Are You Hiring the Right People?

By Ann Rhoades, president of People Ink, a culture-change consulting firm.

Are you hiring the wrong people? In many cases, the “wrong” people are hired because entrepreneurs fail to create a conscious culture from the start. In the struggle for growth and profit, your culture may have grown up without much conscious thought devoted to the attributes that employees bring to the job that will contribute to long-term success. Your culture may now be something that actually makes it harder for your company to be successful.

We were very lucky at JetBlue, where I was one of the founding executives, in that we were able to create a culture from scratch. We sat in a room—there were only 10 of us at the time—and asked, “What do we want JetBlue to do, and what do we want to stand for?” We wanted a set of values through which we could consider every decision. So we said, “Let’s not put a huge mission statement on the wall, something that no one, including ourselves, is ever going to be able to repeat. Let’s have something unique but very simple.” We decided to build values around the theme of “bringing humanity back to air travel.”

“If your culture doesn’t reflect what people think about and spend their time on, you have a sick culture,” notes JetBlue chairman Joel Peterson, who is also a lecturer on leadership and entrepreneurship at Stanford. “One of my entrepreneurship students, who already had his own business and was busy growing it, said, ‘I don’t need a culture in my business—we’re growing fine.’ And my students (I was so proud of them) said, ‘You already have a culture, one that reflects your disdain for your culture and your people.’ He had to agree that what they were saying was true.”

As I recommend in my book, Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture that Outperforms the Competition, the best values to build a good culture around  and use to hire great employees are simple values. You should have no more than five to seven stated values or people will not remember them. When  organizations are built around those conscious values—and behaviors that support those values—employees will behave the right way almost automatically. Flight attendants who have a belief in “fun” as a JetBlue value are relaxed and playful with customers every day without thinking about it.

As a result of going through the values-setting process at several companies, I began to recognize that you can, in fact, create a model where you can hire excellent people on purpose. It involves studying the people who are outstanding employees (A Players) and discovering the values and attributes they bring to the job. (If you’re just starting to hire people, think about what traits you would want someone to possess based on your values or what you like or dislike about the service at your competitors.)  Uncovering whether prospective employees possess those values and attributes then becomes the main goal of the interview process. 

I even recommend that A Players interview prospective co-workers because they will be able to recognize kindred spirits who will contribute to strengthening your culture.  Managers who probably never knew what specific behaviors to look for in employee interviews will be relieved that they no longer have to hire on the basis of a good-looking resume and a gut feeling.

In a values-based interview, for example, you wouldn’t ask people to tell you their strengths and weaknesses; you’d ask them to tell a story. We advise hospital clients, for example, to include a question about how prospective employees saved a life or changed an outcome for the better by telling the truth to superiors, regardless of consequences. If one of your values is integrity and the prospective employee can’t think of an example in which she told the truth even when her job was at risk, she’s probably not a good match.

Len Trainor, founder and CEO of Heritage Home Health Care, tells the story of a woman he would definitely have hired before the company went through the Built on Values process. After her interview, Trainor says, his reaction was “I like her—we hit it off.” But he also recalled, “She rambled a lot and couldn’t give a complete story of handling a crisis with a patient from start to finish. It was obvious the situation was never resolved to the satisfaction of the patient, and we didn’t hire her. But we would have in the past because I liked her so much, personally.”

Ann Rhoades is the author of Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture that Outperforms the Competition. She was one of the five founding executives of JetBlue Airways; Chief People Officer for Southwest Airlines; and Executive Vice President of Team Services at Doubletree and Promus Hotel Corporations. Today, she continues to serve on the Board of Directors at JetBlue.

Read our recent Q&A with Ann!

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