Archives for posts with tag: HR

A second  recruiting article The Wall Street Journal published lately dealt with the increasing need to identify and hire those with “soft skills”. These are people who are clear communicators, skilled problem solvers,  those who get along with co-workers and work well in teams. Surveys of hiring managers by LinkedIn found this is both hard to determine in prospective employees but more and more critical in today’s organizations with overlapping roles and multiple work teams.

Recent business studies have concluded that soft skills are equal or more important than technical skills in the current workplace. And this is true, not only for senior roles, but for middle managers and often even lower level people in some roles or businesses.

The world has changed a lot! When I started in business, an “older” guy taught me about soft or people skills. He said, when you start out in any job, 90% of your job and success will be based on your technical skill and 10% on people skills. After five years, and a couple promotions, the mix is closer to 50-50. And when, and if, you reach a senior role, the people stuff (as he called it then) was 90% and technical only 10%. I would say that for my early years, I found this to be true. But I would also say that the people who rose quickest in organizations (including, in retrospect, myself) often were much more people focused and thus exhibited these so-called soft skills.

But now we get to the hard part. How do you develop these skills?

In today’s very high tech world of business, this is not easy. If you are locked onto a computer screen all day, you are not dealing with people. If you are doing video conferences with thirty people in six offices or posting your work onto group websites, you are not dealing with people. Instead most young people have to go out of their way, and probably on their own time, to connect with others in a one on one or small group way.

For me, starting out in public accounting was the key. We went to different client’s offices and had to “sell” ourselves to them so we could get our work done. And part of our work was seeing if the client’s team had made any mistakes! So you learned to sell yourself to then be able to do your job. Today many service businesses provide this same opportunity. Many inside and outside sales roles do, as well as retail and hospitality businesses .

But the best advice I can give young people on this subject is that You have to work at it yourself to develop these skills. Yes often firms (and even our Human Resource friends) may provide courses or programs to help. The long running Dale Carnegie speaking program has helped a number of people I know.

It takes time and individual work to develop your people skills but based on this article and a number of studies, it can be the key to your future in whatever organization you are in. Good luck!



The Wall Street Journal has run a number of articles lately on recruiting, interviewing and hiring people. Since people and good fitting people are the key to any business or organization, I found a couple articles most interesting.

One dealt with using video or virtual interviews.Here an applicant logs onto a site or an app and is “asked” questions with fixed prompts and has a limited, preset time to respond. For example, the robot prompt says, “Tell us about a time you had to deal with a conflict.” You then get 3o seconds to five minutes, depending on the question, to respond. Some of these programs even analyze your verbal or facial cues to find a better match.  The companies who sell these programs claim they make hiring fairer since all applicants have to answer the same questions and it eliminates “small talk”.

The results of these computerized interviews are screened and reviewed by, who else, Human Resources. Some HR people claim this is a faster and less costly way to hire.

Many applicants complain that this approach makes them even more upset and uncomfortable than an actual interview. I can see that. I am not sure I personally could answer any question, beyond my name, in 30 seconds! I am also not sure what, if anything, you learn about someone in a rigid, structured robot interview as described.

Before I was hired, at age 26, to become a senior financial person at the private firm, Donn Corp., I had to be interviewed by the Founder and Chairman, Don Brown. Mr. Brown and I talked about the YMCA Indian Guides program since my son Mike was about the age to participate as Don Brown had with his sons. We also spoke about the fact that we each had Shetland Sheepdogs that meant a lot to us. No financial questions. Don Brown tried to get to know me, as a person, because he believed if you hired good people they could become good employees. Would that be considered “small talk” in today’s recruiting world? I proudly worked for the company, and often directly for Don Brown, for a decade and then helped him sell his family business. It was an excellent fit for me and the company.

Computers and technology have changed the way we live and do business, and usually for the better. But, to me, people are still the key to the success of any organization. To really understand the people you interview, you need to spend some time, have some small talk and mostly try to get to know them as a person first.

The Wall Street Journal just had an article about a new staffing trend some companies are using, Blind Hiring. The idea is to remove key information from resumes, like schools, past employers and even prospects’ names. The hope is this will reduce built-in bias that many managers have to favor people from their alma mater, or from a trendy tech firm, or to not chose equally qualified women versus men. These firms, like parts of IBM, are sometimes inserting a mock project into their process to try to focus on people’s real talents not words on a resume.

As many of you know, I have strong feelings about how, in many firms, Human Resource people have taken on too much power and hiring is a good example. So what are some thoughts I have on how to hire people?

