Chapter 3, Selecting The Right People
"An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage." - Jack Welch, former CEO, General Electric (1935-2020)
"I know how to bow down to authority if it’s the authority that I respect." - Tupac Shakur, American rapper (1971-1996)
The story: If you know what you’re looking for, you'll know when you’ve found it.
It was the mid-nineties, and I was part of a team setting up a cement-grinding factory in Brunei, on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. This new factory was only the second heavy industrial venture ever to be created in Brunei, and the entire experience turned out to be a good example of why selecting the right people is critical to a company’s success.
The team arrived in Brunei exactly twelve months before the factory was due to begin production, and I had my work cut out right from the start. The number one priority was to recruit all the staff needed, which we needed to do well before the factory started operating because we wanted to be sure we had time to train them properly. Usually, before you start hiring, you have all your HR systems in place, especially the recruitment and training processes. But under the circumstances, we started interviewing almost on day one and set up our HR systems in parallel.
Our job was to train and prepare the people we planned to hire locally so that they could take over the plant and manage it on their own once it started production. With next to no existing industry in this part of Borneo, whoever we managed to hire would need to be trained up from scratch – starting with the very basics.
It soon became obvious that the local community in Brunei did not see themselves doing manual work of any kind! So we tried to widen the net by recruiting from neighboring Malaysia as well.
After our first experience of the local people’s reluctance to do manual work, a few high-ranking officials with a vested interest in the new factory did some serious Public Relations work for our company, with the result that the local youth became more enthusiastic. After that, recruitment went well, but we still had to supply a larger-than-usual number of expatriate staff.
Recruitment is the most important of all the HR processes – and extremely difficult to get right. But if you get the best person to fill a position, what follows becomes much easier: training, motivating, and retaining them.
In the first month after the plant became operational, we met our production budget. By the third month – and against all odds – we had exceeded it! How did we do this?
Starting the recruitment process from scratch
One of the keys to our success was that we introduced a formal recruitment process early on. This process started before we even advertised the jobs to be filled, and included guidelines to follow every step of the way.
Once that was done, we advertised in the local and national newspapers, and even on the internet, although it had a very small user base in those days. We received a good response in terms of the number of applications, but candidate qualifications often fell short of our requirements, especially in the jobs that required technical knowledge.
Establishing common goals
First, we got agreement from all the senior managers about the company’s vision and mission, then we translated the vision and mission into the business strategic plan, a document that contained the strategic objectives we would be using to guide our everyday activities. All the managers were required to help with the creation of these objectives, and then to come to an agreement about what each department’s contribution should be. Each objective was assigned one or more targets.
One of the targets was for each senior manager to complete the recruitment process by a certain date, with the HR team supporting them at every step.
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) had already hand-picked his team – the senior managers who made up the executive committee (exco). Each member of the executive committee was responsible for recruiting the supervisors who would report to them, in other words, their direct reports.
After agreement on the objectives and targets was reached, HR helped each manager draw up descriptions of the posts that needed to be filled by that manager’s direct reports. By cascading the accountability for recruitment down the hierarchy, we were able to get everyone with direct reports to take charge of selecting his or her team. Managers were also responsible for coaching and supporting their new hires, and ensuring they were learning how to do their jobs.
HR provided each hiring manager with methods for assessing candidates, including practice tests and personality evaluations. We pointed out which key topics they needed to focus on during an interview, and gave examples of some key replies or behaviors to look out for.
This approach to selection required teamwork from everyone, from the senior managers down to the people working on the production line, and it proved to be one of our critical success factors.
As the factory-opening date drew closer, the competence of our new hires was improving steadily. Part of their training had involved seeing how the equipment they would be using was built and wired. By the time they had to take over the running of the factory, they had reached a respectable level of proficiency.
The importance of company brand
The local Oil and Gas supply company was one of the few in the region that already employed high-quality people in technical positions, but they paid much higher wages than we could afford. Companies offering high wages and good opportunities for promotion are obviously in a better position to attract high-quality people. A company’s attractivity to potential employees was something we described as the company brand. Ours was still weak because we were new on the scene, but it developed quite rapidly.
Even though we could not compete in terms of total remuneration, we could still offer safer working conditions, opportunities for career development, and a much shorter commuting time for the people hired locally. These factors gradually increased our attractivity to candidates, but we were well into the second year of production before we realized that having a strong company brand was also a critical success factor.
Establishing a strong, positive company brand has got to be your very first step in recruiting people because this is how your company is perceived in the job market. If your company has a strong brand, it will attract sufficient numbers of high-quality potential employees with very little effort, because your brand will already be out there, doing the job for you. If your company brand is not strong, you can advertise as much as you like – at huge expense – and still attract very few (if any) high-quality people.
