The Importance of Hiring Well

Today I  take on the topic of hiring well. It’s a topic rife with hidden complexities and uncertainty, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a small business or a billion dollar corporation: you need to have employees, and that means you have to find them and hire them.  If you’re large then most likely you have a department dedicated to the process of recruiting, screening, testing, and ushering candidates through to either acceptance or the front lobby.  Most small businesses don’t have that luxury; the task probably falls on your shoulders.

While hiring can be daunting regardless of size, industry, or function, it’s particularly tough when you’re trying to hire marketing or sales staff.  Why?  If you’re looking to hire someone technical, there’s a high likelihood you won’t understand two out of every three things the candidate is saying.  Most non-technical folks will find someone who does speak the candidate’s “language” and rely on that person’s assessment to determine suitability—or pretend to get it and see what happens.  When you’re hiring marketing sales staff, however, interviewers (even technical ones) suddenly become experts.  So you talk a bit about work experience, check out how well he or she is dressed, maybe even ask toss out some marketing-techie words like “demand creation”, “bounce rates” or “conversions”.  With sales staff interviews things get even mushier, and often sink down to gut feel.

Most of you reading this (I hope) are shaking your heads and exclaiming “I’d never do that!!” but the fact is, in most smaller businesses where owners and managers wear lots of hats, we often do.  It’s unfortunate but true that most business people stink at hiring and they fall back to factors not always connected to the job itself, and measuring a candidate’s personal attributes against their own foibles. That creates a hidden set of assessments: Am I intimidated by him? Would she or he give me trouble or happily take orders? Would he try and take my job? Do I like her smile? Does he seem like a good guy?  While nearly everyone who hires people thinks about some of these at some point in the process (unless you’re seriously enlightened or extraordinarily over-confident) they don’t really get you to whether or not the person can do the job for which you’re hiring.  The very real risk is that you wind up looking for someone who will do what you want your vision of the job to be without fuss, and that can be limiting to both the company and the employee.

To hire better requires some effort and a modicum of maturity to keep personal biases at bay: draw up a job description for the role, let others in the business provide some insight (watching, of course, for other agendas that may creep in) but come to a clear understanding of what the person will be doing or managing.  Then as you are interviewing, assess the candidate against that role.  Ask questions that let them demonstrate their knowledge and problem solving skills.  Give them a challenge.  A marketer will want to explain how to generate leads, improve market presence, handle a PR challenge.  A sales rep will jump at the chance to talk you through how he would sell something to a skeptical prospect.  As they do, pay attention and most important, take notes!  Write on the resume or a pad but mark your thoughts at the time or just after a meeting is done.  Before the next candidate.  Before your day to day tasks consume you again.

Just as important as capturing impressions (and the same goes for anyone else on your team who is interviewing the candidate) is reminding yourself that you’re hiring someone to manage a role or perform a set of tasks.  It will be their challenge to achieve the goals that are set out within whatever parameters are laid down by you and the business, but part of their success or failure should not be tied to how you would do the job.  Sales people have distinctive styles even if they are all hired with similar characteristics.  Writers have differing ways to get a message across with clarity.  Software developers can be easily identified by how they write their code.  As you’re deciding if the person sitting in front of you, hoping for a chance to work for you is a good fit for the business, work hard to look past your own personal biases and consider the candidate in the broader sense of their possible contribution.

Thinking About Building Business Partnerships?

There are many kinds of successful partnerships in this world: Batman and Robin, Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, Penn and Teller, Jobs and Wozniak to name just a few.  There are also some terrible partnerships out there: President Obama and Congress, and Sarah Palin and, well, anybody come immediately to mind.  At a business level, corporate or owner/operator alike often seek out partnerships of some kind or another, driven most often by the notion that such a relationship will help grow the business.

Over my professional career I have put together large, global—and successful—partnerships, and I have also assembled partnerships that should have been smashing wins, but wound up fizzling out. What I’ve learned from these efforts is that partnering is hard to get right.  That said, done with forethought and planning it’s worth the effort to try.

As with so much of business life, two keys to a successful partnership are having a clear understanding what you want to accomplish and then honestly assessing performance.  Since partnerships can take many shapes and forms, it’s difficult to generalize about what will make a relationship work, but there are some constants.  First and foremost, it’s critical to make sure that the expectations you have for the partnership are matched by your potential partner.  The number one point of failure for inter-company collaboration is a misalignment of goals.  Sometimes one party sees a relationship as the chance to market products or services in a preferred way to the partner’s customers and prospects, or to leverage their sales team.  In other cases the relationship is pursued to access useful technology, services, or even brand recognition.

Making matters potentially worse is the fact that many partnerships are forged at a personal level, with like-minded, well intentioned employees of the companies concocting a plan they then try and sell up to management.  Without a clear, detailed—and most often quantifiable– understanding of the mutual benefit there’s a good chance things will not work out, and worse, will not survive the loss of one or both of the original advocates.

