(Editor’s Note: Verne Harnish authored this article in the first-person voice of Michael Mahoney).

"We got our man!” I exclaimed when we finally hired for the number two executive position at Brittenford Systems, Inc., the company I founded and currently lead.

By applying more rigors to our hiring process, we attracted over 250 quality resumes for this executive position. And we are finding that everyone is more confident throughout the hiring process and our hiring success rate has improved dramatically.

Perhaps most importantly, we discovered that the process itself is a great sales tool. Candidates, who often have little information upon which to measure prospective employers, extrapolate a great deal from our hiring process, seeing it as the mark of a great place to work and a challenge to which they respond positively.

So did we manage to really improve our hiring process? It turns out I revamped this whole process based on strategies out of Brad Smart’s book, Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching, and Keeping the Best People. In addition, I utilized Smart’s interactive DVD-based toolkit, co-created with his son Geoff Smart, to train my management team on how to establish and implement the rigorous Topgrading hiring process.

To make this happen, I knew I needed to use Topgrading principles but create a system specifically tailored to the culture and values of my company. What follows is the step-by-step process we developed and implemented within our company:

1) Create a detailed job scorecard that defines the performance objectives for the position using the scorecard format outlined in Topgrading (the DVD includes an interactive scorecard wizard for creating the form). Our scorecard includes the company’s core values, the competencies for the specific position, and the results we need the person to achieve.

2) Deploy Topgrading’s Predictive Index (PI), which is a specific personality profile developed and used in the early screening process.

3) Create a detailed job advertisement (ad) incorporating the information from steps 1 and 2. The opening paragraph asks questions drawn from the ideal PI we are seeking and is targeted to attract or repel candidates accordingly. The ad also includes a summary of the performance scorecard and generally weaves in key core values. Anyone responding should know exactly what the job requires and whether they are a reasonable fit.

My latest search, to be sure, was probably my most critical yet – hiring the right number two for my company. The ad for this position had a different touch than conventional job ads and had exactly the intended effect of giving me higher quality candidates very attracted to the position.

4) Develop a list of phone screen and interview questions drawing from the competency questions outlined in the Topgrading book. These include the standard four questions the Smart's recommend and additional questions my team has identified on our own.

5) Once resumes start pouring in from the recruiting process, administer an online behavioral personality survey for select candidates. Then we compare survey results and resumes with the profiles from the first four steps. This phase screens out 70 percent of candidates.

6) Conduct a ten to twenty minute screening interview over the phone using questions from step 4. For successful candidates, we lay out the rest of the interviewing process. This step weeds out another 15 percent of candidates.

7) Conduct a sixty to ninety minute individual office interview with the hiring manager. This weeds out another 10 percent of candidates.

8) Hold team office interviews (2/3 day), consisting of a series of thirty to forty-five minute one-on-one interviews with four to six stakeholders for the position. We assign each person a competency to evaluate (e.g., business development or operations management). The idea is to avoid a series of shallow, repetitive interviews (“So, tell me about yourself”) and instead enable us to assemble a solid profile based on the compilation of several deep, competency-specific interviews. We also review the job scorecard with the candidate. This step weeds out another 2-3 percent of candidates, leaving us with 2-3 percent of the original applicant pool.

9) Hold a Topgrading Chronological In-Depth Structured (CIDS) office interview (two and a half hours) with each of the finalists. The new Topgrading DVD, it should be noted, has been invaluable for prepping my team for these crucial interviews.

10) Conduct at least five reference checks for each finalist. These references are extracted from the CIDS interview process using the TORC (Threat of Reference Check approach). In addition, the actual calls to the references are scripted according to the Topgrading process.

11) Give each finalist a homework assignment related to the position to get a sense whether the person is a self-starter and is willing to roll up their sleeves and work for the job. For Brittenford’s sales rep positions, we ask for a written personal plan for their first 30/60/90 days. For a managing director position, we ask finalists to complete the primary components of the Gazelles’ One-Page Strategic Plan. We give the candidate a blank One-Page Plan template and the instructions. My team fills in the core values and rules and asks the candidate to complete the rest of the Plan for the group they’ll be leading as managing director.

This might sound like overkill but it does several things. This step brings to the surface any expectations gaps. These might include: Are applicants generally aligned on where Brittenford is going? Have they been listening? Do they have original ideas to contribute? It also tells me whether the candidate is able to ask good, challenging questions in order to complete the assignment.

12) Do a background check on credit, criminal history, etc. This costs less than one hundred dollars and is inexpensive insurance to uncover any potential problems.

13) Make a decision and offer. Clearly if a candidate makes it through this process it's worth paying them appropriately to entice them to join the firm.

14) Last, after they agree to join, have the new employee do a first-day drug screening. An oral swab, non-invasive test can be done in the office, and costs around twenty-five dollars.

All told, here are some of the lessons I learned in this process:

  • While job boards are great, circulating a good job ad to your personal network is just as valuable if not more.
  • A small company with a good story is much more appealing to senior folks than I realized. We really can hire top notch folks if we aim for them.
  • Our rigorous and structured interview process is itself a great selling tool. I tell candidates up front they need to be willing to go through it, and the top candidates are turned on by the challenge and respect our selectivity. It’s amazing to me how many of them say most companies they interview with make the decision on one or two short and loosely structured office visits.

As for the results from our latest critical search, the process was absolutely, undeniably a success. The objectives of the process were to filter quickly through candidates and raise the probability of success for the one we chose. To that end, the process worked exceptionally well.

So, the big question left begging here may be: is our new employee a success? The fact is I am so jaded by my past mistakes that I have to withhold judgment until he’s had time to deliver the goods. He’s in his first three months, and so far he’s doing very well and has my confidence. But here’s the good news – he is exactly what I expected him to be. By the time we made the decision, I knew his strengths and weaknesses and was prepared to adjust accordingly. There are no surprises here. We know him and he knows us. That alone is cause for a small celebration.

© 2006 Verne C. Harnish. All rights reserved.

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  • Verne C. Harnish CEO Gazelles, Inc.
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