The key to business greatness: hiring the right people

By Ciaran Ryan

I was recently at a training college where young college graduates, mostly from poor backgrounds and with no work experience, were being readied for the work place. What I found most fascinating about the training was the emphasis on soft skills: how to communicate, how to dress for the workplace, how to address the boss, how to write an email…

Most of the graduates will end up working in accounting or banking firms, where there are strict codes of conduct. So, while the graduates are technically competent in accounting and banking, they have never been exposed to the behavioural codes of the workplace.

One of their final practicals is a mock job interview. An interviewer sits across a desk and asks the typical questions one would expect in this type of situation: where were you born, what do your parents do, where were you educated, what are your ambitions in life?

Now, imagine you are from one of the poorer townships, such as Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg. Your exposure to the world of business is rather limited. Despite the handicaps of English as a second language, sub-standard education and an impoverished upbringing, you are being judged by a group of people from an entirely different and, probably, more privileged background. This can be a terrifying – and intimidating – experience.

The good news is that more than 90% of the graduates through this programme end up in secure employment. Some have done exceptionally well. One is now a departmental director at National Treasury. Several have started their own businesses and are now employers in their own right. This means the roles are reversed and they have to interview candidates and select the best of the bunch. Having navigated their way through the maze of privation and disappointment that life throws in the way of all those who aspire to greatness, these entrepreneurs are now applying exactly the same rules to the new intake as was applied to them.

In other words, there is a natural process of selection that takes place in all walks of life. The hard truth is that the workplace has little sympathy for your disadvantaged upbringing. You either perform or you fail. The good news is that the workplace values results above anything else. So, while you may not have a choice over where you start out in life, you do have a choice over where you end up. There are thousands of graduates from desperately poor backgrounds who are now key decision-makers in the South African economy, thanks to the work of this college, and others like it.

The college has a process of pre-selection: first, the students must be academically gifted, but far more important is their ability to get on with others, and their willingness to overcome obstacles. Some were literally going hungry so that they could advance their chances in life. These are the kind of people one would want in any organisation.

Interestingly, Entrepreneur magazine surveyed 30 successful entrepreneurs and all agreed that hiring the right people was the key to their success.

Here are just some of the recommendations from these entrepreneurs. Some of this may surprise you, but it shows what successful people value as important:

  • Attitude and work ethic are always more important than a set of technical skills.  Almost all skills can be trained, but a person’s personality and demeanour are very difficult to adjust.  Make sure they will fit your team.
  • Let the applicant do 90% of the talking. It’s amazing what they will say. All you need to do is listen.
  • Hire people that walk fast…they tend to have a sense of urgency about life and a predisposition to taking action.
  • Do not hire based on the answers you receive during the interview. If you are considering someone, put them through the test by giving them a few tasks that they will be responsible for and see how well they do. If they cannot complete the task within the amount of time they are given they may not be a good fit.
  • Always develop a shortlist for filling a position. The second interview will unveil the layer required to make the final decision. If the applicant won’t comply with this process, move on. The best employees often interview the worst.
  • Ask for samples of the interviewee’s work or provide them with an assignment during the interview. It shows how they process tasks, the types of questions they would ask and their prioritisation of the subtasks. If they have a logical approach to the task and can demonstrate their skills, they are most likely equipped to do the job.
  • Never make a compromise hire.  You are better off waiting to get the right person than settling for a less than ideal candidate. You can’t get “best in class” results with a mediocre employee.  Never compromise your hiring standards.
  • Skills can be taught, attitude cannot.
  • Hire to cover your weaknesses. People that really click with you are or are ‘just like you’ tend to have the same weaknesses as you!

In virtually all cases, these entrepreneurs succeeded because they selected the right staff – people who were passionate about the business and were prepared to advance the overall goals of the company. Those that did not fit the culture of the company – self-serving career-hoppers and slackers – were let go.

They are prepared to spend a lot of time hiring the right people, because the costs of hiring the wrong people can be fatal. Businesses do not ordinarily fail because of a change in market circumstances, but because staff did not recognise the change and respond accordingly.