Business culture Employees Hiring Small Business

At the hiring time #sponsored

Help wanted sign
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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 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

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The forgotten 25% – will they be your customers?

The “Merging Method” of Agricultural Genetic Modification – (MMAGM)
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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?

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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.

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It’s a bad time

Time Bandit
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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.

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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 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”.


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Do you and your staff swim in the deep end?

Speaks volumes about the mindset at Apple.

What mindset do you instill on their first day? What mindset do you hire for?

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The Bulletproof Superhero

When it was just you and you were a bulletproof superhero, you could remember it all.

You could look at code you wrote six months earlier and you knew exactly what it did and why you wrote it that way.

A bit of time has passed since then. Youâ??ve hired new people. Because you didnâ??t write good technical documentation back then (or didnâ??t keep it up to date), there are many mysteries about your business buried deep inside the heads of your most senior, most expensive staff.

And now, they’re being interrupted repeatedly with every new hire because the new person needs the knowledge stored in the heads of the â??old onesâ? in order to do their job and learn your business.

You want a new programmer to hit the ground running. To become as productive as possible as quickly as possible.

Think back to the last new person you hired. Remember that ramp-up period?

Now imagine hiring three or five at once. Just try to get something productive done while they are getting up to speed. You (and whoever is managing them) probably have other tasks to do, perhaps very high ROI tasks. Without strong technical, application/market and process documentation, those tasks are going to get incessantly interrupted with things that should have been documented.

Sure, you’ll get brilliant questions that you might not have foreseen. The other 912 questions likely could be answered in your internal wiki or other documentation. Or you could enjoy their visits to your office, their emails, IMs, texts and phone calls, while pondering the time they’re wasting by getting you them both out of the zone every time they have questions.

Your choice.

PS: Just because you aren’t a programmer or don’t have programmers doesn’t mean you’re immune to this.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Selma90

Howard Schultz is doing what few large corporate CEOs have done: Following up rhetoric with leadership, action and money.

While I prefer freshly-roasted beans from local roasters and rarely do Starbucks outside of airports, I will stop in this week in order to support this.

The post title? It’s inscribed on a wrist band you get if you donate $5 to the job creation fund the Starbucks Foundation started.


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Any single step can make or break you

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The process of returning my son’s iPod for warranty replacement has been interesting.

I talk to Costco customer service, now called “concierge service”. That experience was outstanding.

By the way, just calling it concierge service sets the expectation for a good experience, doesn’t it? It also means that you have to deliver.

The Costco guy connects me with Apple service and stays on the phone with me until I’m done, then confirms that I’m happy with the result.

The Apple customer service guy is just as good, and takes care of things quickly. He tells me that he will email me instructions and that I can just take the box to any UPS Store and they will pack and ship it at no charge.

Later, I go into the UPS Store and mention that I have an Apple return. I’m the only one in the store.

Before saying “Hello” or “So….UConn or Butler?”, the UPS store lady hears me say “Apple return” and says “Crrrrraaaaaaaaaap”.

After making a call, she took the box and said it’d be taken care of the next day, but the last impression I have for the moment – which also reflects on Costco and Apple – is….”crappy”.

I tweet something brief about it before leaving the parking lot and head for home. I’m not annoyed about it, mostly because I’ve come to expect stuff like this from retail businesses. I am a little surprised to hear that come from a woman – particularly one that I think is a generation older than me.


By the time I get home and settled at my desk, Lindsay with UPS Store care corporate (or a fairly smart automated bot) is on top of it and sends me a Twitter message asking me to email her with details.

12 minutes later, I get a personal reply saying they’ll take care of it.

I didn’t tweet to get support from UPS. That just happened.

The point is that they were paying attention.

Paying attention

The result of paying attention means that Lindsay’s tweet and the email that followed the detailed reply she requested turned a less-than-positive last impression into a good one.

Never forget that every interaction gives you an opportunity to either reinforce/strengthen your relationship or lose a customer.

Every. Single. One.

Stuff like this is a form of marketing that’s the most expensive you’ll ever invest in: Employees.

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Execution, Ideas and why “I need a programmer”

Design Is
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Every programmer, much less anyone who does something that startups need, has had these discussions.

However, that isn’t why it’s today’s guest post.

The thought process from idea to creation. The value of execution.

That’s why it’s a worthwhile read.