  1. The hiring manager should research the job market themselves and write the job description or ad. When this happens the manager knows more about the role, skills required and pay than any HR person would ever know.
  2. My old boss and successful business owner, Don Brown, had some very unique things he would do when hiring people. And since he hated to read, resumes were not a part of his process.
    1. He would sit and talk to someone face to face and alone to get to know them. When I was “interviewed” for a senior financial role we talked about my son joining Indian Guides, Shetland Sheep dogs and family. No technical stuff at all. He was interested in me, as a person, not as a young CPA.
    2. For a critical senior job that I helped on, Don Brown met the prospect 5 times in the office, once over lunch and once with the person’s spouse for dinner. It resulted in a great hire.
    3. When he could, he would watch the job prospect walking back to the parking lot. Did they still seem to have energy and pride in their walk or were they just acting that way in the interview.
    4. Don Brown tried to hire quality people which he knew meant they would probably be quality employees. If you spend the time to get to know someone, the odds of a good fit increase!
  3. When I have followed most of these steps, I ended up with excellent, loyal and long-time employees. It is all about spending time to get the know the person, not being impressed with what is on a resume.


Reminder: my book, The Business Zoo by Brad James is now available on as both a paperback and an e book.

This was the focus of a Wall Street Journal article a month ago. I got so excited, I spilled my coffee! The article was surprisingly balanced and covered the pros and cons of having no formal HR group. The subtitle was, Is it a Dream or a Drag?

The article points out that many smaller firms start out with no HR. Then, after growing to a couple dozen employees, firms tend to setup HR. The same occurs right after a company is hit with a huge employment related litigation like a discrimination or harassment suit. (This is a reaction due to fear which is not good in business or in a zoo!)

Larger firms and especially public ones have large human resources groups. The article states that companies have, on average, 1.5 HR people for every 100 employees. Wow! And even those half ones can be costly and dangerous.

Having worked in both smaller, private firms and large, public ones I do have an opinion or two on this HR debate. When private company Donn was acquired by public USG Corp. we had no HR professionals at our main Ohio headquarters. With our two large operating plants there, we had just under 1,000 employees which generated sales in today’s dollars of $200 million. Not a small business. Within a couple years, USG had installed 7 HR, Labor Relations and Safety people. After the recent recession, that was substantially reduced. So how did Donn manage without all this HR help?

Every manager at Donn was their own HR person. You hired people, gave promotions, organized training and fired people on your own. If we had the need for a professional opinion because of the threat of litigation, we hired a specialist lawyer or labor relations consultant. And you learned much more about your people, their ambitions and their concerns because you had to work through issues directly with them, not with an HR person along your side (or in your way.)

That said, I believe there is a role for HR especially in larger firms. As they grow, companies need some standardized approach to compensation and promotions. Good HR people, like my USG friend Gary, can also help a firm introduce bold, new programs like mentoring and diversity (not an easy thing twenty years ago in the male oriented construction industry!) But good HR groups needs to remember that it is a staff, advisory group, not a sole decision maker or star maker in people’s careers.

We have many more stories about HR coming in The Business Zoo!

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a story “Making Sure the Boss is the Right Fit”. The article cites some recent examples where seemingly exceptional leaders, from places such as Google, failed to mesh with the people or culture of their new firm.

We could go on with dozens of examples of this problem. The wizard from Apple who tried to transform J.C. Penney or the revolving door of leaders that Hewlett Packard had in the last decade.

One fascinating comment in the article was that it should take a lot more than interviews to avoid costly mistakes when hiring a new leader. And we will come to that. But one failure that both companies and potential executive candidates are guilty of, is not enough of or the right kind of interview. The higher the position is, in my mind, the more number and diverse the interviews should be.

My old private firm boss, Don Brown, had 7 interviews with a very qualified and ultimately successful candidate (that I had personally found!)  That seems like a lot and it is. But we had individual interviews, two on one interviews, two separate, private dinner interviews and even a dinner with spouse interview. Dinner interviews are especially critical and revealing. In an hour or so in the office, you can gloss over  a number of issues that can be much more fully explored or discussed in a two to three hour dinner. I am not saying that 7 is the right number, but too often in our fast paced world of business, we don’t spend enough time with interviews.

Which brings us to who should or could be included as part of the interview process. The direct boss, of course, and a couple other superiors who could be Board members. Also, a wide sample of the people who will report to the new hire. In the case of a potential CEO, the list should include the CFO, the heads of a couple businesses, the head lawyer and, my favorite, the head of HR. But smart firms also add to this list. Perhaps some very bright up-and-comer who is not shy. Maybe a soon to retire old, salty veteran who really knows the firm, its people and its culture. With a mix like this both the firm and the candidate could learn something about the possible fit.

