Nobody likes to make mistakes, particularly when it comes to important decisions. In this article, John Graham makes the point that companies should make hiring decisions based on what needs to be accomplished rather than who has specific experience within an industry. He lists and explains six guidelines every company should consider in their hiring process.

Companies today face the same daunting problem that confounds so many job seekers: The high hurdle of transferable experience.

Whether it’s an individual attempting to get a job or a company trying to break into a new market, both face the difficulty of having someone recognize the value of their knowledge and experience, even though these qualities might not be directly related to a new field or industry. Although applicants offer experience, a proven track record, and skills that are an ideal match for a particular position, they’re passed over. Why? The individual has worked in a different field.

Or consider how companies often use the Internet and other techniques for locating consultants and other vendors. Frequently, the qualification guidelines are so narrow and precise that few prospects even come close to meeting the requirements.

What’s the problem? Why not take a highly defined approach? Why not be as exact as possible? Isn’t it better to screen respondents precisely? Doesn’t such a selection process narrow the risk? Maybe –– and maybe not. Using a fine filter has the major downside of missing valuable applicants, those with experience and skills that can benefit the company.

In the same way, automatically ruling out a consultant or vendor because of a lack of direct experience in a particular industry might close the door to valuable insights and solutions.

If the narrowly defined approach were the best, then IBM should have passed on Lou Gerstner, instead of selecting him as chairman and CEO. And it’s Dr. Gerstner who is credited with turning around IBM. His CEO experience was with RJR Nabisco, a consumer products company, and 11 years with American Express and its largest subsidiary, American Express Travel Related Services.

Meg Whitman made an even more dramatic move, going from Hasbro, Stride Rite, and FTD to head eBay! Under her stewardship, eBay has become one of the world’s highest valued companies.

What’s clear is that these companies were looking for certain qualities to deal with what they understood to be key issues; and it was those objectives — not specific industry experience — that drove the selection process.

Here’s the point: You’re better served selecting employees, consultants, or vendors based on what needs to be accomplished, rather than specific industry experience. Many of those who are passed over or ruled out might very well be the right fit for your company.

To help your company broaden its perspective and take better advantage of your opportunities for solving problems, ask yourself these six questions:

1. What do we need to accomplish (rather than who do we need to get to do it)? This is a case when what looks like the wrong fit turns out to be the right one. A large agricultural company liked a marketing services firm’s thinking about the way manufacturers should relate to and support their dealers. At an initial meeting, the issues discussed focused on helping the more than 400 dealers enhance their businesses and how the marketing firm had helped companies in other industries achieve this objective.

At no point did the prospective client ask, “What other agricultural companies have you worked for?” If that question had been raised, how would the marketing firm have responded? The answer would have been “no.”

Objectives-driven selection opens the door to finding relevant solutions.

2. Who will be objective and challenge us (rather than trying to figure out who will tell us what we want to hear)? “We know what we want,” said the company’s coordinator of special projects. “You’re welcome to apply, but I want to make it clear that you must have experience in our field. We’ve had trouble in the past. We have a way of doing things.”

The tone of his comments and just the way he spoke left the members of the vendor team with the clear feeling that the “new ideas welcome” flag was not flying over that company.

Although such an approach might get a company what it wants, the chances are that it won’t get what it needs.

3. Who will give us a fresh perspective (rather than just what’s going on in our industry)? A manufacturer of quality women’s jeans wear selected a consultant to help figure out how to increase the company’s market share among independent women’s clothing stores.

Research revealed that many women don’t wear jeans or are displeased with the ones they own because of poor fit. The consultant developed a program that took advantage of the company’s support of breast cancer research. With this “try the fit, help the cause” program, the company donated $1 each time a woman tried on a pair of its jeans. This reciprocation-type program produced increased sales.

What’s interesting is that the consultant had no previous experience in the apparel field. Often someone with an outside perspective can see most clearly what needs to happen inside a business.

4. Who won’t be afraid to pull us out of our ruts (rather than just trying to make us feel good)? William Lamb is a CPA with a talent for finding and recovering monies for companies. All too many businesses pay the same bills more than once, fail to collect discounts and rebates, and even pay invoices long after service stops. Lamb’s offer is compelling: He looks for the money free of charge, and then splits recovered funds with the company. In one case, he handed over a check for $150,000.

“What a great service,” you say. “There’s no downside. It’s a winner!” Sure sounds like it, doesn’t it? Well, not to business executives who seem threatened by the painful thought that someone might hold them accountable for negligence. Even though Lamb’s professional experience suggests that many companies are bleeding tens of thousands of dollars of money every year, they refuse to close the wound.

5. Who will base their work on basic principles (rather than offering what’s in vogue at the moment)? As incredible as it might seem, far too many companies lack discipline. That’s right, just plain, basic discipline.

The near total lack of discipline is painfully obvious. This week the president suggests a new sales idea and next week there’s another one. It’s much like the little lock in Alice in Wonderland that’s constantly running from one place to another. When asked what he’s doing, he says, “I’m looking for a key to unlock me.”

Every new “how-to-increase-sales” system finds instant takers who hope that it will be the key to unlock a stream of new sales. It’s following the principles that makes the difference. There’s plenty of wreckage left over from the results of creative accounting.

It’s the same way in marketing. The cry “We need sales!” is heard every day in thousands of companies. And it’s dead wrong. What these companies need is customers –– those who want to buy. Just because you and I want to sell something doesn’t mean that someone wants to buy it.

The principle is to create customers who want what you sell. Once that happens, the sale becomes easy. Unfortunately, most companies don’t follow this basic principle.

6. Who will ask us the right questions (rather than handing us cookie cutter answers)? The president of an insurance organization met with an executive of a marketing firm. In short order, he asked, “Well, what can you do for us?” The response was interesting: “If you thought I was coming to this meeting ready to lay out the answers, I’m sorry; we start by asking questions.”

Although wanting answers might be normal, the pursuit of answers is the problem. For example, get inside almost every company and you’ll find an almost endless series of failed initiatives. The place is littered with programs and activities that stopped almost before they started and others that simply faded away because of a lack of commitment and follow-through. But there are always more to take their place.

This pervasive pattern is the direct result of basing decisions on what’s presumed to be true, personal prejudice, and unsubstantiated opinion. If someone comes up with the idea of doing radio advertising, inevitably others will come out with the stations they listen to as the ones that should be chosen. What’s so amazing is that this is the way far too many decisions are made.

Unless you ask the right questions, you’re doomed to come up with the wrong answers.

All of the above suggests that thinking too narrowly can have a negative impact on companies that want to grow. Almost every industry can suffer from the inbreeding of ideas. While we might feel more comfortable with those who speak our language and share our specific interests, the value of opening the doors to new concepts and approaches should be far more than worth the risk.

Action Step:
Incorporate the six questions in this article into your hiring process.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. Mr. Graham is the author of The New Magnet Marketing and of 203 Ways to Be Supremely Successful in the New World of Selling. He can be contacted at 40 Oval Rd. , Quincy, MA 02170 (617) 328-0069, fax (617) 471-1504, e-mail j_graham@grahamcomm.com, or visit www.grahamcomm.com.


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