The Voice of the Underdog®
Years ago, one of my partners gave me an analogy for hiring that has always stuck with me. He said, imagine you’re starting a company and that your starting pool of talent is represented by a can of white paint. In your mind, every person you hire to build your company is perfect for their position. In your mind, each one has great talent, a great heart, a great work ethic, is honest and dependable. Ideally, they are a perfect match for the culture and company you’re trying to build.
Each new person you hire represents a drop of paint. When you add someone who is not a good fit, not consistent with company values, not committed to the mission, and not a team player, it’s like adding a drop of blue, or green, or red to your white bucket of paint. A bad hire can color everything. How many drops of white paint do you have to add to undo the effects of adding just one inconsistent drop?
In sharing this analogy over the years, some people have tried to make it about race, or gender, or criticized that it championed a lack of diversity. Those people are missing the point. Of all businesses, advertising agencies and marketing firms need more diversity of all types — be it ethnic, gender, orientation, or cultural background. Those things give us added perspective, a larger group of world views, and move us closer to collective wisdom. That kind of diversity is both great and necessary.
But when it comes to building an extraordinary culture based on shared values, I would argue diversity – deviation from the moral, ethical, and authentic foundation on which you’re building your company – is not a good thing. In fact, nothing will destroy your efforts faster than hiring the wrong people and trying to force them into a system that doesn’t fit them. The hire who is culturally incongruent with the vision you’re trying to deliver is the one hire you absolutely cannot make.
Imagine taking a condescending, arrogant person and putting them behind the Genius Bar at the Apple Store.
Imagine putting a self-centered stick-in-the-mud on the front lines at Southwest Airlines.
Imagine Disney hiring someone who hated children.
There is nothing about these scenarios that make the least bit of sense. And yet every day advertising agencies, marketing firms, media companies, digital agencies, and every other kind of company hire people who are completely incongruent with their values and culture. It’s a decision with no chance for long term success.
Remember the first step in Jim Collins’ classic book “Good to Great?” Get the right people on the bus. Only then can your agency or company uniformly deliver on your values. How important is that?
Last week, based on the actions of one manager in one store in one city, Starbucks shut down 8,000 locations to do an afternoon of anti-bias training. Admittedly, the situation in Philadelphia that triggered everything got international attention and begged for a response. But there were plenty of responses that wouldn’t have cost Starbucks an estimated $12 million. Why do it?
Because Starbucks understands there is way more at stake here than $12 million.
Business author Patrick Lencioni has penned a number of fantastic books about leadership and management over the years including “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team,” “The 5 Temptations of a CEO,” “Getting Naked,” and “Death by Meeting.” But one of my favorites in his professional canon is a title called “The Ideal Team Player” that offers great guidance for hiring well.
In the book and on his website, Lencioni lists three virtues that hold the sweet spot for hiring the ideal team player – being humble, hungry, and smart. The intersection of the three is where you’ll find the “ideal team player.”
Here’s how Lencioni defines those virtues.
“Ideal team players are humble. They lack excessive ego or concerns about status. Humble people are quick to point out the contributions of others and slow to seek attention for their own. They share credit, emphasize team over self, and define success collectively rather than individually.
“Ideal team players are hungry. They are always looking for more. More things to do. More to learn. More responsibility to take on. Hungry people almost never have to be pushed by a manager to work harder because they are self-motivated and diligent. They are constantly thinking about the next step and the next opportunity.”
“Ideal team players are smart. They have common sense about people. Smart people tend to know what is happening in a group situation and how to deal with others in the most effective way. They have good judgment and intuition around the subtleties of group dynamics and the impact of their words and actions.”
Humble, hungry, and smart.
“They define success collectively”… “never have to be pushed”… “good judgment and [understand] the impact of their words and actions.”
Sounds a lot like Pixar. And Disney. And Zappos. And Nordstrom. And a number of other extraordinary cultures that are consistently listed among the most admired companies in America. And not surprisingly, the places where everyone wants to work.
So how do they find those kinds of people? Part of it is clearly attraction. People want to work for great companies. But even then, with so many applicants wanting to get hired, how do these companies consistently end up with the best team members?
You can be the greatest square peg in the world, but if we’re a round hole company, the best thing we can possibly do is say no … And then pick up the phone and call our friends at the square peg company.
Since the year 2000, LOOMIS has accomplished a number of things that made us super proud. We’ve been a Top 25 advertising agency. And then a Top 10 advertising agency. We’ve been one of the Best Places To Work In Dallas numerous times. We were an Adweek Advertising Agency of the Year, won Best In Show at a national ad show, and had one of our commercials spoofed on “Saturday Night Live.” But despite all of those things, I think what I’m most proud of as the LOOMIS President is the quality of people we’ve added to our team over the years. At one point, the average tenure for our employees was more than 12 years. We’ve hired well.
