Winning the Hiring Game

If you’re having trouble finding your next great employee, the problem may not be where you’re looking, but whom you’re looking for. Both human resources experts and design/build pros with strong hiring track records say the key to recruiting success is understanding the characteristics of an ideal candidate before you post an ad or check an online résumé. And, they add, keeping that great employee onboard requires a combination of providing the right challenges and adequate recognition to keep that person both interested and loyal.

Hiring is often done in a hurry. A valued (or not-so-valued) employee gives two weeks’ notice, and, almost immediately, the same job description that has been used for the past five years is hauled out of the file cabinet. Instead of spending time analyzing this possibly out-of-date document, many employers get wrapped up in trying to figure out which of the many new online outlets will get them the best responses. This can lead to frustration and hiring mistakes, experts say.

“Where most companies miss the boat is identifying recruiting resources before identifying the kind of people they’re looking for,” says Joan Brannick, Ph.D., and co-author of Finding and Keeping Great Employees (American Management Association, 1999). “You’ve got to define what you’re looking for and move forward from there.”

Hiring right, according to Brannick’s plan, is a proactive rather than reactive process. Instead of waiting until your next staff member walks out the door, carve out some time now to think about qualities you’d like to see in future employees.

Start this definition process by looking at your current top performers across all positions, Brannick suggests. Consider what they have in common, from working styles to off-hour activities — some employers have gone so far as to interview these office stars. Not only will this exercise give you a better idea of what makes a great contributor to your company, you also may gain new insights into where to find others just as promising.

For example, one of Brannick’s clients discovered many of its best hires were new homeowners who enjoyed visiting area house and garden shows on the weekend. The company set up a booth at the next such event and found new potential candidates, without the competition they faced at local job fairs.

Companies Doing it Right

Michael Strong, vice president of Houston-based Brothers Strong Remodeling Design & Build and GreenHaus Builders, took the time a couple years ago to put together a formalized hiring program. The company is small — currently only eight employees — but Strong says he learned from experience that even modestly sized organizations need to think through their hiring processes.

“We screwed up on a ton of hires,” he says. In response, he signed up for an online human-resources course through Remodelers University. Using knowledge gained through his studies and the accompanying conference-call-based class discussions, he documented formalized policies and procedures in a binder he now distributes to his managers.

John Cannon, president of Sarasota, Fla.-based John Cannon Homes is a similar believer in a formalized hiring process. His company, with approximately 25 on staff, has worked with a consultant to help managers improve their interviewing and listening skills and to develop a list of open-ended questions designed to help interviewers learn more about their candidates. In addition, candidates who make it past the first interview round take two tests — the DESA personality test and the Wonderlic Personnel Test — to help establish their suitability for the open position.

Fitting In

Beyond specific abilities, however, Cannon’s managers also are trained to hone in on a more abstract qualification, which is how good a match the candidate is with the company’s overall culture. Cannon Homes values fast-paced problem solvers who show an excitement for the custom-building industry, according to chief operating officer T.J. Nutter, and applicants who don’t meet that standard, no matter how strong their résumé or test scores, probably won’t make it onto the company’s payroll.

“I’m a strong believer in ‘fit,’” Nutter says, drawing on the example of, “You could be the best purchasing manager in the world, but if you don’t fit with the company, it probably wouldn’t work.”

Brannick praises such an emphasis on company culture in the hiring process. A strong personality match between candidate and company can mean both better performance and longer employee tenure, she says.

“The culture of a company drives how jobs are done,” she says. “A lot of times people leave not because they don’t like the job, but because they don’t like the way they have to do the job at that company.”

Valuing Success

Being focused on how you keep employees can be just as important to your business’ success as how you hire them. And, contrary to what you might think, money isn’t always the primary motivator keeping a strong performer on staff, long term.

“Money — giving raises — is a temporary thing,” says Jeff Cline, owner, as well as architect and chief construction manager for Littleton, Colo.-based Cline Design Group. “The thing that really motivates somebody is giving them a sense of ownership.”

That sense of ownership can range from formal stock and profit sharing to simply giving employees the chance to make their own decisions in the field, and backing up those decisions once they’re made. In areas where the building market remains active, strong financial packages may help bring top-performing candidates through the door. But those companies that manage to retain their employees all emphasize the importance of providing professional-growth opportunities.

“Number one, we pay them as much as humanly possible,” says James Wallbridge, AIA, president and founder of both Tekton Architecture and Artisan Builders, in San Francisco, where the custom housing market remains resilient and job seekers are in high demand. “Number two, we try to provide a business culture that provides them with autonomy.”

Recognition, both formal and informal, is another regular ingredient in how successful design/build companies keep employees motivated. Performance-based bonuses can be one part of this, but a simple pat on the back, or “attaboy” during a company-wide meeting can be equally powerful, experts say.

Small Can Be Beautiful

Providing challenging and varied assignments also can be a strong tenure-building tactic, especially for younger employees seeking to gain experience in the field. Brannick says this interest in wearing many hats, along with a desire for greater flexibility in determining work schedules, can help smaller companies gain a leg up against bigger competitors, which may offer larger financial packages.

“They undersell themselves,” she says, speaking of her small-business clients. “Oftentimes they are less tied to procedures and policies. Typically you have a less formal arrangement and you get more varied experience.”

This certainly is the case for those Jeff Cline hires. He finds a great enthusiasm among recent architecture grads, and those with just a few years’ experience, for all that can be learned when working for a small design/build company. Many of these candidates have some construction background, and relish the opportunity to get away from the drawing board to see actual bricks-and-mortar progress.

“There’s a real enthusiasm in Colorado to get into design/build, and I try to grab onto that,” he says, citing the case of one recent hire. “He says it’s the best job he’s had because he gets to actually see stuff being built.”