Work, Caring, and Filtering Employers

While last week’s “don’t work and don’t care” piece was inspired by comments about millennial workers, those “tests” evaluate things important about all prospective employees. Yet there’s more. One non-millennial responded: “Saw your blog post. Filtering employees is only part of the problem. The other side of the coin is filtering employers.

Exactly. So how do you filter employers?

Don’t filter employers because…

Do you avoid employers who filter prospective employees as I described? Don’t. The more care someone takes when hiring someone to join your team, the more likely that person will fit in and carry their share of the load. Good employers have learned to place small obstacles or tasks in the process to identify those who don’t pay attention to details and/or don’t follow instructions. “Email your resume to gimmeajob@company.com in Microsoft Word format” tells someone you aren’t a bot, you read and follow instructions, and you have a baseline of necessary skills. Can you use Word? Can you email an attachment? Is your grammar horrific? Did you use a spellchecker? If you submit a resume littered with errors, employers will rightly discern that you aren’t a good fit for their work, or the quality their work demands. For some jobs, these kinds of skills things are critical – even if they aren’t the core job skill.

Some employers have a complex interview process. As long as the interviews are engaging, it’s OK. If some interviewers are disinterested or not engaged (such as during a team interview), give the impression they don’t want to be there, or are unprepared to interview you, investigate. Ask about their hiring process. They’ll either be able to describe it, or not. If they tap dance, beware. Ask why they are involved in the process of selecting you as a candidate, but do so late in the discussion. You don’t want probing questions to take the interviewer off-task.

Even so, they need to sell you on their company as a good place to work. How prepared for the interview was this person? Did they seem to know little about you? Did you get the impression they were reading your resume, cover letter and other materials for the first time while conducting the interview? This could indicate a lack of organization, a lack of preparation, a random “Hey, go interview this person” assignment, or it could be that the person who normally conducts that interview is traveling or sick.

Filtering employers

You already know that you’ll be asked if you have questions. Do you prepare for them in advance? It’s clear from my comments that you should expect the interviewer to be prepared – and the same holds for you. The quality of your questions is critical.

Your questions during the interview:

  • Indicate whether or not you did your homework on the company.
  • Identify reason(s) to walk away, or become even more enthusiastic about the job.
  • Help the interviewer figure you out while letting you play detective.

About 20 years ago, I flew to West Virginia to interview for a senior executive-level position. Something seemed off, so I dug deeper than usual. At the time, online information was scarce, except for stock market info. I found news of a buyout, a bankruptcy, & reorganization. I asked about these things during my visit. They were floored – no one else asked about these events. They told me later that these questions were the turning point to them making an offer. I didn’t take the job, but I learned a valuable lesson about homework.

Ask about:

  • … company meetings: Do they have an agenda? Are people there who don’t need to be? Are they frequent or infrequent? Are they productive? These things speak to management style and organization, among other things.
  • … projects: How are projects managed? What happens after a successful project? What about an unsuccessful one? Ask to hear project “war stories”.
  • … the sales team: Some companies have them, some do not. The longevity of the sales team, if there is one, can indicate how things are going.
  • … how they use data: Is there a CRM or other strategic data use?
  • … their on-boarding process. What should you expect day one?
  • … crisis management. How did the last crisis / emergency get handled? What did the company learn from it? Was it something that allowed a change in process / design so it could be prevented in the future? How did this affect the staff?

If someone wonders why you care about these things – tell them that you’re looking for a solid, well-run company to grow with, not simply a paycheck.

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They don’t want to work & they don’t care like I do

Human resources. Human capital. Two terms that I really don’t care much for (especially the latter one), yet they attempt to describe what is usually the most important part of your business: employees.

You might think your customers / clients are the most important part of your business, but without good employees who want to take care of your clients, one of two things happens: Either you won’t have any clients or you’ll be doing all the work yourself – which sounds more like a job than it does a business. Two complaints I hear most often: “They don’t want to work” and “They don’t care like I do“.

They don’t want to work

If you have people working for you who don’t want to work, it’s not their fault. It is your company’s fault because the company hired them.

