HIRING

5 Secrets to Hiring a Winner

Want to know if someone's perfect for a job? Follow this simple process created by the uber-successful wine company Barefoot Cellars.
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You've read through resumes, checked references, and had multiple interviews. You think you've picked the right candidate--but you've been burned before. How can you ever be sure?

There are ways to determine if you've really got the right candidate according to Michael Houlihan. He and Bonnie Harvey recount their experience at Barefoot Cellars in their New York Times bestseller "The Barefoot Spirit." They started the company in their laundry room with no money and no wine experience. By the time they sold to E & J Gallo 20 years later, Barefoot Cellars was selling 600,000 cases of wine every year, reaching all 50 states and 28 foreign countries. Yet it only had 35 employees. If that makes you think that the company had unusually talented and engaged staff, you're right.

It was no accident, Houlihan says. "Obviously, hiring is the most important thing that ever happens in your business, because the business is only as good as the people who represent you. When you lose someone, it's a huge hidden cost. You don't only lose that person; you lose his or her corporate knowledge, training, and relationships. You can lose customers because often they're more loyal to the person selling the product than they are to the product itself."

Skills can be taught, he adds. It's more important to ask yourself, "What kind of person do I want to have a relationship with?" With this philosophy in mind, Barefoot Cellars evolved a process that helped the company hire the best possible candidates and grow them in their jobs:

Step 1: Ask about their mistakes.

After poring through resumes and doing an initial screening, Barefoot executives interviewed potential hires over the phone. "We asked them about situations that were difficult, where they'd had a moral challenge," Houlihan says. "We were looking for a situation where they had to admit they made a mistake, and how did they handle it? If the mistake cost money, did they pay retribution when they didn't have to, or work extra hours to make up for it? If they said, 'I never made a really big mistake,' you would worry about that person."

Step 2: Give a writing assignment.

Candidates who seem promising in their phone interviews were invited to come in and meet in person. "We completely changed the interview process," Houlihan says. "Rather than ask them questions they were primed to answer, we would do most of the talking." Interviewing executives explained Barefoot's business in detail, including who the company's clients were and what those clients expected. They described cash flow within the business, and how payment for a bottle or a case of wine went through many intermediaries before it arrived at Barefoot Cellars. They described the job the person was applying for and explained exactly how it fit into the company's sales and distribution chain. Then they asked if the candidate had any questions.

Once all questions were answered, the candidate was given assignment: to write a one-page description of the job and why he or she was the best person to fill it--by 5 o'clock that same day. "You look at all these resumes that are perfectly prepared," Houlihan says. "But when you look at a document created in a four-hour time span, you know they're on the spot. You're looking at their ability to retain information, formulate and present ideas, articulate and summarize."

The results were interesting. "We would say, 'Oh, my god, this person is a Harvard graduate and can't put a sentence together,'" Houlihan recalls. Other candidates would hand in their work at 7 p.m., or write three pages instead of one. "What I was looking for is not so much perfect English, but whether or not they got it," he adds. "You're going to be training these people. If they can't retain information, imagine how long that will take. And then how long will it be before they make a mistake?"

Step 3: Take a walk.

"The one or two people whose written responses we liked, we would take them for a walk," Houlihan says. "Did they stand up straight? Did they look at the ground in front of their feet? Were they able to carry on a conversation while they were walking, or did they have to stop? We asked them their favorite form of recreation. If it was surfing the Net, and they were shuffling their feet, and had to stop to talk to you, we knew the person didn't have what we call hustle."

Needless to say, Barefoot adjusted its evaluation methods for those using wheelchairs or with other physical challenges. Still, Houlihan says, if a candidate's body language and answers to questions indicated a withdrawn, slow-moving sort of person, they would rarely turn out to be a good fit for the company.

Step 4: Have them meet their future team.

Once a candidate had made it through the first four steps and looked like a good hire to Houlihan and other top executives, there was one final step: an interview with the team that the new hire would join. "We didn't want to cram new hires down anybody's throat," he explains. "We wanted everybody out on the same limb with us. 'We think this person is a good hire, she is going to be working with you, please interview her for 10 to 15 minutes tomorrow and let us know what you think.'"

Generally, he says, a candidate who made it through the rest of the hiring process was approved by the team as well. But not always. "We had a couple of candidates who passed muster with us, and the team caught things we didn't catch."

Step 5: Commit to the candidate rather than the position.

Once someone had been hired and proved a good employee, Barefoot would do what it could to keep that person at the company. "You're going to put a lot of energy into these people," Houlihan says. "If you've got someone whom you like, has a great sense of humor, has hustle, and shows integrity--if that person isn't happy then find another job for him or her. Or bend the job to satisfy the person's skill set."

In fact, Barefoot kept employees engaged by encouraging them to design their own jobs. "Every year, we asked people to write their own job description in bullet points," he says. For each element of the job, employees were asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 10 how much they enjoyed it. "We basically played discard," he says. "People would take the things they didn't like and put them in the center of the table for other people to pick up."

Didn't this result in some unpopular tasks going unclaimed? No, it turns out. In most cases, there would be someone who wanted each task. If there wasn't, one employee or another would claim it anyway, for the good of the team as a whole. And Barefoot helped the process by thinking creatively about its positions. "We had people who liked a function in another department, so we redesigned the job for them," Houlihan says.

"We have to stop putting square pegs in round holes--we've gotta build square holes," he adds. "It gives people a lot of engagement."

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Feb 25, 2014

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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