If benefits flow in only one direction (and this happens a lot) the relationship will lose steam quickly.  Salespeople are “coin operated” and if there’s not a clear path to more money why would they care about a partnership, however well-promoted? If there’s no advantage in terms of market access, technology leverage, or brand awareness who will find the relationship worth maintaining? This applies to all partnerships, not just corporate ones.  If, say, a hair salon teams up with a massage center to offer a package deal or discounts on their respective services, it’s important to know if each partner is seeing increased business from the relationship—or just discounting the business they already have.

To give yourself the best chance of success it’s important to have a clearly documented set of benefits and expectations that will come from the partnership, and even more important, make sure both sides are committed to them. Then it’s all about rollout planning, execution and measurement.  You’ll not be surprised to learn that that middle step, execution, where success is determined.  Space doesn’t permit a full explanation of how to structure execution programming, but it’s sufficient to say that it must be managed as tightly as any intra-company project, perhaps even more so, and clear processes have to be put into place to guide anyone trying to take advantage of the partnership.  There’s a need to educate and demonstrate to all parties how the relationship will work and how to navigate the process you and your partner have created.

Another key to partnership success is having the right people in place to manage the relationship.  I’ve often seen short-term thinkers put into roles that require longer term planning; salespeople asked to nurture and support relationships without a direct revenue benefit to that salesperson; busy executives (or business owners) expected to oversee the details of the partnership.  The fact is partnership management is a skill unto itself, and a blend of practical, tactical execution and business savvy. Even if the result of the partnership is highly technical, at the relationship level the required skills are decidedly business-focused and sometimes even diplomatic in nature.

I’ll close by saying that partnerships can be terrific for two businesses, but they are hard work, and they don’t run themselves.  If you’re contemplating how to expand your business, reach more prospects, add capabilities to your offerings then a partnership may be your ticket to achieving those objectives.  But be prepared for hard work, quick adjustments, and potential disappointment before you find the right blend of shared opportunity, common purpose, and commitment.

Do Your Job

One of a series published in and the Portsmouth Herald business pages

There are many capable leadership coaches in our community. I am not one of them.  However, over many years of managing successful teams, large, small, local and distributed, I’ve managed to learn enough about both team dynamics and management skills to feel comfortable sharing my experience and perspectives.  Recently while was watching the latest New England Patriots dismantling of their opponent I was reminded of Coach Belichick’s oft repeated phrase, “Do your job”. Three simple words that appear now on tee shirts, inspirational posters, internet memes, even (poorly thought-through) tattoos.  To me, the phrase is shorthand for “stay focused, do what you’re supposed to do, and all will be well.”

Now, anyone who knows me at all knows what I think of inspirational posters and phrases (visit if you’re curious), but in this case there’s both merit in the phrase (and its variations) that are useful to anyone running a growing business, especially if you’re an owner and entrepreneur. In my last column I suggested taking some time to look yourself in the mirror and ask some important questions about business and how your operation is running.  This time, sans mirror, I want you to think about Coach Hoodie’s phrase and this variation: “Should I do your job?”

Consider the characteristics of an entrepreneur: vision, passion, relentless work ethic, an unshakable belief in the value of the product or services he or she is bringing to the world.  A mentor of mine once characterized a self-described visionary as being “not always right, but never uncertain”, and that has stayed with me.  Those same attributes that give someone a chance to be successful can also create a complicated workplace which can undermine the foundations of that potential success, but through even a modicum of self-awareness (and some trusted, knowledgeable advisers) you can create a great environment in which to work and the business to grow.

Creating that environment can be a challenge, but it’s critical to success.  You’ve got to make good hires, of course, but then you have to give those people room to Do Their Job.  Putting aside a discussion around the hiring process (which would take many columns), when you, as a business owner or entrepreneur hires someone for a function, it’s important to provide guidance and support, not to hover or interfere.  Ask yourself how often you think “it’ll be easier if I just do it myself.”?  Easier for who?  You? Better for the business? If that’s true then you should fire everyone and, indeed, do it yourself.

But that’s not really true, is it?  And it certainly doesn’t allow the business to scale. Often the biggest “concern” for an owner isn’t making sure something’s done right so much as it is the fact that it may be done differently than you’d do it.  Not better, not worse necessarily, but certainly different.  The same internal impulses that cause one person to love red and hate blue, or to adore Picasso and not like Matisse, or to crave steak and recoil in horror from sushi are the same impulses that generate a creative, additive energy in a business and should be encouraged.  Contradictory though it may seem, leadership is about letting go, not tightening a grip, and that’s something that does not come naturally to most entrepreneurs.  Having spent years in and around the venture capital, early stage company world, I can tell you first hand that investors worry most about the entrepreneur-as-CEO, and it can be a huge impediment to growth.

Often an entrepreneur will ask me how to proceed once leadership is hired for key functional roles like sales and marketing, two areas where most entrepreneurs find the most affinity.  My answer is usually the same: Do Your Job–be an evangelist.  Drive the vision for the product or services the company offers. Let the sales and marketing team use you as the celebrity you are.  Set the tone for the company culture but don’t try and make everyone a clone of you—or judge them as lacking because they’re not you.  Competence takes many forms and as long as they are doing their job and you are doing your job and you’re making sure your job isn’t the same as their job (did you follow that?) then you’ve got your best chance to succeed and grow.  You can do this.  In fact, it’s your Job!