Employer Branding, Engagement

RecruitCon 2018 Keynote Speaker Explains How HR Managers Can Hire the BEST Employees

In a recent episode of HR Works: The Podcast for Human Resources, best-selling author and consultant Bob Kelleher walks us through how a company goes about figuring out the types of people who succeed in its cultures, as well as the behaviors and traits that matter in the organization—and how to determine whether a candidate has those characteristics.


Source: Athitat Shinagowin / iStock / Getty

Note: This episode was recorded live at BLR’s RecruitCon conference in Nashville, where Kelleher was a keynote presenter. RecruitCon 2019 will take place in Austin, Texas, next May. Learn more at http://live.blr.com/event/recruitcon.

Steve B.:  Engagement and retention: We’ve covered these twin topics many times, generally agreeing that if you have an engagement problem, you’ll have retention problems, as well as productivity issues, morale issues, and so on. Today’s guest, Bob Kelleher, has a different perspective. He says in most companies with which he has consulted, it’s not an engagement problem—it’s a hiring problem.

Steve B.: We’re speaking with Bob live from BLR’s RecruitCon Conference in Nashville, where he’s presenting a keynote presentation on this issue. Bob is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and consultant who travels the globe sharing his insights on employee engagement, leadership, and workforce trends. He’s the author of best-selling books Louder Than Words, Ten Practical Employee Engagement Steps That Drive Results, Creativeship: A Novel for Evolving Leaders, Employee Engagement for Dummies, and the just-released I Engage Your Personal Engagement Roadmap.

He can be seen or heard on national media, most recently on CNBC, CBS, NBC News, Business Week, Forbes, and Fortune. He’s presented to the leadership teams of many of the world’s top companies, including Prudential, Lockheed Martin, Dana Farber, Cumberland Farms, Gulf, The Cheesecake Factory, Dale Carnegie, and Silk Road. He’s also the founder and president of the Employee Engagement Group, a global survey, products, and consulting firm working with leadership teams to enhance their leadership and employee engagement effectiveness.

Formerly, Bob was the CHRO for Aecom, a Fortune 500 global professional services company, and the CHRO and COO for ENSR, a 3,000-employee global consulting firm. Bob, welcome to HR Works.

Bob K.: Well, thank you, Steve. I am delighted to be here, and I’m delighted to partner again with BLR®. You folks are just terrific. And the fact that we’re in Nashville makes it even extra special, so thank you for having me.

Steve B.: It’s better and better. Thank you. So, a lot of employers that think they have an engagement issue actually have a hiring problem. Have I got that right?

Bob K.: Yeah. It’s funny, Steve. I’ve learned as an internal practitioner, as well as my years now consulting and working with some of the world’s largest and smallest organizations, that folks think that they have retention issues; they put in leadership development programs, they do engagement surveys, and often, when you really drill down, you find out that they’re simply hiring the wrong people to work for their culture—or at least to succeed within their culture.

Steve B.: Sam Walton I think is credited with saying, “It’s all about who you let in the door.”

Bob K.: Absolutely. And it’s funny: If you aren’t considered a top employer, or if your Glassdoor ranking is low, or if you’re in crisis hiring all the time where you find that you have to hire the only candidate who you’re interviewing, you’re just going to be continuing to exasperate the problem. Because now you’re just hiring to put a butt in the seat, not hiring a true behavioral and trade match to your organization. And the companies that do it do it remarkably well, and they usually don’t have any kind of engagement or retention issue.

Steve B.: So, you offer the BEST profile for selection and hiring, and it stands for behavior, education, skills, and traits. So, how does this help managers in their evaluation of candidates?

Bob K.: Yeah. Thank you for bringing that up, Steve. This is an acronym that I actually came up with back when I was a corporate employment manager back in the 1980s because we found that our managers focused so much on hiring for education, experience, and skills that they weren’t putting enough emphasis in the “B” and the “T,” which are the behavior and the traits.