They may be lazy. You may be exactly right about why they are lazy, but it doesn’t matter. The fact that they are lazy and the reason(s) for that laziness are irrelevant. It’s relevant that the company hired them before figuring out they were lazy. Your job as the hiring manager is to find a way to figure out who is lazy (etc) and be sure not to hire them.

Repeatedly complaining (for example) that “all millennials are lazy and don’t want to work” is not only incorrect, but a waste of time. If the millennials your company hired don’t want to work, blame the broken process used to hire them. If three of every 100 applicants show the right stuff, then make sure your process finds the three.

Hiring people is easier if you put a process in place that makes it all but impossible for someone to join your team when they have the attributes of someone who can’t be successful at your place. This process doesn’t come in a box from Amazon. You can’t simply open the box and plug it in. It requires ongoing attention. It’s work. It takes time. It isn’t easy. The process needs to involve the people a prospective employee will work with, and those they will work for.

There are people who shouldn’t work at your place with your people. Your job is to eliminate them before you hire them. To eliminate each attribute that you don’t want working at your business, you add steps to the process that identify those attributes. “Drama queen” is a one of the attributes I eliminate, noting that these folks are both male and female.

Do you want to hire passive aggressive jerks who will tick off your customers? If not, your hiring process needs a way to filter out those people. Sometimes, it isn’t easy, but if you wanted “easy”, you shouldn’t have started / bought a business.

Attributes like lazy, passive aggressive, or any other that cause you to wish you’d never hired someone are no different than “must be able to lift 70 pounds”. They are a minimum qualification for employment. It isn’t the job prospect’s responsibility to apply only for jobs that they are ideal for. That might be nice, but isn’t realistic. It’s your job to sort them.

They don’t care like I do

Of course they don’t. Remember, they aren’t owners, so it will be rare that they will care like you do. They don’t have as much at risk as the owner and they sure don’t have as much potential upside as the owner.

Expecting someone to act like an owner at $10 an hour is silly. Training them to think like an owner and then giving them more responsibility (and more cash) when they act that way is a whole different thing. Some will still work hard, but won’t think like an owner. Some will work hard and think like an owner once they are trained and learn that there are things to be gained by doing so.

A rare few will act like an owner, at least to the extent they can. “These people” will start caring when they figure out that you do. That starts at the hiring time. If you find a way to stop adding lazy, crazy, and dazed to their department, they will notice. If you ask them for referrals, they won’t suggest you hire their dodgy, lazy friends. It simply makes more work for them. Instead, you’ll get the friends they trust to do their part.

Photo by jonny goldstein

Hire for commitment over ego

The difference between a strong business leader and a weak one is easily detected: Who do they surround themselves with – and why? Do they hire for commitment or ego? Time and time again, you can see examples in business where a business owner surrounded themselves with one of three kinds of people:

The kind of people who will agree with everything the owner says or proposes, almost (if not never) disagrees with the owner, and when cornered, will err on the side of silence or “I’m undecided” rather than taking a stand that might later prove to disagree with the boss.

  • The group who will say little or nothing when they disagree with the owner.
  • The group who will make decisions independently, regardless of the owner’s stance / position, and aren’t inclined to hide that from the owner.
  • The group who will make decisions independently, regardless of the owner’s stance / position, but aren’t willing to offend / rile the owner by stating their disagreement.
  • The group who will disagree with the owner’s choices and decisions no matter how valid – simply because they’re the owner.

There are probably a few other groups / types that I missed, but this list covers the majority of what I’ve seen in the last 35 years.

Which group should you hire from?

From where I stand, neither 100% agreement or disagreement is a good thing, unless each decision is arrived at through analysis and thought. However, as we’ve all seen, some of these disagreements exist simply because they can (a minority, in my view) and others disagree because they feel the owner is making a mistake – however legitimate they feel that mistake might be. When you feel your boss the owner is about to make a mistake that could seriously affect your business, you have choices, which tend to fall into three categories:

  • You disagree, say so and make your case to your manager or the owner.
  • You disagree and say nothing.
  • You disagree and make your case to your peers.

When you hire someone, which choice would you prefer your future employee takes?

For me, it’s the first one, if you’re hiring for commitment over ego.

