I officially entered the workforce when I was 16. Unofficially I had been working summers for at least 3 years prior. I’d hear managers and business owners complain about how hard it was to find “good people.” Initially, I understood “good people” to mean people who were reliable. That was about it. Would they show up when they were supposed to? Would they do their work reasonably well?
I never understood “good people” to mean people who’d perform at a very high level. It seemed to me they mostly just wanted people they could depend on.
Whenever the places I worked as a kid were looking for help they’d often ask the rest of us (employees), “Do you guys know anybody?” Most of us were afraid to suggest somebody for fear it’d reflect badly on us. So much for trusting our friends, huh? 😉 The problem was, we didn’t know our friends in the context of working. Sure, we could depend on them as friends. We had fun with them. But we couldn’t vouch for them showing up every single time when they were scheduled.
Such a low bar and still too high for many people to clear!
Ask any manager of a big-box retailer and they’ll likely tell you one of their daily challenges is the schedule. Daily they come to work wondering, “Who won’t show up? Or who will call in and say they can’t come in?” Having enough bodies show up to get the work done is a critical issue for every company. Never mind that the roster of employees may not be comprised of all A players. We just need enough players of any caliber.
I recall giving the name of a friend to a boss when I was in college and the only question the boss asked was, “Does he have reliable transportation?” There it is. THE major concern. Can he get to work? Can he get to work on time? Who cares if he can do much else?
I quickly learned that fogging a mirror and having reliable transportation were the top qualities every employer was searching for.
By the time I was in my mid-20’s running a company I got it. Somebody is better than nobody. So I thought. Me and just about everybody else.
For years I thought that was a retail thing. I mean when you’re running retail stores that are open for lots of hours and almost every day (or open every day), then it’s understandable. I mean look at your local Walmart store. All those hours and all that floor space, and all those check-out lanes. All those shelves need to be stocked. All those trucks need to be unloaded. All that inventory must be checked in. You get the idea. Somebody is better than nobody when you’ve got all that work needing to be done.
Seems very different if you’re running some hi-tech lab filled with folks who have highly technical skills. But it’s not.
By the time I was 30 I had figured out that we all have the same problem. Our rosters don’t look the same, but the hi-tech lab and the retail store both have the same problem. Having people available to do the work. Walmart doesn’t have many engineers or scientists on the roster ’cause that’s not who they need. The lab does. But engineers and scientists can be unreliable just like a retail clerk or stockroom person. So when you consider who we’re hiring – skill-wise – then you begin to figure out the real issue and why I grew up in the 70’s hearing bosses lament how they just needed dependable employees.
Some things never change.
I continue to hear managers and owners complain about how difficult it is to find “good people.” For years I’ve asked employers to more clearly define “good people.” Depending on the job opening I’ll almost always hear words like “integrity, honesty, dependability, trustworthiness.” The technical skills most often are just a given. It’s these other qualities that appear to be rarer. That’s always fascinated me. That such qualities could be the make or break difference in a career. But it’s been like that for as long as I’ve been working. I don’t see it changing.
I was no more than 2 years into my first big leadership role when I learned what I really needed in an employee. Thanks to older, wiser heads and putting in the work to figure it out…I learned one of the biggest leadership lessons ever before I hit 30. And I was thankful because it changed my life as an operator.
Technical prowess is a given. Depending on the business you’re in, you need certain skills and know-how. Those can be somewhat easy to assess. Does the person have the essential credentials? My son-in-law is a scientist. He’s up the food chain with the company. He has a master’s degree in chemistry. He has a verifiable work past in the industry. He has an undergraduate degree in chemistry with a math minor. The company where he now works – and where he’s worked for more than a decade – had plenty to check out before hiring him. I doubt they struggled to find out if he could handle the technical aspects of the work. They likely had a pool of people qualified, but they had to assess if some people had greater potential to perform at a high-level in these technical areas. They’re a big company and I’m certain they ran him through a series of tests and assessments. He’s proven to be a great hire. He’s been regularly promoted.
I don’t doubt his technical prowess, but I know business enough to know that he’s not been promoted for any genius he may bring. And I rather suspect he brings plenty of genius to the work. He’s a high-quality human being. He’s rock-solid dependable. He’s got the one quality everybody really needs. The one every employer is looking for above all else.
Early on in my career, I learned this is the ingredient for success. Sure, a person has to be competent for the task, but the most competent people often fail because they lack the willingness to do what needs to be done.
I stopped looking for the most brilliant people who I felt had the highest potential. Potential didn’t mean much I realized. Especially unrealized potential.
Finding people with a high degree of willingness can be tricky, but figuring it out after you hire them isn’t so tough. And I’m not talking about people willing to sacrifice their souls to work for you. I’m talking about reasonable demands required by the opening you have. I’m talking about our willingness to be candid and open with prospective hires on what need or what we think we need. Too often the willingness of the candidate is hampered because we’re often unwilling to be as candid as we need to be for fear our opening may not be attractive enough.
Show your willingness first.
Be willing to clearly define what makes for success in your company. Think like your potential hires.
If I were hired by your company I’d get busy inquiring, “What makes somebody in this company super successful? What’s the difference between them and everybody else?” I’d also be busy trying to figure out who those people are so I could learn from them.
Not everybody would do that. But you should assume they might. Go ahead and help them learn that BEFORE you think about hiring them.
At some appropriate point during the process have that conversation. Tell them what makes somebody in your company super successful. Tell them why people fail in your company. Tell them about your role in helping people reach higher performance. Be clear. Be candid. Don’t sugar coat it. If you don’t do much to help people, then don’t act as though you go to great lengths. Don’t oversell it. Far better to undersell it then have the new hire be appropriately dazzled to learn it’s better than you described.
Be a company where willing people want to work. That’s really the key to attracting and hiring willing people. You can’t fake it and succeed. Top people will quickly figure out you duped them and if they’re smart, they’ll quit. Sooner than later.
Let them show you their willingness.
By the time you hire somebody, you have a sense of what you think. You have a feeling about them. The key is to have a sense or feeling about the right things. The things that will foster success for them inside your company. I’m telling you the chief thing – once you’re figured out if they have the competence to do the work – is their willingness. If your gut questions their willingness, pass. If your gut feels like they’ve got a high degree of willingness, then advance the process.
Find ways to test their willingness. It can be something big or something subtle. It can be increasing the number of interviews. It can be asking them to do something. Put your creativity into it and figure it out. Think of it as a test to help you better figure out how willing they are to not just get the job, but to perform well at the job. Talk is cheap so make them perform something!
Let them continue to show willingness after you hire them.
From the time they’re hired – after you onboard them well (please do a great job of onboarding them) – be watchful on willingness. Encourage it. Reinforce it. Applaud it when you get it.
The moment you see it wane, confront it. Challenge it reminding them of how important it is to their success.
If unwillingness persists, end it. Quickly. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll correct it. Maybe you will, but not likely. Sure, you can take on a project if you’ve got the time and inclination. I wouldn’t, but you can do what you want. It’s your time. It’s your life. Experience has taught me that people who are unwilling only grow increasingly more unwilling. Don’t be tempted to think, “Man, if they’d just do this they could be great.” If they don’t want to “do this” then they’ll never do it. Dream on.
Willing people enjoy working with others who are also willing.
Think about yourself. Measure your own willingness. Now weigh it against the people with whom you’ve had to work in the past. Have you ever been frustrated because you’d do something while others watched? Or you’d be diligent while others were slacking off? Well, that’s how it rolls with your employees, too. So make sure you don’t tether your high achievers with unwilling, underachievers.
Be well. Do good. Grow great.