhance the role of the real experts—on the line?

(c) 1986 TPG Communications

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