Making this possible is on you, the owner

So let’s say you’re on board with the whole “I welcome my staff to disagree with me as long as they’re will to discuss it” thing. It isn’t going to happen unless you create an environment that makes it clear that you appreciate it AND that disagreeing with you isn’t going to come with a cost. Saying it is rarely enough. You have to prove it. If it’s been a long time since you were an employee, you may wonder why you have to prove it, but trust me, you do. You might even have to create a situation where a reasonable (ie: calm) discussion gets started, even if you have to “stage” (pre-arrange) the start of the conversation. It might seem a little disingenuous to plan a discussion like this and arrange for someone to disagree with you, but it’s THAT important to show everyone that you’re willing to engage in such a discussion. You need to say and show that it’s ok to disagree with you. You will also need to find a way to communicate that it’s not OK to be a jerk when you disagree with the owner, but otherwise, it’s OK to do so.

Once the discussion is done, it’s also critical that you follow up both privately and publicly. After you’ve had time to reconsider your discussion given the input you received during the disagreement discussion, call the person into your office – and do so that it’s obvious you’ve called them in. Discuss with them what your decision is, whether you changed your mind or not. Explain to them what their comments made you reconsider and how they impacted any other work you’re dealing with. If they changed your mind, explain why. Either way, be sure that they know that the risk they took in front of everyone was zero risk and had a return on investment: You recognize that they have the best interests of the company at heart (commitment) when they publicly disagreed with you and that you appreciate it.

Hiring for commitment over ego means hiring someone who is willing to take a stand because they feel it’s best for the company.

Hiring Millennials

Are you hiring Millennials? How’s that going? Some people love them, some do little more than complain about them and their penchant for selfies. The oft-parroted “party line” is that Millennials are entitled slackers with no work ethic who don’t take initiative, aren’t responsible, etc. Meanwhile, many employers say “We can’t find qualified people who want to work.”

If that’s the case, they’ve either eliminated Millennials by default, or they aren’t looking very hard – or both.

Slacking isn’t age specific

These behaviors are not generation specific. EVERY generation has people who fit one or more of those patterns. You probably know a few. Are they all 18-34? I doubt it.

If people aren’t worthy of your job, that’s at least partly on them – no matter what generation they’re in. If you hire them anyway and aren’t doing so in hopes that they grow into the job or as part of a training effort, then their inability or lack of desire to do the job is on you – and specifically, on your company’s hiring process.

Most hiring processes spend the majority of their effort determining if someone is qualified. Once candidates are considered qualified, gut feel hiring often takes over the selection process.

A critical aspect of the hiring process is filtering out the people who won’t fit in culturally. This isn’t about you being elitist. It’s about making sure the candidate fits your company and that your company also fits the candidate. The culture at Duck Commander is different than the culture at VaynerMedia, Flathead Beacon or Goldman Sachs – and that’s OK. What’s not OK is hiring someone who is a terrible cultural fit. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad candidate, it simply means they’re not the right one for YOUR company.

One of the benefits of exposing your company’s culture to candidates is helping them remove themselves as a candidate. You want to send clear, legal signals that help people figure out if they’re a good fit. Hiring a perfectly qualified person who feels like Quasimodo when they’re at work is a waste of your time and theirs. Both of you will likely have to start over and that’s not a good thing for you or the candidate.

Culture is a big part of attracting and hiring the right people to grow your company. Millennials aren’t the only ones who care about these things.

Your hiring process reflects your culture

Remember, it isn’t the generation, it’s the person and your hiring process. Make sure yours does a great job of selecting not only the right skill set, but the right candidate for the job, your team and your company. Your process should do a great job of showing the candidate what your company is all about – and what you’re not about.

This week I heard about a company that had to fire an employee because they didn’t show up for work. They didn’t show up because they were a registered sex offender who got caught and arrested again. If the company ran a pre-hire background check, would they have declined to hire a registered sex offender?

Would you?

Would it depend on who your clients are, or whether or not the person would have direct contact with clients? Certainly. What about their contact with other employees and their families? What about the desire to rehabilitate someone who has “paid their debt to society”?

