After two years of trying to hire and manage people successfully, we’re finally making progress.
We used to simultaneously live by and resent the mantra, “If you want something done right, do it yourself” – and whenever we hired employees or contractors, everything seemed to confirm that we really shouldn’t have bothered.
All the time we were well aware that we were the problem: we were doing something wrong during the hiring process, or once they actually started working for us, or both. We didn’t really know what to do about it though, so we kind of gave up and accepted that we’d spend a lot of time being annoyed with the people we’d hired.
We did have some luck along the way: we were able to work with fabulous designers and developers as part of our branding/copywriting business, Mortified Cow, but looking back we’re pretty sure it really was just down to luck.
We needed to find a process and method by which we could guarantee great employees and contractors every time – especially as we’ve recently launched two new businesses (a community for property investors called The Property Hub, and a property management agency called Yellow Lettings) that rely heavily on having a great team of both permanent staff and contractors.
It took a while (and nothing’s perfect yet), but over the past few months we’ve been making far more of an effort with “smart hiring” – and as a result we’ve had a vastly higher success rate. Before I run through the hiring and managing process that’s working for us, I thought it best to explain what makes a great employee or contractor for us.
What we’re looking for when we hire
Because we have three core businesses as well as a ridiculous number of fun projects on the go at any one time, we hire for a number of different skills:
- Web design
- Web programming
- Lettings management
- Forum moderation
- Book formatting
- Book cover design
- Property repairs and maintenance
- Podcast editing
- Google Analytics expertise
And so on.
For some of these skills, we’ll hire people as and when we need them. For others, we have staff on payroll or we hire self-employed people who work for us regularly.
Here’s what we want to get out of everyone:
When we hire a web designer (for example), we want them to know that they have the best ideas and solutions. We’re not designers – we just know what looks right and works once we see it on the screen. So we want to be led by someone who really knows their stuff and is confident in presenting it to us. We don’t want to be the ones coming up with ideas to fix things – they should know, and be confident about telling us.
Better than us at what they do
Rob and I are good at writing, we’re good at “ideas”, and we’re good at project managing. Aaand… that’s about it. Yet our businesses and projects require far more than those skills, so we need to hire people in order to concentrate on what we’re good at – while they can help our businesses improve and grow by doing what they’re good at.
We love being in awe of the people who work for us. We love seeing what they can do and knowing that we could never in a million years do that. It’s so cool to know that we’re hiring the best talent to do the best job for us – which in turn will satisfy our clients and customers.
Bucketloads of initiative
The best employees don’t just do the work they’re expected to do: they come to us with new ideas they’ve had and want to try out – or creative solutions to problems we’ve been wrestling with.
Excited by their work
This ties in with “initiative”. We like to think we run pretty cool businesses (a fun branding/copywriting business, a super-cool and friendly community, and a property management company that’s run by an entirely distributed team). We’re up for trying new ideas, doing wacky and fun things for clients and customers, and coming up with entirely new processes to make everything more efficient. If people are excited by what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, they’re far more likely to get more involved, enjoy themselves and work harder for us.
An intrinsic awareness of what needs to be fixed
We don’t want to have to go through someone’s work and fix it for them – or tell them why we think something doesn’t work. We want them to be aware of that and fix things before they’re given to us. (We know this can’t often be achieved from the start, but over time it should be possible.)
So how do we get to work with these types of people?
It comes down to two things:
- The hiring process
- The managing process
Taking each of them in turn…
The hiring process
The hiring processes we’d each been through as employees seemed outdated and cringey: we didn’t think that requesting resumés would help us decide on the best people for the job – nor did we believe that asking about “the last time you worked well in a team” would get us very far.
But we really didn’t know what would work in its place. Through lots of research, reading and looking for similarities in successful hires though, we’ve come up with some key elements that we need to bear in mind every time we hire – many of which are applicable to any business:
Know what you’re hiring for
It’s amazing how much we didn’t focus on this in the past. Hiring a “community manager” or “web designer” isn’t enough: you need to be clear in your own mind what you want that person to achieve in their role, and what their daily/weekly responsibilities will be. As a result, you’ll be able to write a far more accurate job description – which will attract a better selection of prospects.
It also means you can create some “key performance indicators” (KPIs) to evaluate your new employee’s progress in their role – far more useful and objective than “a feeling” that they’re not working as well as they should be. For example, if you’re hiring someone to manage your customer services team, one of your KPIs might be customer satisfaction – which means you know you need to measure this too (through surveys, phone calls, etc.).
Hire for attitude, train for skill (to an extent)
Don’t take this too literally: if you’ve got a really eager guy on your hands who can’t code for toffee, it’s probably not the best idea to hire him for your new “Grindr for Bungee Jumpers” app. But if the guy has a fair bit of background experience, isn’t necessarily the best in his field, but is super keen to work with you and help you grow, don’t discount him just because he doesn’t have the most impressive skills out of everyone you’ve interviewed.
