Monday, August 26, 2013

Hire the Right Person, Not the Resume

Our office was looking to add a senior engineer and our engineering manager thought he had found the perfect candidate. His resume was impressive, with just the kind of experience and skills we were looking for. He interviewed with a few of our top engineers before sitting down with me, the operations manager and ultimate decision maker.

Soon after the candidate left, my colleagues who had talked with him approached me and shared their excitement about the prospect of making the hire. "He has a great resume," one said, "it will really strengthen our group." The others nodded in agreement.

"But we're not hiring a resume," I countered, "we're hiring a person. Did anyone happen to notice that he seems to be kind of a jerk?" They grudgingly had to agree. We decided to pass, even though that resume would have looked good in our proposals.

Hiring the resume rather than the person seems to be a common mistake, particularly in technical fields such as the A/E profession. We reinforce the error when we spend most of the interview asking questions about skills and experience. Not that those credentials aren't important; they're just not the most important factor in making great hires. Personal character is.

Skills can be trained and experience gained, but personal character is very difficult to change. If you believe that values such as integrity, service, commitment, initiative, and teamwork are important to your business, why would you hire people who don't possess these traits? Of course, no one purposefully ignores personal character when hiring, but most firms don't explicitly incorporate it in their hiring process.

If your firm is one of those, let me encourage you to consider the following steps:

Determine what personal character traits are most important. At one level, these should reflect your company's core values and culture. If integrity and client focus are firm values, for example, you need to hire people who have the same values. Would you really want the world's best engineer or architect if that person lacked integrity or didn't care about clients? I didn't think so. But do you ask the right questions to uncover whether candidates specifically match your firm's values and culture?

The character traits you're looking for will also relate in part to the position being filled. Taking initiative, to suggest one characteristic, will obviously be less critical for an entry-level employee than someone in a management role. In any case, the recommendation is to spend some time determining what personal character traits you want, both in general terms for all new hires and for each particular opening. 

Determine what questions will reveal the character traits you value. Obviously, you don't want to ask direct questions such as, "Do you have integrity?" and expect an accurate answer. A better approach is to vicariously put the candidate in situations that will give you a glimpse of his or her character. For example:
  • Ask about past experiences that required a principled response. Ask questions such as: "Have you ever had a client ask you to meet a deadline that you knew your firm probably couldn't meet? What did you do?" The downside of such questions is that the candidate may not have had that particular experience you are asking about or can't remember it. Therefore, it's best to ask about relatively common situations (as in the example question).
  • Create a scenario and ask the candidate how he or she would respond. If you're looking for how the candidate would deal with something less common, the best approach is to use a theoretical situation: "Imagine that your boss promised the client to meet a schedule that you know is impossible. What would you do?"
Behavior- or values-based questions like these are far more useful in assessing the person than the usual resume-oriented inquiries such as: "Can you tell me about your experience working with railroad fueling facilities?" Again, resume questions have their place in the interview, but shouldn't crowd out critical questions about what kind of person it is that you're considering hiring.

Pay attention to body language. Obviously, the verbal responses you receive to your questions are only part of the answer. I don't claim to have expertise in reading body language (and you probably don't either), but there are a few things that most of us can detect that at least raise alarms. Watch facial expressions: Does the candidate seem eager to answer your question or is there a hint of annoyance or dismissiveness? Notice the eyes: Does he or she look away when answering (suggesting a less than honest reply)? It can be helpful to have a couple of people present for the interview, one asking most of the questions and the other focusing on both the verbal and nonverbal responses.

Formalize your interview process. In most A/E firms, there is more attention given to what questions not to ask than which to ask. The structure of the interview is typically left up to individual hiring managers. That may work with a traditional qualifications-based approach, but won't succeed if you want to start hiring for certain personal characteristics and values.