Your next applicant is a parent with small children. They’ve got the potential to be drive 10X growth of your company. How would you explain the situation to them? What if they’re a non-violent ex-convict?

Not hiring Millennials? What might you be missing?

If you eliminate Millennials from your hiring process, what might you be missing? In the group of people from 18 to 34, do you believe there are hard working, smart, ethical, motivated people who have the potential to transform your company?

If so, will you ignore that possibility due to someone’s perception that all Millennials are selfie-addicted slackers who don’t have any goals?

If so, where will your company be in 15-20 years if you’ve decided not to hire, groom and train 18-34 year olds over the next 10 years? In trouble, I’d say.

What does not hiring Millennials say to Millennials who might buy from you? Remember, Millennials currently make 21% of U.S. consumer purchases.

Hire incredibly well, regardless of age.

Hiring entry level people & (gasp) Millennials

I know a number of 20-somethings who are looking for (mostly) entry-level jobs. They’re in the age group often called “Millennials”, which some like to categorize as a generation of slackers with no work ethic and no motivation. “They need frequent naps.“, says The Atlantic, while quoting a study that included people as old as 37. My first 40-something manager at EDS took a 20 minute nap at his desk every day – in 1983.

The same types of comments were once made about Gen X, whose work drives a sizable portion of U.S. economic production these days.

If you’re basing your opinion of the potential of a prospective hire based on a broad brush that The Atlantic or People Magazine uses to describe their generation, I won’t be surprised if one or more of your competitors hires carefully selected millennials and uses them to kick your tail in the marketplace.

I don’t mean to say that people north of 30, 40 or (eek!) 50 (that’s me!) are not productively contributing to the economic growth in the U.S. I’m simply making note that they aren’t alone.

We don’t hire entry-level people

One of the comments I heard most often from these job seekers (about a dozen of them) is that “no one” is willing to hire entry-level people. The interesting thing is that none of these folks have zero experience. Most of them are looking for work in the restaurant (not fast-food) business, at least for now. Some of them have management experience – and no, I don’t mean they were an “assistant manager”, today’s euphemism for “an overtime-exempt barely supervisory level person who works 70 to 100 hours a week yet gets paid for 40”.

I recently met some of these so-called Millennials at a brewery in Missoula because I wanted to hear about their experiences.

Here’s a short list:

  • People post jobs on Craigslist and never hire anyone. Old news.
  • People post jobs on Craigslist indicating they are “hiring now”. They interview for the openings, but during the interview, make it clear that they still aren’t sure if they are going to hire anyone – even weeks after they posted the job.
  • Interviewees are told they can’t be hired because the hiring manager doesn’t believe they can learn something new – even if that “something new” is something most adults could do coherently with fewer than 10 minutes of instruction.

One of the “unlearnable” skills was refilling the items on a salad bar. The allegedly “can’t do salad bar” person had several years of restaurant experience serving and doing prep work, but hadn’t worked in a place with a salad bar. Thus, the hiring manager stated they were unqualified and unable to learn that “skill”. End of discussion, with no opportunity to prove otherwise.

Strategies for entry level people & those who hire them

After hearing the job seeker’s laments, I gave them a few strategies for dealing with the situation, including making the employer an offer like this one:

I understand that you’re worried that I can’t do the job, so I’ll work the rest of the day for nothing, starting right now. If I don’t prove my worth, I’ll walk away and you owe me nothing. If I prove I can do it, you’ll hire me on the spot and include pay for today’s work in my first paycheck. Does that sound fair?

Employers: In my experience, testing works, but only if real work is used for the test.

In the last 15 years, all but two of the people I’ve hired lived in a different state. Only three were not tested in advance. Anyone tested was paid for their test work whether they were hired or not (easier to stay legal – and you can do this without a big hassle). Test them once or as much as it takes until you know what they’re made of. Don’t waste time and money giving them made up test work. Give them real work with a minimum of instruction as necessary. Make them show their stuff – especially their resourcefulness and willingness to figure it out.

If you view Millennials as slackers with no work ethic or motivation, and are unwilling to test to identify good people of all ages, it will be difficult competing with hiring managers willing to make this effort.