If you think about it, you can look at someone’s résumé pretty easily and see his or her experience and skills. But after doing some soul searching, we wondered, “Why don’t people succeed organizationally?” Or, “Why do people have great success organizationally?” We concluded it’s not the skill set they have; it’s not really the education that they might have. So for instance, you generally don’t fire an accountant because the accountant can’t add. You generally will fire the accountant because he or she is arrogant, he or she is not a team player, he or she has absentee issues, or he or she doesn’t have customer service orientation.

So, how can organizations do a better job of first identifying what the behaviors and traits are that define their culture and how you build in behavioral-based interviewing so you can extract those behaviors and traits specific to your organization? And once you do that, you’ll see that you’re now mapping your applicant pool and your candidates more to the types of people you should be hiring.

So, for instance, think of Southwest Airlines. It’s such a simple case study. When I fly Southwest, I see that it’s more of a fun, kind of whimsical flying experience than if I fly United or American. That’s not by accident. Part of its culture is fun and humor. And because of this, it has behavioral-based interviewing. Whether you’re an airline pilot, a ticket agent, etc., it’s looking for people who have that sense of humor, that kind of whimsical trait, because that’s its brand, right? So people are more apt to stay with Southwest if they have that type of personality trait that succeeds within the Southwest franchise.

Steve B.: So, how does a company, then, go about figuring out the types of people who are going to succeed? What behaviors, specifically, does it want, and what traits does it want?

Bob K.:  Yeah. Here is a really simple exercise that I often work with leadership teams on. And really, anyone can practice this. If I’m doing a facilitation of a leadership team of, say, 15 people, I’ll ask all 15 to stand by a flip chart page, and I’ll ask them to work in isolation and to come up with the names of 10 superstar employees who don’t work within their area of focus. Then, I’ll watch the room and watch them all writing down names. Then, I’ll ask them to take a step back, and I will, as the facilitator, circle the room, and I will start circling the names that appear on multiple flip charts. And it’s amazing how many redundancies you see when you go through this very, very simple exercise.

And then, I’ll get a blank flip chart page and say, okay, let’s look at the names of the people who were circled. What do they have in common? Because these are the stars who have been noted by the people in this room. And then you start extracting, really, some fascinating subsets of behaviors and traits they share. Then you sit back and say, okay, in some ways, we just did a really simple exercise on your employer value proposition. This is really your brand. What you need to do now is find more people out in the applicant pool who share these behaviors and traits. And what types of questions should people be asking?

We’ve developed hundreds of behavioral-based interview questions that we’re able to map; these are the behaviors you should be looking for in people who are in sales positions, for example. Or, these are the behaviors you should be looking for in people who are in positions of people management, project management, and then, so, that’s kind of a subset. But at the macro level, what are the behaviors and traits that identify the top people in your organization? It really helps people figure out their employment brand.

These simple steps will help you kind of realize, okay, I’ve been interviewing people just based on the skills or maybe the experience they have. I need to be asking very, very different questions that align with the types of people who seem to succeed here at our organization.

Steve B.:  Now, just from a few minutes, I can see why people seek your help because it’s simple and practical.

Bob K.: Yeah. And that’s probably the difference that I’ve brought over the years. You know, there are some fascinating and great academics out there who are lifelong consultants. I’m not either one of them. I’ve written five books, but it comes from the practitioner’s standpoint. I’m a 30-year HR person. I spent time as the corporate talent acquisition head and the corporate head of training and development. I’ve seen that with the average department manager or the average employee, simplicity sticks. Complexity rejects.

So, the more you can offer these kinds of pragmatic tools, the more they take root inside organizations, and they work. When I write a book, I generally share the best practices. I could write a very thick book on the things that I tried that did not work. So, I try to share the things that, hey, you know, these simple, actionable things really work inside the workplace.

Steve B.:  Thanks. So, could you give us a couple examples of behaviors and traits for high-performing and then low-performing individuals?

