Getting Serious About Hiring the Best

Jan 29, 2007

It is conventional wisdom that our companies are only “as good as the people we employ” and that “our greatest assets go home each night.” Over the years, I have heard literally thousands of owners of A/E/P and environmental firms proclaim they “only wanted to hire the best and brightest.” Yet how many companies are really serious about doing so? My guess is only a handful. There are many barriers to hiring outstanding people today. Certainly, one of them is a dwindling talent pool for just about every type of individual we need to hire. But that’s too often used as an excuse for settling and filling a job with someone who is probably going to be less than outstanding. Another big barrier to hiring the best is the refusal of many principals to acknowledge that they are in a competitive battle with their peer companies for talent. This keeps many firms from aggressively targeting sharp people that they know are working in other neighboring firms. You’ve all heard it before— “we don’t want to start a recruiting war with ABC Associates.” Meanwhile, after five or 10 years of not having a recruiting war, ABC Associates has quadrupled in size, while the other firm is about the same! The third barrier to hiring the best is one that I find particularly frustrating. This is when companies won’t do any more in the way of compensation for someone who could be the best than they are presently providing people they know aren’t the best. Take the case of the firm that needs a fantastic groundwater hydrologist who could manage a large client relationship, yet is unwilling to pay any more to hire that person than they are paying their other groundwater hydrologists who clearly don’t have that ability. Yes, there could be complaints from the others if someone new is brought in for more than they make. But what are your other options? Another barrier to hiring the best and brightest comes from those involved in the hiring process. Some (those who AREN’T the best OR the brightest) are actually afraid of really sharp people. They don’t want the firm to hire someone better than them and will work against it. You know the great thing about all these barriers to hiring the very best people? All but the size of the talent pool are within your control. That means you can do something about them! Isn’t it time to get serious about hiring the best and brightest? Here are a few actions you can take: Raise the standards. Don’t talk to anyone who does not have the required academic, registration, and certification credentials. If you let the wrong people interview, they could end up getting hired. For entry-level people, set a minimum GPA that you will not go below. Make sure they can write and communicate well. Look for those who were involved in student organizations where they had to cooperate with each other. Look for those who worked as a co-op or intern with good firms in your business. Get creative with the compensation. If you want the best, consider paying higher salaries and lower bonuses. Higher salaries are always more appreciated and make it easier to hire people from the outside. Offer ownership opportunities earlier. Use signing bonuses because they are a one-time cost and can be a good way to induce someone to switch. Get someone who really understands recruiting is a selling process to train your managers in how to sell good people on joining your firm. I am NOT talking about a legal human resources expert-type who only wants to talk about questions you cannot ask during the interview! Get your CEO/office managers/division managers more involved with recruiting. If your business was a football team, don’t you think the head coaches would be picking out the new talent? Too often, the hiring responsibilities have been pushed down too low in the organization. Look for track records of success in any job candidate. There are almost always ways to quantify whether someone has done well in a job. Find out the numbers on utilization, hours worked, multiplier achieved, work sold, dollar value of work managed, profitability of jobs managed, etc., for every candidate you interview. Avoid those who have made too many job changes. That is always cause for concern. Originally published 1/29/2007

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