At the hiring time #sponsored

Help wanted sign
Creative Commons License photo credit: andjohan

Note: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. See full disclosure at the bottom of this post.

Doctor Obvious says “Hiring the right people is crucial for any small business.

While Dr. O has a point, what the good doctor won’t tell you is what’s most important about finding the right people.

What’s more important to you when hiring? Experience? Cultural fit? Attitude?

Experience matters

Production experience matters, no matter what “production” means to your business. No one would argue the value of hiring someone who “hits the ground running” (i.e.,: creates value from the day they arrive).

Assuming you do a good job of evaluating experience, you gain from the training and work that person’s done in the past. You may also gain from things important to the both of you that they didn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate at previous employers.

Experience isn’t always required. Many businesses hire for entry-level positions, but there’s still some experience that you can seek. For example, interests and hobbies that relate to the work can help entry-level staffers become productive quickly.

But…is experience the most important factor?

What about cultural fit?

How new staff members fit your business culture-wise isn’t more or less important than the experience they offer – it’s equally important.

If a new employee doesn’t fit your company’s culture, their experience won’t matter. The clashes will prove that. With the speed and quality expectations of today’s business, the ability to collaborate is more important than ever. Even for programmers who often find themselves working alone far from the main office – the ability to collaborate is essential.

One of the things that always impresses me about a candidate is when they understand that they’re here to make stuff happen, no matter what the job. This isn’t so much a cultural fit with the staff as it is with the company’s goals. In a small business, it’s a must-have mindset.

My “initiative test” with the paper ball is one way to check a candidate’s initiative and attention to detail. When someone comes into my office for an interview, I leave the small wad of paper on the floor between the door and the candidate’s chair – making sure there’s a trashcan within reach.

I want to know when “management” isn’t around that they will address something when they see it. Initiative matters. When I look for someone, I don’t want to hear “it isn’t my job”, I want to see that they’re going to either take it on, put it on the list of things to deal with or delegate it properly to the right person.

Culture extends beyond collaboration and initiative

Culture is also how your business works.

Think about a few critical path situations from your past and work them into your interview process.

You’re looking for situations that:

  • Save (or lose) a new customer
  • Save (or lose) a long term customer
  • Expose a known and not-yet-addressed weakness in your business
  • Show off your staff’s “amazingness”
  • Show weaknesses of the past, sometimes ugly ones

While a full-on role play with the candidate may not be necessary, discussing the situation will show the candidate’s:

  • Ability to think on their feet
  • Experience with the situations in question
  • Values re: customers
  • Aplomb during a challenging situation

Even if the position you’re hiring for isn’t primarily about customer service/support/interaction, these scenarios will help you evaluate cultural fit. Does their response echo what your staff would/should do? Is it even better? Will they serve as not only a good staff member, but also as a good example?

When things don’t go well with a customer, this doesn’t mean the customer is a pain or is not a “good customer”. They may be a challenge because they push your skill/service boundaries, or they’re just difficult to work with in some form (what’s their baggage?). A staffer who handles these situations well has great value.

Your candidate’s responses will shine a light on the best of both worlds – how they’ll fit your culture and your clients while leveraging their experience.

DISCLOSURE: I am blogging on behalf of Visa Business and received compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s. Visit http://facebook.com/visasmallbiz to take a look at the reinvented Facebook Page: Well Sourced by Visa Business.

The Page serves as a space where small business owners can access educational resources, read success stories from other business owners, engage with peers, and find tips to help businesses run more efficiently.

Every month, the Page will introduce a new theme that will focus on a topic important to a small business owner’s success. For additional tips and advice, and information about Visa’s small business solutions, follow @VisaSmallBiz and visit http://visa.com/business.

Visa Business_August Infographic_081413

The forgotten 25% – will they be your customers?

The “Merging Method” of Agricultural Genetic Modification – (MMAGM)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian Sane

On average, 25% of US students drop out of high school.

I have little tolerance for “being average”, mostly because little changes have a way of propelling you well above average.

It isn’t that average is bad, but remember that average is like scoring 50th percentile on a test – half of the people are below average.

On any one test, maybe that’s not a big deal – unless the test is your life.