I recommend developing a standard interview checklist or questionnaire that can be readily modified for position- or department-specific needs. Provide training both in how to use this in a new values-based approach and how to generally conduct more effective interviews. As business picks up and you're hiring again, focusing on people versus just resumes will help you build a sustainable competitive advantage.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Brand Strategy: The Foundation of a Successful Brand

I'm pleased to welcome Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D., Managing Partner at Hinge, as my first guest poster to my blog. Hinge is one of my go-to resources for excellent articles, ebooks, and surveys related to professional service firm marketing.

How do your clients and prospects perceive your firm? How visible are you in the marketplace?

You may be surprised by the answers.

To find out how buyers perceive and select service providers, we conducted a study of 522 buyers and 822 sellers on How Buyers Buy professional services. We looked at five industries, including A/E, to understand what factors are most important to buyers and how buyers view a firm's brand. 

A firm's brand is its biggest asset. But how do you define a brand? Think of it this way: Your brand is the combination of your reputation x visibility. It goes without saying that you can have a stellar reputation, but being unknown in the marketplace does little good for building your brand. Conversely, visibility across all marketing channels (from traditional to online) with a weak reputation behind it will not win new business. You need both.

Achieving a strong, sustainable brand is not easy. Start by developing and implementing a brand strategy. Here are 5 ways:

1. Break from the pack. A successful brand stands for something fundamental—an underlying bedrock idea that at every turn supports the firm's image. This foundation is called positioning, and without it a brand has no traction. Positioning captures a brand's essence, while elevating it above the fray so target audiences will notice. To be noticed, your brand's positioning must:
  • Be different. Determine what differentiates your firm. Do you specialize in certain services? Publish exceptional research? Or target specific industries? Whatever it may be, when competitors head in one direction, veer down a different path.
  • Be focused. Many companies expand their service offerings to attract more customers. But trying to be everything to everyone is nearly impossible. Instead, find a niche and specialize what you offer.
2. Create valuable content and give it away. Many professional service firms miss the boat when it comes to providing educational content. Yet our research shows that's exactly what buyers value. Use this notion and develop a reputation as an expert in your industry. In addition to traditional ways of reaching prospects (through writing trade articles, speaking engagements, participating on conference panels), embrace online venues (blogs, social networks, webinars) to share your thought leadership.

3. Get personal. Why should a firm's personality be any different when working with current clients versus trying to attract new ones? Instead of blending in with the crowd, let in a little color.
  • Ask for and use customer testimonials that speak to how you work with clients, rather than solely what you accomplished.
  • Keep technical jargon to a minimum on your website. Keeping a friendly, informal voice will make it easy for prospects to understand what you do and how you can help solve their challenges.
4. Make promises and keep them. When we asked buyers what they want to avoid in a service provider, the number one answer was "broken promises" (32%). Additionally, "delivering on promises" was the most significant factor for customer loyalty to a firm (21%). This was more important to customers than an existing relationship (18%) and previous experience working with that firm (11%). Be who you say you are. Deliver what you promise. If you don't, your reputation will soon reflect it.

5. Give your brand a check-up. When developing a brand strategy, make sure your brand image is not dated. Look at your website—does it reflect your positioning accurately? Your logo, tagline, and even your company name may also need tweaking. It's critical to develop the tools that represent who you are, communicate your new brand, and shape your reputation.

Your brand is the image you present to the world. Harness the power behind a brand strategy and your firm will be on the path to attract the best clients, most talented team, and strongest business partners.

For more tips on building and implementing a strong brand, check out our Brand Building Guide for Professional Services.

Hinge specializes in branding and marketing for professional services, and is a leader in rebranding firms to help them grow faster and maximize value. You can reach Lee at 703-391-8870.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Your Greatest Recruiting Assets

When it comes to competing for clients and contracts, most A/E firms have a good sense of their relative competitive assets—and their liabilities. But what about in the competition for talent? Do you know how your firm stands relative to competitors in this critical area? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?

