Fast Company

1.How to Hire by wire

For five years, as I researched how certain companies provide consistently great service, I heard the same refrain: 'Our people are our most important asset.' Trouble was, I heard that just as often from companies with terrible service.

OK, it's a weird idea. So how come Motorola, Marriot, and the Cleveland Cavaliers all use 'Life Themes' to find great people?

For five years, as I researched how certain companies provide consistently great service, I heard the same refrain: "Our people are our most important asset." Trouble was, I heard that refrain just as often from companies with terrible service as I did from companies that were superb. The closer I looked, the more convinced I became that what separates great companies from mediocre ones is not some easy-to-invoke faith in front-line workers. It is an unshakable commitment to do whatever it takes to identify, hire, and retain the best workers.

There are any number of exotic ways to handle the difficult but all-important challenge of evaluating job candidates. Some companies, especially big companies in Europe, use graphology - handwriting analysis. Others rely on standard-issue personality tests. Still others, especially hard chargers in Silicon Valley, subject applicants to grueling, confrontational question-and-answer sessions - mind games in a hotbox.

Then there are "life themes."

When I first heard about this tool - also known as "sophisticated selection" - I lumped it in with all the other dubious screening techniques that veer off into pseudoscience. The idea that you could create categories to define the dominant themes of a person's life and then match those against model themes for high performers in a given job, struck me as, well, weird.

Then I learned that the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team uses life themes to screen draft picks. And that Taco Bell, one of the country's most nimble fast-food operations, uses life themes to screen its front-line managers. And that Marriott Corporation's Fairfield Inns, one of the country's leading economy-lodging companies, uses life themes to evaluate its housekeepers. And that a wide range of best-practice competitors - Motorola, PepsiCo, Searle Pharmaceuticals, Hyatt hotels - have experimented with life themes in their endless search for the exceptional people required to deliver exceptional service.

There was more. It turned out that all these companies use the same research operation to probe for life themes: Gallup, Inc.'s Management Research Group in Lincoln, NB. Yes, the people who keep their finger on America's pulse with the Gallup Poll also have a hand in hiring at some of America's best-managed companies.

I went to Lincoln and met with Donald Clifton, founder of Management Research Group. I also met with people at Talent+, one of several spin-offs from Clifton's company. (Lincoln has become the Silicon Valley of sophisticated selection.) I read the research data, interviewed clients - and came away convinced. As weird as the notion of life themes may sound, it can indeed improve a company's hiring hit rate - the percentage of new people who meet or exceed the company's performance expectations. And hiring better people can reduce turnover, increase productivity, and improve service quality.

Plenty of managers, for plenty of good reasons, may not want to use this particular method. But it still carries an important lesson: smart hiring does not happen by accident. If you are serious about hiring great people, then you have to be serious about your process for making that happen. It matters less which system you use than that you use a system - a well-designed, carefully implemented approach to one of the most important decisions about the future of a company: who will work there.

Len Schlesinger is Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and an expert on managing service companies. Research associate Roger Hallowell made important contributions to this article.

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