It’s “just how it is”

While the overall U.S. dropout rate is 25%, 50% of American Indian students drop out.

Regardless of lineage, some say that’s just how it is because “most dropouts are disconnected and unmotivated”, or they’re “intellectually under-performing” – meaning they’d never be able to graduate because they aren’t smart enough to complete the work required to graduate.

Whether those things are true or not, it doesn’t seem ideal for a community’s future to have 25% of students stumble out of school with little or no life, work or business skills any more than than it would to return to the days when two million kids aged seven to 12 worked 70 hour weeks in factories and coal mines. Never mind that it took Congress over 100 years to outlaw child labor, and even then, did so only to allow depression-era adults to get work.

Some of the 25% will struggle, suffer and become the people we look away from, some will manage thanks to skills gained from their family, and some will figure it out.

What can we do?

So what can a community do to improve the chances of a good outcome?

I wonder if some life skills (like budgeting and goal setting), some technical skills (like welding, heavy equipment operation or diesel repair) and/or some business skills (such how to plan and start a new business on a shoestring budget) might give these kids the foundation they need to become “a normal part of society” (you can decide what that means).

For this, we may need to know about the portion of the 25% who got past their slow start.

It’s likely that there’s research showing what improves the likelihood of helping these kids get started on the road to a successful life where they can find rewarding work, save some money for a rainy day, have a family if they wish and prepare themselves financially for old age. We may need to know the turning points that kept them out of prison, “soup kitchens” and shelters.

25 percent is acceptable

25% may seem pretty bad, yet as our day goes on, many of us manage to accept it. Either we think we can’t do anything about it, or we’re doing all we can just to keep our own stuff together.

Here’s how 25% feels in other parts of our lives:

  • Three eggs of every dozen would be rotten.
  • Three beers in every twelve pack are flat.
  • When you put a dollar into a change machine, you always get three quarters back.
  • One tire on your car is always flat.
  • Two pieces of every pizza have no sauce, cheese or toppings.
  • 7500 U.S. commercial flights crash every day.

If these things happened daily, there would be plenty of uproar, Congressional hearings and so on.

Yet one in four dropping out is what we seem to accept as a society, as long as our kid or adorable little grandchild isn’t dropping out – kind of like how 25% of Veterans living on the street is somehow OK (?), as long as it isn’t our family’s Veteran.

Look, I’m not saying big brother should swoop in and (s)mother these kids. What I’m saying is that we should recognize and attempt to improve how we address the real and societal costs that result from dropping out and as a result, how these kids deal with the life they’ve chosen, the life they appear to have chosen, and/or the hand they’ve been dealt.

The exception cases, like the 1.2% of dropouts who start multi-million dollar companies, shouldn’t be an escape clause. It should instead suggest how we identify patterns of success. What was different about those dropouts and could that affect more of them?

What does this have to do with business?

These people are potential customers, potential employees and/or their family members. They’re part of the community where you and your staff work, play and live. Isn’t that enough to make it matter?

Suffer the old people

O pescador (Projeto retratos)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zanini H.

As someone on the dark side of 50, I’ve earned the right to use the “O” word.

So what exactly was I referring to when I said “old”?

You might’ve heard of the term “SME”, or subject matter expert. Depending on the business, your SMEs might be young, old or a mix of both. In many businesses, they tend to be older staff members.

So what’s the challenge?

It’s managing the transfer of domain knowledge between generations – without causing a significant drop in productivity during training time.

But that’s not all, there are people issues too.

Consider this:

  • You have subject matter experts with deep domain knowledge and decades of work experience. They’re essential to production, support, sales and/or delivery of your company’s products and services.
  • You have less-experienced staff members hungry to take on new responsibilities and learn new skills.
  • You charge these less experienced staffers with learning from their more experienced peers and with taking over some production work from these subject matter experts when they’re ready.

Cross-training a crew of young, inexperienced staffers using SMEs has to be done carefully, but it’s critical to the survival of your business.

That isn’t all

Older workers can find themselves trapped by the very domain knowledge you value. The trap is being “too valuable” in their current position. Once they become the only person who can deal with things that might go wrong in production, opportunities tend to be offered to others. We can’t hurt production by moving the SME, can we?