Once you have a pool of high-quality people who would love to work at your company, then you can begin the selection process. If there are no high-quality people in the pool then no matter how good your selection process, you will never get this kind of person interested in joining your company.
Like any enterprise that takes recruitment seriously, we used a combination of reference checking, interviews, and skills testing to evaluate each candidate. We knew from experience (see Chapter 2 - Planning & Organising) that interviews alone were a very bad way of finding the right person because some people who would be great at the job are very bad at being interviewed, and vice versa.
Learning from our employees
We knew that what made someone the right person for a job was not necessarily education, prior experience, language, or skill, so we also carried out various psychological assessments to find out more about the person behind the candidate. We called these intrinsic assessments. They are also referred to as psychometric tests or personality tests, and you can find plenty of them online. (The one we used in Brunei was called Apollo.)
But we also discovered an even better way to spot the applicants who would bring the most to their job.
The ideal candidate profile
Most of the younger Bruneians and Ibans we hired locally were fast learners and quickly mastered what we needed from them. So we started identifying those who performed exceptionally well and tried to find out what they were doing that made their contribution so much greater than that of their colleagues.
This took some in-depth analysis, discussion, and testing, but eventually, we came up with a list of the essential qualities and attitudes we had observed in our best employees and used it to create ideal candidate profiles for the various jobs we needed to fill. Of course, the ideal candidate profile also listed our requirements in terms of educational level, experience, skills, and so on, but the innovation was in adding those other less easy-to-define qualities that would be vital in a particular job.
From then on, the ideal candidate profile was the document we used as a yardstick against which we could evaluate each new job applicant. The qualities listed in it each had a numerical score (for example, out of 10). After the interview and assessment phase, each candidate ended up with a total score we could compare with our perfect – or nearly perfect – candidate in the ideal candidate profile. We even used it to evaluate employees we were planning to promote.
The ideal candidate profile was yet another of our critical success factors.
The first day at work, version 1.0: the buddy system
Our first attempt at helping each new employee learn how to do his job before he was actually let loose on the machinery was called an action plan. The new hire was presented, on his first day, with a few simple tasks to perform. In those days, a vital part of the action plan was the buddy system, which meant the new employee was accompanied every step of the way by a trusted employee with experience on the job, who would show him what he needed to know to perform each task.
This was a good enough system – as far as it went. Over the next five years, we expanded it to create the bridging profile.
The first day at work, version 2.0: the bridging profile
This was a document we handed to the new hire, requiring him/her to do three things:
Draw up a list of your skills and strengths.
Meet your immediate boss and colleagues, and find out what they are working on. (If you have direct reports, also find out what they are doing.)
Draw up your own action plan of things you can start doing today to help your boss and colleagues (and direct reports if applicable), based on your skills and strengths.
The bridging profile gets the new person involved from Day One and is a great confidence-builder.
The new person keeps their very first action plan from that first day on the job, updating and adding to it as they become more proficient, receive more training and take on new responsibilities. And from the start, this document is linked to their monthly performance appraisal.
Advertising with the candidate’s point of view in mind
We realized, looking back, that our advertising campaign had created interest from the start because we highlighted what the successful applicants stood to gain (working environment, personal development) before mentioning what we needed them to do. Our ads were very good at capturing people’s attention and holding it. Although less important than the ideal candidate profile, this too was a critical success factor.
Start by describing what the successful candidate will get from working with you. Follow that with what you will need from them. Use color if you can, and include photographs or a video clip of the team they will be joining.
Your application form should not act as a discouragement to potential candidates! Keep it short and to the point, asking only for the candidate’s first name, family name, contact details, and the title of the job they are applying for.
A note on measuring the effectiveness of recruitment
When you first start to measure your existing HR processes according to the two complementary metrics of efficiency and effectiveness you are likely to be surprised by how poor the results of these processes are. (If you constantly follow us on this blog, you will soon catch with Chapter 8 which will provide a concise summary of the metrics you need to use for the recruitment process – and for all the other key areas.)
Setting up metrics for the recruitment process was something we had already done before, so it was relatively easy this time. We used three key measurements of efficiency and effectiveness for recruitment: (i) Turnaround time, (ii) Fit, and (iii) Retention.
The time between confirmation that a new employee is needed to the signing of an employment contract with the chosen candidate. (Ideally, this should be equal to or less than the notice period of the employee who needs to be replaced.)
This means “How quickly does the new person become competent?” The metric is this: Within the first three months with the company, how many can either
do the job with a maximum of 50% supervision OR
meet 50% of their Key Performance Indicators?
This measures how many new people stay longer than six months after being recruited. (Our target was 80% of people recruited.)
Copyright © 2018 Robert Bluett
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Publisher: People Plus (peopleplusco.com)
Third Edition: 2020
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