But the hardest thing to analyze with any candidate is their fit or ability to adapt to the company’s culture. In my book, The Business Zoo, we talk extensively about this. Leadership and Culture, another famous business writer said, are the flip side of each other. A strong and dominate culture can destroy a new, very differently focused, leader. A weak or fading culture can be remade or revitalized by a new, strong leader. But most situations are somewhere in the middle. Candidates should study the hiring firm’s culture through the interview process and by doing their own research. With the internet this is certainly easier. Articles in business magazines or trade journals or a firm’s own written histories can tell you a ton. And the hiring firm needs to do research themselves, and not just with a search firm, on the candidate’s style and approach to people and problems as well.

Think of it like due diligence in a major purchase of a merger. The upfront, extra time and costs invested to improve the new leader’s chance of being successful is minor compared to the cost of a failed new leader and its impact on the company.

Leaders need to fit or adapt to a firm’s culture or they will fail; not the other way around!

Take more time and make more effort when hiring new leaders and when being hired.

I  really enjoyed the last post about private company incentives and the infamous Donn Corporation Outings. So today we are adding another unique reward that few companies would ever use.  Again this occurred at Donn Corporation while it was private and for reasons you will soon see was quickly discontinued when Donn was acquired by a very public firm. ( Warning: Some former Donn Corporation managers may want to delete these from their spouses’ computers or create one heck of a backup story!)

The Special Payroll Account:

The Donn payroll manager, Opal, maintained what we called the regular office/management semi-monthly payroll. This payroll worked like thousands of other ones at other firms.  But Donn’s Chief Financial Officer (my old mentor George, then me and our trusted Administrative Assistant, Kathy) maintained the special payroll Account. Both of these payrolls were, of course, reported to the IRS and the applicable state taxing people, but the special payroll offered people some unique benefits. The regular payroll only covered annual salaries to a fixed amount of say $75,000. Any base salary or bonus over that amount was paid quarterly from the special payroll Account. This insured that no one in payroll or accounting or anyone in a small department would ever know any top managers’ total compensation. Likewise, no one would ever know Don Brown’s or his family members’ total compensation. The accounting was handled by charging the special payroll in a large lump with no detail.

All of this is perfectly legal but with one moral caveat. Many of the top managers insisted that we not mail these special payroll checks to their homes. Rather they would come by personally and get them. Some of these Donn managers maintained special bank accounts of their own where they would deposit these special payroll checks. These amounts could buildup. For example, if you had a base salary of $100,000 and a bonus of $25,000, your special payroll checks that year totaled $50,000 before tax and say $30,000 after tax. After 5 years that’s a $150,000 special bank account. These non-reported-at-home funds could be used for hobbies, to pursue other interests or perhaps even charity.

When the large, public firm USG Corporation acquired Donn, several long-time Donn managers immediately quit rather than risk their marriages with the pending disclosure of their full salary checks. Some of us actually intermingled and disclosed our regular and special checks at home and did not have this problem.

But Donn’s owner, Don Brown, understood human nature and incentive rewards more than most Human Resource professionals. Mr. Brown also understood the little bit of larceny in the hearts of mankind that the Special payroll allowed some people to pursue in private.

This is probably another example of a private company incentive that is best not continued! But a great and true story.

In my book, The Business Zoo, I often compare and contrast how large public companies handle an area versus small, private firms. Some of the most vivid and striking differences involve how they motivate and reward their employees. Large, private firms, with all their Human Resource people, are often more rigid and follow exact guidelines. Private firms, historically, have more creativity and latitude. Here is a favorite example from my days at the very private Donn Corporation.

The Men’s Outing and the Women’s Dinner:  (Warning: These activities occurred and were named before our era of political correctness.)

The Men’s Outing was just that. All the 250 plant and office men at the main Ohio plant, on a Friday, traveled by buses to a nearby state lodge.

The bus ride down started at 7am and was always a treat especially for any innocent office guy who accidentally ended up on one of the plant guy buses. Beer was consumed before the ride as the neighborhood bar, Kelly’s, opened, probably illegally, at 5:30am that one special day each year. Beer was consumed on the bus ride. Beer was, at times, discharged or eradicated on the bathroom-less bus. Beer cans, empty, occasionally were ejected from the bus window, always in a safe and thoughtful manner. I know this firsthand.

My first year at Donn as I walked to the office guy bus, one of the plant managers grabbed me. His nickname for many reasons, was the Bear, and I knew from day one, he was not fond of me. Whenever I passed him in the Donn hallways, I would say Hi and the Bear would say f__ you. It took me months to actually understand what he was mumbling. This day he uses my real name and asks if I would do him a favor. My golden opportunity to bring him into my circle. I say, of course, Bear! He hands me a roster for plant bus #2 and says I am now in charge of making sure everyone is on it and to maintain order! Before I could decline or even asked him a question, the Bear disappeared! This was hard for such a big man to do. I took my roster, got on the plant bus #2 then tried to read the roster and take attendance.