Worse yet, they get used to taking calls on their sick and vacation days, eventually creating pressure and/or guilt over what their even well-deserved absence is doing to their employer’s business. They know that they’re essential to critical path processes and bear the burden of never having true downtime to recharge, much less grow into new and different responsibilities.

These pressures add to the difficulty of cross-training an inexperienced staff member, because that training slows down production and distracts that critical path worker. Yet every day you put it off makes it more expensive and more risky.

As management, you simply can’t let these destructive cycles get started.

It isn’t that businesses can’t survive without senior staff. Very few people are truly irreplaceable. However, SMEs experienced what got the business to this point and often, they’re the only people who know why you do things the way you do them – even if that needs to change.

Avoiding the potholes

The situation’s no easier for the younger staff. Look at it from their point of view.

If you’re young, you may be thinking that you’ve been fighting to get your chance and that these “old people” just won’t give it to you, that they’re stalling and have no patience, or that management just won’t make it happen.

While it’s normal to be impatient with the speed of change, I remind younger workers that those frustrating old staff members might be just as frustrated as they are, but about different things.

The critical role for management in this process is removing the unknowns. Until everyone understands how important these transfers are, your business is at risk. No matter who is involved and how many people are affected, any lack of consistency, purpose and clarity will be the source of the rumors that feed the fear of the unknown and create friction.

Value the past and the future

A few things to keep in mind:

Don’t give the experienced employee the feeling that they’re being put out to pasture, nor the cause of the problem. Fact is, their dedication, skill and productivity are likely what enabled you to put them in this position in the first place. This isn’t about their age or dedication or about devaluing them. It’s about the strategic importance of making sure that the business isn’t depending on any single person or resource for a business-critical activity. These employees deserve some peace of mind.

Likewise, the young employee will feel similar pressures. They need to know that they have time to learn and make mistakes and that being “tutored” isn’t a reflection of their current inexperience as much as it is an investment in their future value to the company.

It’s a bad time

Time Bandit
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ian Sane

Over the weekend, I had a brief conversation about a Wall Street Journal article I had posted to Twitter about the average nationwide earnings of a partner in a U.S. law firm.

I almost didn’t post the link because I had the feeling it would generate a political conversation. Politics was not the point of the post, but given the season…it was bound to go there.

The reason I posted it was to note that someone who typically has started at an entry level position and worked 60-80-100 hour weeks for a decade or more, was doing quite well for themselves and that this wasn’t just Wall Street lawyers.

The number is a nationwide average rather than a “gotta-live-in-a-city-of-5-million to make this kind of money” number. Successful firms with 15-20 lawyers – even those in a town of 50,000 people – will have partners. Maybe even junior partners, even if they aren’t at this “average” pay level.

Oh, the politics

The political end of the conversation was actually a good thing. It turned to us vs. them and executive vs new graduate – specifically that the executive rakes it in while the new graduate struggles to find a lawyer job.

Tell me, if you worked your tail off for a decade after going to college for seven years, would you expect to make what a new grad makes? Would you expect to make what the manager of a successful local restaurant makes? Probably not. When you make partner, you get a percentage of the firm’s profits in part because you are responsible for producing your fair share of them. Responsibility.

Today’s law graduates are probably looking forward to that juicy partner salary, as they should. Unlike the made-for-TV movie where junior graduates on Friday and starts at $200K with a glass-walled office on the following Monday, the “average” new law grad is reportedly in a tough market, according to a June 2012 story in the WSJ.

What prompted me to write about this situation was the assertion that it is a “bad time” to graduate from law school and pass the bar.

In my mind, it’s a great time. Better than next year. Better than the year after that. Frankly, there’s never a bad time to pass the bar, given the gatekeepers that depend on checking that box.

It’s a bad time to be average

I do agree that it is a bad time for some things. It’s certainly a bad time to be an “average” law school graduate. Not because there are 18 quadrillion lawyers and the world doesn’t need another one. Not at all. The world could probably use thousands more great ones. What we don’t need is another average one.

Just like we don’t need another average anything else. Today, “average” means you’re going to struggle.