Like every company, we’ve had our misses. But when we did, it was always with the best of intentions. We’ve utilized Lencioni’s model for finding “The Ideal Team Player,” as well as questionnaires from DISC, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, and others. We’ve taken our ideal employees and tried to find people just like them. We’ve tried to gauge IQ, EQ, and every other Q, and each time we made a bad hiring decision it always came down to the same thing: the person was not a good fit for the culture we had created.
When compared with experience, education, accomplishments, and accolades, “bad cultural fit” can seem like a minor, secondary reason not to hire someone. But I assure you, it’s the one metric that will derail your vision and your corporate chemistry faster than any other.
Whether you’re hiring someone straight out of school, or need a veteran with years of experience, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years that have helped us find not just the right people, but the right people for us:
ALWAYS CALL REFERENCES
This may seem basic, but you would be shocked by how many companies fail to take the time to make reference calls. Most of the time they’re pretty easy and yield few surprises. But every now and then, a reference call generates vital information you never would have gotten otherwise. Information that can either frame why the candidate is wrong for the position or give you great insight into how to better support the person once they are hired. Here’s a great article from the Harvard Business Review on Reference Calls.
PREPARE TO ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Often, interviewers fail to do meaningful preparation before meeting a prospective hire. Whether the person being interviewed can tell or not (they probably can), lack of prep will leave you asking the wrong questions or, at very least, guessing or winging it. Before the interview, think about what information you want to uncover and plan your questions accordingly. Start by asking open-ended questions that put the candidate at ease. Ask about their background. Ask questions related to the position you’re trying to fill and why the candidate thinks they are the best fit. But don’t stop with the job.
ASK QUESTIONS RELATED TO YOUR CULTURE
Remember the paint analogy? You are considering someone to mix into your carefully curated culture for years to come, if not decades. What information do you need to know about that person to confirm they will be a fit? Intellectually? Professionally? Emotionally? “Can they do the job” is clearly the first question to ask. But a quick number two is, “Can they thrive in our culture and embody our values?” If the answer is no, they’re not the right hire.
ASK ENOUGH QUESTIONS
Don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions. There are high-end, C-level interviews that take multiple days. While you don’t need to interview an entry-level candidate for nine hours, do take the time to ask the crucial questions you need answered. That starts with doing adequate preparation and knowing which questions are generic, vacuous wastes of time and which will cut to who the candidate is, what they’re capable of, and how committed they will be to the vision you’re building.
GIVE THEM A QUICK ASSIGNMENT – AND PAY THEM
If you think it would be helpful to see the candidate in action, and it’s appropriate to the job, ask if they’d be willing to complete a quick assignment from home. Have them write a brief. Or a :30 radio spot. Come up with 3-5 digital media suggestions based on the brief you give them. Pay them $100 to complete it and give them adequate time to complete it – say 24 to 48 hours. Serious candidates will lean into the assignment and show you something while others will do the bare minimum, which also tells you all you need to know. Offering to pay them shows you’re fair, serious, and not taking advantage of the situation.
SHARE THE RESPONSIBILITY WITH YOUR INNER CIRCLE
One of the smartest things we’ve done over the years when hiring for LOOMIS is sharing the interviewing responsibility with others who will be working with the candidate. Rather than holding interviews in secret and having someone show up to join the team cold on day one, we invite members of our team from varying levels of management to meet candidates we’re interested in, whether it’s talking with them for 10-15 minutes, conducting a full interview, or taking them to lunch in a more casual, fun, “get to know you” kind of setting. We meet as a team beforehand to discuss our game plan for the hire and then catch up afterward to discuss our impressions. As management, you will most likely make the ultimate decision, but getting input from your team is imperative and shows you care as much for them as you do about the new person you’re bringing in.
Nobody likes being in an uptight environment and sitting on pins and needles. Make the candidate feel relaxed and comfortable and, as an interviewer, be the same. Good candidates will use your level of comfort as a guide, and if you’re relaxed that will help them relax as well. Sharp people are sharp people, but setting them at ease will net better answers and foster a more authentic and valuable interview.
If you’re looking for a deeper dive into great interviewing techniques, how to prep for your interview, which questions to ask, and how to avoid the questions that legally you shouldn’t ask, Monster offers a fantastic set of more than 25 articles on their website that cover just about everything. Take a look.
MIKE SULLIVAN is the president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, read other posts from our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog
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