A beer can, full, just misses my head. I made myself invisible for the next few hours. I still am abnormally uncomfortable while on buses. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured or went missing that day from plant bus #2.

The next year I drove, by car, with my old boss, George, to the Outing. Once at the state lodge, you could play golf, go fishing, ride horses, and of course, drink beer. No official Donn business took place.  All the lodge activities, facilities and meals were free to the Donn employees. At night you could play cards, go on nature walks, drink beer or terrorize the other unfortunate guests or those in the nearby community. Although officially no one except a select few senior people, like the owner, Don Brown, or George, were allowed to drive there, somehow a number of our employees managed to make their way to the local towns and bars to, of course, drink beer. But to insure there were no serious problems, the Bear and the other plant managers would visit the local police and sheriff units and drop off a donation (read  alcohol) a few days before the Outing. This somehow bought them a get out of jail free card and the ability to a arrange a private midnight pickup at the local holding cells. Each year at least of couple Donn guys were so reclaimed. It would have been bad form not to have one of the employees return home.

The next morning after breakfast the buses departed for the Westlake plant. The two hour bus ride back was much more somber and quiet. The beer had all been consumed and any stray cans removed by the plant managers so the employees could return to their families with at least a modest level of sobriety.

On the ride back each Donn employee was given a very nice gift (a small handbag, a folding umbrella) to take home to their spouse or girlfriend. This was how Don Brown included the family and thanked them for letting their guy go away overnight. Mr. Brown usually thought of everything.

The Women’s Dinner was actually that. All the women at the Ohio office and plant were taken to a very nice local restaurant. The Dinner was to include only one alcoholic drink to insure respectability. If only we had that rule on the Men’s Outing buses! But to help make the evening more enjoyable a senior manager, George in the early days and later me, would go over early and buy a round of drinks on the Company and then leave. The Dinner was not on par cost-wise with the Men’s Outing but it was a lot more civilized. We never had to go to the local police stations at the end of the Women’s Dinner. The ladies really enjoyed the event and I miss those Dinners more than the rowdy Outings.

In my next twenty years with two large public firms, there were no events quite like Donn’s Men’s Outing or the Women’s dinner. And maybe that was for the better!

One of my favorite sports is Falconry. Once this was only available to ancient kings. But if you ever travel near the border of West Virginia and Virginia, you can participate as well. Two legendary resorts, The Greenbrier and The Homestead will teach you this 4,000 year old sport. They raise and fly birds of prey: Falcons, Hawks and Owls. Just being able to get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures is a joy. And having one take off and land on your arm, in the intermediate lesson, is a thrill not easily replicated. With their long, pointed beaks and sharp talons sitting a few inches from your face, it is also very intimidating.

On a recent trip to the Homestead we met a wonderful, young Falconer. It was a quiet afternoon in the Falcon business so we were able to meet a number of her birds. After explaining that I had done this once before, at their sister facility, we were off to the woods with a Thresher Hawk on my gloved hand. As a student of both animals and people, I asked the Falconer how she decides if someone is able to handle, let alone fly, one of her impressive Birds of Prey.

Falconer: It is a judgement call for sure. You want people who respect the Birds and their power. They are not tame.

Brad: After all, that’s why they’re called Birds of Prey!

Falconer: Even after I warn people, some try to touch them. One lady tried to kiss one! It took a piece of her face.

Brad: I got it. This Bird is in charge, at least with me.

Falconer: But the real answer to your question about trusting people to handle my Birds is quite simple: My Birds decide.

Brad: How do the Birds decide?

Falconer: If one of my Birds will not go on a person’s arm,  there is something wrong about that person. Something the Bird sees or feels or understands that we cannot.  So, you see, in the end, my Birds decide.

Brad: If we used your Birds in organizations to interview and screen people we would save money on Human Resources. And how about at the airports instead of all those TSA teams. And maybe even in politics before we vote for people!

Falconer: OK, let’s focus on the woods ahead for now. My Birds don’t like a lot of talking. Flying, hunting and eating, they like. They get bored with too much talking.

Brad: Got it. (But I’m quietly thinking we have something here.)

Like many corporate people, I have had a love/hate relationship with Human Resources. I even have close friends in that field. But then I have close friends that are lawyers and, more bizarre yet, for my CFO background, bankers! All of these advisors and sometimes adversaries are discussed with detailed Rules and Tools to deal with them in my forthcoming book, The Business Zoo.