What else is it a bad time for? It’s a bad time to be average. At ANYTHING. Note: Don’t confuse average with inexperienced.

The conventional wisdom is that it’s also a bad time to start a business. Either the economy is bad or you should just be happy you have a job and wait things out rather than working toward getting a better one or egads, starting a business on the side. Waiting is comfortable. It’s easy.

Yet if you wait, a year from now you won’t be any closer to having that business. Hopefully you’ll still have the job.

The conventional wisdom says “Wait.”

It seems to make sense. “Don’t start something now when the economy is down and the holidays are coming.” Will the economy be better in a year? You have no idea. Oh, but there’s an election coming, so you should wait. Except that there’s another election after that.

Next year, all the people who are starting to look at buying what you would be selling will already have their first vendor. Taking someone away from another vendor is harder than being their first vendor, even if their current vendor isn’t making them happy.

Next year, you’ll have the same job and the same excuses (or corollaries to them) and your biggest regret will be that you didn’t start last year.

It is a bad time for one other thing. It’s a bad time to wait.

Are yours simple, long-lasting and personal?

Think about the connections that you have with your clients.

Are they simple, long-lasting and personal?

Or are they laborious, fragile and distant?

If your customers have to deal with a laborious or impersonal process for *anything*, just stop it. Now.

People have enough complexity and hassles in their lives. They need more simple, hassle-free things.

Help them, don’t harass them

Recently I called my cable/internet provider. It went something like this: Call, press 15 digits (my account number), then get put into a phone queue, then get asked for the account number I had just keyed in (Why?).

Once I got a real person (which wasn’t long), it took 45 minutes to cancel two services and replace one of them with another service from the same company. During that process, I twice spent 15 minutes talking to two different people, both times trying to get a word in edgewise just to say “No, thank you.”

Not once was I asked why I replaced the service that was moving elsewhere. Seems like info they’d care about.

The problem wasn’t the time to move things around. It was the lack of concern, even scripted concern. Instead I got hassle and complexity – a product no one would take for free, given the choice.

The first step to a cure might not be so obvious.

Hire better.

The thing that makes your work more personal and of higher quality than anyone else’s is the quality of your staff. Someone who takes their work personally is more likely to deliver something that someone really wants to use in a way that they appreciate.

Think about your last hire. Did you scan resumes with a keyword search on MonstrousEmploymentSite.com? I’m sure they have some great candidates, but you’re going to work up a sweat sifting through that haystack to find the sharpest needles. While I like technology, I’m the first to admit that my laptop is a terrible judge of character.

Hire better…Qualify, Read and Ask.

Anyone can scan resumes with an OCR program and look for keywords. Is that how the best companies find their smartest and most productive staff? Doubtful.

While you can post buzzword-filled ads on automated employment sites rather than working your network, but that’s likely to turn up the best keyword stuffers rather than the right person for the job. Unless the job is specialized, you might find yourself wading through 2000 applicants. Do you have time for that?

Instead, try qualifying candidates *prior* to accepting a resume, much less doing telephone or in-person interviews. Use meaningful steps that communicate their ability to fit into your staff and do the job, regardless of the position.

While you could run a 15 minute automated background check with an employment credit report, is that really all that matters when you’re about to hire someone at minimum wage who will lock up at night?  Are they really the “right person”? While no one is going to give you the name of a reference who would talk poorly of their friend or former co-worker to be, the right conversation can make all the difference in who you hire.

The effort that shows you care, again and again

Rather than hire for attitude and train for aptitude, do you fill positions at minimum wage with anyone whose scanned resume fills the proper number of checkboxes? Is it any surprise that you’re soon griping about the attitude and work habits of someone hired with that level of carelessness?

We admire companies like Apple for their innovation of obvious things, but we ignore the effort and investment they make in their hiring process. Maybe you can’t spend the same amount of time and money that an Apple or Microsoft invests in the hiring process, but you can invest a little time. They do this *despite* the number of people they employ and the time cost it incurs because they know how important the right people are to their success.

For our highest-value positions, we still work our networks, ask for the opinions of our high-value employees and create a gauntlet that must be navigated before we hire someone *that* important.

Imagine the difference if you did that more often vs. just “finding a warm body”.