Bob K.: Yeah, it’s funny. There’s some very unique behaviors and traits that define brands, right? So, if you think of Nordstrom, you know it looks for people who have customer service in their DNA. It’s not by happenstance that I walk into Nordstrom and I see a level of customer service that I might not see in another brand, right? If you think of Timberland, it’s the outdoor boot manufacturer. It has the lowest voluntary turnover of any retail chain in the United States. And it’s because it hires people who have corporate social responsibility in their DNA because that’s its brand, right? So you see that overlap—this is our brand, and this is who we hire.

Take, for example, collaboration. Collaboration is a trait that, I don’t care if you work for GE or Southwest or Timberland, people are going to embrace. If you think of empathy, especially in people who manage other people, empathy is one of the key drivers of employee engagement. So, I would be looking at asking questions to determine if John Doe, who’s being hired into a position of a line manager, is empathetic—because we know from experience that highly empathetic managers are better managers than nonempathetic ones. I’ll often ask a group of hiring managers, “Who will have empathy as a set of competencies that you think are important?” And they don’t raise their hands because they think empathy is soft. No. That is a significant driver of employee engagement.

In 2018, I wouldn’t be hiring anyone who doesn’t have a blend of passion, a blend of curiosity, right? Because you want employees to be able to seek information, which I think is more important today than knowing information, right? My kids prove this every night at dinner. I can’t even exaggerate anymore because they’ll just take out their phones and validate what I’m saying. Or, they’re more inclined to say, “Dad, you’re exaggerating.” Because they can find information, right? So how are you hiring employees who have this curiosity that they can seek out information? And to me, those are competencies of great employees, regardless of what organization you’re in, what industry you’re in. But I think so few companies interview people to try and get these traits.

Steve B.: So, let’s say the company then defines the behaviors and traits that it wants; the next level is that you have to figure out what questions or what techniques you’re going to use. You’ve mentioned behavior-based interviewing. Is that the approach you recommend?

Bob K.: Yeah. I’m a huge fan of behavioral-based interviewing. I’m a big fan of putting together an interview strategy that is no different from putting together a proposal strategy. On the business development side, I think organizations do just an amazing job of trying to win new work, right? But when they hire someone, they often do a sloppy job of hiring.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in an interview process in which I find the applicant’s been asked the same question by four different people interviewing the applicant. How many times can you answer, “So, where do you see yourself in 5 years?” But those are the types of questions that get asked inside an interview if it’s not properly planned.

When I was an internal practitioner, we would segregate the interview folks so that they would have a certain set of questions they would be responsible for asking. They had to do prep. They had to come up with a way to extract that from the candidate and do it in a way that the candidate felt, “Wow, this was a really cool experience.” Because often, the interview process is not just a selling process from the company to try and get you to opt in; in many ways, it’s a process that gives you the opportunity to have a candidate opt out because maybe he or she doesn’t belong there, right? So you’re trying to prevent him or her from making a mistake. And often, the interview questions will allow you to let people opt in and, as important, allow them to opt out.

Steve B.: And that’s going to be for the good of the company and for the person?

Bob K.: Absolutely.

Steve B.: How about any other tools or processes that you recommend for evaluating candidates?

Bob K.: Yeah. I’m a fan of some of the behavioral-based interviewing questions, as well as some of the assessments that are out there. A predictive index is a wonderful assessment to use. It’s one of the few preemployment assessments that have been validated to use as credible hiring assessments.

The danger, however, is you shouldn’t use an assessment to make a decision to hire or not hire. It should be one of the tools you use in a well-rounded interview process. It’s a data point. It’s funny: At the end of the day, you can’t overlook one’s intuition. Do I think this person is going to be a fit in this organization? And the more you know, the more formal assessment tools you use to bring in, the more you can dull one’s intuition. And there are some people who I’ve worked with who are just brilliant at being able to have that intuitive sense that, I think this person’s going to work, even if his or her academics might not seem to be a match; they just have this sense from years and years of experience through the interview process.

The HR Works conversation will continue with Bob Kelleher in part two of this article series. Stay tuned!