Firms are hiring again as the economy continues its slow recovery. And I'm starting to hear the old refrain again, "We're having trouble finding good people." While there's some debate about it, demographic trends suggest a worsening shortage of technical professionals in the years ahead. So as growth returns and more boomers exit the workforce, your firm's ability to compete for talent grows in importance.

So what assets are particularly crucial for success in recruiting top talent?

A recruiting culture. There are two essential pipelines for supplying sustained company growth and prosperity: (1) new clients and (2) new employees (and, of course, retaining a good share of both). In both cases, A/E firms traditionally have relied on only a handful of people to identify promising candidates and sell them on the advantages of working with their firm. In recruiting, HR typically casts the net for prospects, while hiring managers make the sale.

Just as I previously recommended creating a "rainmaking culture" where there is broad employee participation in the business development effort, I advocate engaging your staff in recruiting. Yes, most firms offer referral bonuses to encourage this, but most haven't come anywhere near taking full advantage of their employees' collective recruiting potential. It works best when a shared responsibility for attracting new talent permeates your firm's culture. That enables you to leverage the combined relationships and connections of your staff.

Your website. In all likelihood, most visitors to your website are looking for job opportunities. Is your site optimally designed to support your recruiting efforts? Obviously, you want to make it easy for candidates to review job postings and submit their application. You should also have information about employee benefits and advantages. The average A/E firm covers these basic requirements.

But where most firms miss the boat is giving the candidate a glimpse of the soul of their firm—its culture, work environment, values. The typical A/E firm website is a rather sterile presentation of basic information, revealing little about what it's like to work there (or to work with the firm as a client). A strong recruiting website should convey a sense of your firm's personality, making people a large part of the narrative.

Meaningful work. Of course, our work is extremely valuable. But as I've written before in this space, technical professionals often fail to connect what we do to the associated human benefits. We're sometimes more inclined to talk about the technical features of our projects than how people are helped by them. 

Increasingly, employees are looking for a greater purpose in their work than simply earning a living or completing projects. They want to make a substantial contribution to society, to have a lasting impact. This is especially true of the younger generation. Can you describe what your firm does in those terms? Let me suggest making the larger benefits of your work more prominent in your recruiting and marketing materials and discussions with candidates.

Clear opportunities for growth. Another important factor in recruiting, particularly among younger workers, is your firm's ability to provide opportunities for advancement and learning. One way candidates might assess this is to look at your current managers. Are they predominantly older men? I've worked with several firms where this was the case. That might suggest that tenure trumps talent when it comes to advancement, or that women don't have equal opportunities. If your firm's current structure sends the wrong message, be sure you can counter that with clear descriptions of career paths and opportunities for promotion.

When it comes to learning, it's far more attractive to candidates to be able to show a general curriculum for professional development at various stages of their career than to simply say you provide training. Better still is to incorporate on-the-job training and coaching, where skills are best learned. Professional development is an area where most A/E firms come up short, which provides an opening for your firm to differentiate itself.

Your firm's reputation. Your firm's reputation in the marketplace can be a huge recruiting asset, or liability. The question is: What are you doing to build your reputation? Much has been written in this space about marketing, which substantially contributes to your firm's reputation. Marketing activities such as speaking and publishing obviously make you both more visible and desirable to prospective employees. These days, your web presence plays a big role in shaping your reputation.

I mentioned the search for purpose through one's work earlier; it can also be an important part of your firm's reputation. Studies show that candidates are increasingly considering the employer's role in supporting their community, in emphasizing social responsibility as a key business goal. How does your firm stack up in being a good corporate citizen? Some firms have effectively promoted the contributions of their employees in this area, which can help your recruiting efforts as well.

You probably noticed that these recruiting assets don't come easily. They are things of substance that go beyond the usual advertising and promotion. But isn't that the nature of any real competitive advantage? If nothing else, hopefully this post will inspire you to at least make a detailed assessment of how your firm compares in the competition for talent.