Media leaders should embrace spiral of recruitment where A-players hire A-players

Matthijs van de Peppel

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Xavier van Leeuwe

Mediahuis Nederland

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We’ve amplified the importance of A-players in media companies. But how do you find them?

To build a team of A-players, do not to make concessions when hiring new people. Hiring someone who doesn’t seem to fit can put an organisation months or even years behind. James Heskett and Leonard Schlesinger calculate that the departure of a car salesman costs a dealer about US$300,000. Imagine what it costs a company to hire the wrong manager!

We have made our fair share of wrong selections due to ignorance, bad selection processes, and impatience. When a vacancy is open for a long time, there is a natural tendency to make concessions. “You’re looking for a unicorn,” says a recruiter. “They’d rather work for a tech giant with more career opportunities,” says the HR manager. “I should have filled that spot two months ago. Let’s take this one, please,” begs the department head.

Taking the time to hire the right people is important for the company culture and financial growth.
Taking the time to hire the right people is important for the company culture and financial growth.

No matter how difficult it is, we insist that, when in doubt, you should never move forward. If there are any doubts about the selection process, they usually remain once the employee is employed. At that point, it becomes far more difficult and takes much longer to break up. In our experience, it is much better to wait for the right candidate than to run the risk of a bad selection that will take you years to resolve.

With this in mind, here are some things we’ve learned about recruitment.

Selection starts at the top

When we worked at NRC under the wings of private equity investor Egeria, we noticed the company used the power of A-players to make investments a success. It buys a company that is moderately managed and finds the best leaders in the industry to rise to the top of the business.

Subsequently, these A-players attract other A-players. Once the second layer in the company consists of top people, the layer below follows. After a few years, the whole company consists of A-players. The house is cleaned from top to bottom. It is pointless to replace middle management if the top of the company is not performing optimally. Those managers will break down or leave if their managers are not of the same level.

The spiral of recruitment

To find high-quality new employees, never underestimate the role of recruitment. Whether internal or external, recruitment needs to have the ongoing and utmost attention from management. In our experience, a manager must be personally involved in drawing up a job description for a vacancy, the selection criteria, candidate assessment, and interviewing. This should be an absolute top priority but often is not.

Google founder Larry Page also realised this, and for a long time had a selection process in which all new candidates went through him. He noted that the higher you get in companies, the more directors distance themselves from the recruitment process. It should be the other way around. As Richard Fairbank, CEO of Capital One, said: “At most companies, people spend 2% of their time recruiting and 75 % managing their recruiting mistakes.”

The quality of recruitment is so essential because of the following chain:

Just as high customer value follows from high-quality sales, healthy corporate culture follows from the quality of recruitment. And more importantly, poor recruitment can put an organisation in a downward spiral that leads to the long-term deterioration of business results.

If the selection process doesn’t run smoothly, you will hire not-so-good new people. As a result, if you don’t have A-players, this impacts impact the quality of work delivered. If those not-so-good employees — or employees who are not in the right place — become executives at some point, they will hire the not-so-good, too. This has a negative impact on the employee experience because it is simply less fun not to excel.

In the end, then, the quality of the service provided to customers is lower, causing customers to become less loyal. The only way to break this downward spiral is to replace managers who — if they are smart — see the quality of recruitment as a top priority.

In research by James Heskett and Leonard Schlesinger, the effect of the spiral of recruitment is illustrated by the cycle of failure they discovered in departments with first-line customer contact. Minimal attention paid to employee selection, training, and support systems leads to dissatisfied employees, which in turn leads to high turnover, difficult recruitment, and lower profitability.

This has a residual effect on customers. Poorly trained, barely motivated employees won’t be able to help customers properly, which leads to dissatisfaction and can make them drop out. This leads to pressure on business results, which in turn leads to less investment in employees. And there you have it: back to square one.

Prevent wrong selection

As we lived and learned, we developed our own methodology for selecting the right people. Important principles in this methodology are that we interview in a structured way and we make a unanimous choice in a selection committee of equals.

This so-called peer selection is different to the classic situation in which only the hierarchical manager determines who is hired in several key ways. Explicit attention is given to the candidate’s motives, personal characteristics, and a fit with the culture, and not just about knowledge and experience. Sometimes that experience is even absent. We hire for attitude and train for skills. In addition, it helps to test someone’s personal motivation against the higher goals of the organisation.

In addition to the hierarchical manager, the selection committee also includes a direct colleague (who has a clear picture of what the role exactly involves), a human resources person (who keeps an eye on the fit with the company culture and determines the terms of employment), and someone representing the management. Everyone has an equal vote, making it a committee of equals.

Remember to put the very best people on the selection committee. In turn, they are sure to select the very best people.

The star

The selection committee is highly specific in its criteria for accepting a candidate. It may seem like a lot of work, but it cuts back on time-consuming misunderstandings further on. If you skip this step, it can have a negative impact on the interviews.

Too often personal preferences play a role. It is very human to accept clones of yourself; this is the so-called similarity attraction. There can also be a lack of clarity about which elements of the position are really important for the role. When the criteria are not aligned, a candidate will be assessed differently throughout the selection rounds.

At De Telegraaf, for example, we saw a talented internal candidate come through the first round but was immediately confronted with a lack of experience in the second interview. The process ended there. If experience was a requirement, why was that not mentioned immediately? It led to tension between the people on the selection committee and a decrease in motivation for the employee who felt they had been treated unfairly. Ultimately, they left the company for that very reason.

A handy method for determining these selection criteria is a with a star. The example below consists of several points with competencies, personality characteristics, or motives that are essential for a job. Each criterion is assigned a weight factor, determining what truly matters for the job. The selection committee then scores candidates for each criterion during the interview.

In this example, when we started looking for a customer service team leader, the group came to the conclusion that coaching in that role was more important than problem solving. The weights were then adjusted accordingly.

Each characteristic receives a weight during the recruitment process.
Each characteristic receives a weight during the recruitment process.

The criterion interview

The star forms the basis of the interview and makes it more objective. CEO recruiter Ralph Knegtmans calls this criterion-based interviewing. Too often people are distracted by positive or negative aspects of the candidate that do not play any role in the performance of the future role. A limp hand at the greeting can have a negative effect in such a way that the interviewer spends the entire interview scouring for evidence of the candidate’s unsuitability.

The reverse is also true. For example, a common hobby can lead to an image that is too positive. This fast characterisation is called rapid cognition and is counteracted by determining the assessment criteria beforehand. In the interview, we use forms in which the candidate’s score for each competency can be filled in.

Because hiring the wrong person is much more expensive than testing candidates, we also choose to do an assessment. This rules out any doubt about the candidate’s cognitive qualities and may reveal deeper motivations that do not always surface in an interview. As always, the following applies here: The data from the tests do not form the conclusion, but it is valuable input.

The last step to avoid mistakes is to obtain references. After all, former colleagues know the candidate inside and out. The selection committee prefers to collect the references itself. Experienced recruiters recommend collecting at least four references for a reliable picture, preferably from three different levels of the company and from a client. To be honest, we don’t go that far ourselves.

Finally, if you hire people, try to get a feeling during the conversations of whether you would like to spend longer periods of time with the candidate. Don’t just see if they fit into that role. Are they nice people, too? Great people have great capacities and a great personality. This is how you build for the long term and grow a great culture.

This blog series is based on the book The Human Touch, in which Xavier van Leeuwe and Matthijs van de Peppel share their experiences as media executives in turbulent times. They deftly applied smart data and technology, but the quantum leap lay elsewhere: in the connections between people, within and beyond their companies.

About Xavier van Leeuwe & Matthijs van de Peppel

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