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Small Business Hiring Tips: How to Identify the Best Candidates

By Liz Elting

YFS Magazine – December 17, 2011

As the CEO of a global services company, I read a lot of resume cover letters. One of the best I’ve ever seen was from a candidate with an Ivy League education and an extremely high GPA who chose to write about her experience working as a waitress.

Why did I like that letter so much? It showed me that the candidate had what I was looking for in an entry level applicant: she started working at a young age, landed her first job despite a lack of experience and kept working through university.

With the national unemployment rate hovering above 9 percent, job applicants are plentiful. But managers still struggle to put the right people in the right positions. I think it’s because they’re often evaluating potential employees in the wrong way.

Over the past 19 years, having hired thousands of people, I’ve developed a set of guidelines to identify the candidates who – because of their integrity, loyalty, and attitude – have the best chance at success. Here’s how:

1. Look at experience other recruiters may ignore.
I want executives who are smarter than I am. I want executives who have integrity and thrive on accountability. And I want executives who are ready to work hard and play hard with the team I’ve built here. There are several things I do to find these people. For example, I want to select employees who will have the company’s best interests at heart at all times. One of the questions I ask applicants is “Suppose you see a co-worker, or someone you manage stealing money. What would your response be as a co-worker and what would your response be as a manager?” While the answers may seem incredibly obvious to you, more than 80 percent of applicants respond to this set of questions with answers like “As a co-worker, I would urge them to put the money back,” and “As a manager, I would discuss it with them and give them a second chance.” Fewer than 20 percent give the answers I want to hear.

I look for people whose instinctive reaction is to either report the person to their manager, or, as a manager, terminate that person’s employment immediately. There is no gray area. Integrity is a key value for my company that other employers do not usually focus on in the interview: I want every employee to treat the company as if they own it themselves. I want people who think for themselves and are motivated to be part of our company’s growth.

2. Don’t overlook key skills found in the least expected places. 
I look for leadership skills in ways that other CEOs might not notice. I place less focus on what experience candidates have in our industry and more on them as individuals. For an applicant interested in an entry level position, I will note that they started a Spanish club at their college because one didn’t existed there (this is a take-charge initiator in my eyes), or that someone was captain of their hockey team. One of our outstanding employees turned mowing lawns during high school into a complete seasonal landscaping business and employed several people during summers off from college.

For someone applying for a management position, I look not only at how long they were employed by another company and why they left, but if they rose within the company over those years. If their career shows a steady and lasting period of growth and management experience, this tells me they have what we are looking for. One employee had taken over as manager of a restaurant and took it from the brink of bankruptcy to a growing and sustained success. I look beyond the industry, which is not relevant to me; to the rate of success this person achieved, which is indeed relevant. Another member of our management team spent over 15 years working at another company. He turned out to have the necessary knowledge, experience, and skill to grow his department, promote from within and introduce new and effective processes for change that have had an impact on the entire company.

3. Hire for attitude.
According to a study from Leadership IQ, the primary reason why 46 percent of newly hired employees fail within 18 months is a lack of interpersonal skills. Only 11 percent of failures come from technical skill deficiencies. It’s easy to see how this happens. Experience is useless in people who can’t share it with others. You can’t train for enthusiasm, work ethic or interpersonal skills. So if in doubt, I always hire for attitude. My motto is “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” As every CEO understands, we can’t intricately involve ourselves in every aspect of the company at every moment, so we need to build a team with similar values and business knowledge. I remember a college intern who was interested in design and typography but had only rudimentary skills. She was an all-around helper for many different departments while she completed her university degree. After her hours were completed, she would often hang around the desktop publishing department asking questions and volunteering to help.

From day one she was an upbeat, can-do person. No matter what task she was given, she never complained and often took the initiative to go one step further if she saw something to be done. She’d find a way to prioritize when three people wanted her to get something done at the same time and met everyone’s needs cheerfully. Her instincts and interpersonal skills were exceptional. When she graduated, I hired her immediately. She started out as an assistant in the production department, took night courses in typography, and within a few years was running and growing our entire desktop publishing operation. She is the kind of person who wants to make an impact rather than just being told what to do.

In addition to administering standardized tests and formal interviews, I spend time in hiring the right people and make it a priority to find candidates that want to grow along with the company. As my company promotes from within; most of our top leaders start as entry-level employees. I believe the process works, and that’s why I focus so much attention on hiring for integrity, leadership, and attitude.