How to Hire Top-Tier Talent
A strategic approach to recruiting the best in the business

Hiring talented individuals has become the latest in a long line of routine challenges for many business leaders. Whether it is exhausting the new channels of social media or tapping old relationships in the recruiting world, firms have made it a full-time job to increase the capacity in their personnel pipelines. Too often, the pull of “just in time” labor seems to take precedence, short-circuiting the need for process discipline and strict adherence to higher standards.

The cost impact of a poor hire can be felt in many forms: budget overruns (labor inefficiencies, rework, cost mismanagement, lost change orders, poor collections, no billings, etc.); customer impact (customer attrition, customer mismanagement, personality conflicts); cultural misfit (internal friction, morale depletion); and lost expenses (training costs, “learning costs,” i.e. routine mistakes that a newer associate might make the first time).

In the end, hiring a manager that fails to make the cut can result in costs that may be double to quadruple the simple sunk costs of that person’s salary. This should be enough to scare anyone from hiring just anyone else, but the reality is that bringing on new assets is essential to every business. While hiring is only one step in the human capital cycle, it serves as a gate mechanism and should be approached with diligence and discipline.

Personnel Strategy

It is imperative that a firm answer its own personnel strategy. For instance, what is its approach to human capital? Does the firm approach its talent needs through a greenfield, farm-system model replete with rookies, or does it tend to source personnel with industry free agents? Many firms use a mix to supplement their ranks. While sourcing hardly appears to be a major crux, it will affect a firm’s overall approach toward developing its talent. For example, the training and development program that a firm institutes for seasoned free agents should be drastically different than the one designed for rookies.

The main focus should be the inculcation of talent into the firm’s philosophy and culture. While building construction skills are likely commensurate with industry tenure, there are often more ingrained behaviors that need modification.

Figure 1: Values and CompetenciesFigure 1

Another element to examine is the connectivity between the firm’s corporate values and those of the individual. There are plenty of firms that simply adorn their offices with placards espousing values, but that is where those values end. Firms would be better suited to ensure alignment in their hiring models. Figure 1 depicts a scenario that demonstrates a stricter alignment.

Most of the elements are intuitive. There are probably no examples of firms that seek out someone who is dishonest. The challenge comes when evaluating a talented candidate to ensure alignment. How does a firm hire for honesty, short of connecting a candidate to a polygraph? One avenue to explore is asking deeper questions that are focused on areas specific to core competencies. Rather than the perfunctory “tell me about your work history,” dial into these attributes, such as “tell me about a time where you had to truly demonstrate innovation.” However, superficial questions become the go-to playbook, especially when disciplined hiring goes out the window.

Competency-Based Hiring

Competency-based hiring is hardly new. In fact, Michael Lewis, author of “The Undoing Project,” explores this concept in everything from the NBA draft to analyzing talent for the Israeli military. Firms wrestle with how to drive the right line of questioning to gather meaningful results; for instance, asking a candidate to detail their vast experience is tangible when compared to asking them how they solved a difficult negotiation.

Experience, education and industry connectedness should simply serve as a filter to get to the next level of screening. For example, assuming a project manager has the applicable level of experience, the interviews focus on the intangibles. To do this effectively, the firm must define success for each position. What does the best project engineer/manager/superintendent exhibit daily that makes them successful in our environment? Figure 2 outlines some examples.

With the core competencies defined, a firm can articulate the right questions for each interview. Let’s use a project engineer position as an example:

  • Intellectual curiosity—Why did you get into the construction industry? How do you keep yourself stimulated? How do you stay up on industry trends?
  • Self-starter—What type of manager do you require? What motivates you in your work life? How do you keep yourself motivated?
  • Solution-oriented—Tell me about a project you recently completed and what you were solving for. How do you manage projects in your personal life?
  • Flexible—Describe a time where you were pulled off a project only to start a new assignment. Describe a management style that frustrates you.

Ultimately, the competency will dictate the rationale of questions. In some cases, there are no wrong answers, but seeing how the candidate responds will provide a brief glimpse into potential pain points. On the other hand, if a firm is hiring for a design-build/conceptual estimator and the candidate failed to exhibit a comfort level with a competency such as dealing with ambiguity, the answer might be obvious.

Figure 2: Org ChartFigure 2

Skill Testing

Construction organizations have begun to add various testing to their tools. DiSC, ProScan, Myers-Briggs, Predictive Index, etc. provide firms a new dynamic with which to gauge personality fit. However, how many firms use these tools to ask the right questions? For example, in the case of a “dominant” superintendent, the following questions should be added to the process:

  • Describe a situation in which a subcontractor or tradesperson let you down.
  • How did you handle the last time you had rework on a project?
  • Define a successful project manager/superintendent relationship.

On the surface, a dominant superintendent might be exactly what is required, but evaluating the depth of that dominance might ensure a cultural match. Additionally, best-in-class firms are now considering other forms of testing to ensure there is capability matching competency. Inspired by firms like Google, there is a higher value placed on case studies:

  • Scenarios—Placing the candidate in a routine situation that carefully examines how they solve problems—e.g. your project is behind schedule and has had two straight months of margin erosion. The customer has asked you to price an additional scope of work. Describe your strategy and tactics for managing this project moving forward.
  • Skill testing—Whether it is a math test for superintendents or a small mock presentation for a business development manager, the firm can grade raw skill in a safe setting.
  • Critical thinking experiments—Critical thinking tests become less about answers and more about how a candidate solves problems. For example: How many golf balls will it take to fill Wrigley Field?
  • In the end, securing the right talent comes down to your willingness to adhere to a process and stick by the results that process yields.