The attitude you’re looking for will depend on your business and what you want to get out of your employee. First you need to figure out which attitudinal attributes you’re looking for; then you need to ask the right interview questions to figure out if prospects have these attributes.
Before we hired our lettings manager for Yellow Lettings, we discovered a website (and book) called Topgrading. It allows you to select certain attributes that you want in your employees, and then it helps you formulate interview questions. The questions are all phrased to elicit answers that will reveal if your prospective employee has the attitude you’re looking for.
We decided that we wanted to hire for the following attributes:
- Experience in the industry
- Customer focus
Here are some of the questions we asked interviewees during their Round 2 interviews:
- Please describe your decision-making approach. Are you decisive and quick, but sometimes too quick, or are you more thorough, but sometimes too slow? Are you intuitive or do you go purely with the facts?
- What maxims do you live by?
- What are a couple of the most challenging decisions you have made recently?
Experience in the industry:
- How would you rate yourself at..
- Looking back at your career, what were your most and least successful jobs?
- What actions would you take in the first weeks, should you join Yellow Lettings?
- Give an example of a circumstance in which you were expected to do a certain thing and you ended up going beyond the call of duty?
- Describe a complex challenge you had to coordinate.
- When was the last time you missed a significant deadline?
- Everyone procrastinates at times. What are the kind of things that you procrastinate on?
- Do you believe in asking for forgiveness rather than permission, or are you inclined to be sure your bosses are in full agreement before acting?
- How much supervision do you need or want?
- If we interviewed past clients of yours, what would you expect them to say are your strengths and weaknesses?
- What is your track record in both acquiring and retaining clients?
The managing process
We always used to think we were the best managers/employers: we were forgiving, kind and open. We thanked our employees profusely for their efforts, and any criticism of their work (however minor) was wrapped in a blanket of apologies.
And our employees and contractors really seemed to like us. But a lot of the time, they also took advantage because they knew we’d never be too mad – and we’d tidy up (or at least point out very politely) any sloppy work. We’d end up getting aggravated with them, even though we were the ones at fault for treating the relationship more like they were doing us a favour than being paid to do a job for us.
Here’s how we fixed things:
Relinquish control (i.e. don’t fix their work for them)
This is relevant if you’ve outsourced jobs you can do, but want to focus on other things instead to grow your business. It’s so easy to just accept the work back, say thank you, then spend anything from a few minutes up to many hours tweaking the work until it’s exactly how you would have done it.
There are two things to bear in mind here:
- If you make the tweaks for them, they’ll never know that they’re doing unsatisfactory work – so they’ll continue making the same mistakes over and over and your attempts to fully outsource the job will have failed. These days we send the work back to them with a list of all the changes that need to be made.
- If you started your business by doing all the work yourself, the work that others do will very rarely be to your complete satisfaction. You probably have a certain style or approach that’s slightly different from your employee’s. You need to accept that unless it’ll make a vast difference to your bottom line or client satisfaction, a few percentage points away from “ideal” is fine – it gives you the opportunity to focus on building your business rather than getting mired in details that make no real difference.
Trust that they know their stuff
If you know nothing about formatting books for Kindle and you’ve hired someone to do the job for you, trust that they know more about it than you do. If you don’t trust that they know their stuff, you’ll drive them insane and get the working relationship off to a rocky start – and you’ll also be wasting time on things you’ve already accepted you’re no good at.
Don’t take excuses
We’re still guilty of this, and we wish we were better at not accepting excuses from our contractors. We smile and say “no problem”, but on the inside we’re often seething.
Here’s the thing: despite our digital nomadic lifestyle, we NEVER make excuses to clients about why anything is ever late. If the wifi in our apartment is terrible one month, or we have to take a flight just before launch day, we deal with it and – the vast majority of the time – get the work done when we say we will, to the quality that they expect. Because it’s not their problem that we’ve chosen this lifestyle.
If on the very rare occasion we’re delayed in doing our work on time, we apologise and tell them when it will be done by. No excuses.
And yet we’ve work with a number of contractors who don’t do the same. Whether it’s a delayed flight or a late night, we don’t want to know. Ideally our contractors will have planned for all eventualities and done their work in good time, but if they don’t, we just want an apology and an assurance of when the work will get done.
Excuses make it easier to deliver the work late in the first place: it’s SO much easier to say “I’m so sorry this is late – my flight was delayed by ten hours and I was stuck in an airport with no wifi” than simply “I’m so sorry this is late”. And excuses also do a very good job of making us feel really mean: if they tell us about the awful day they’ve had and that’s why the work is late, we struggle to be anything but understanding and fine about it… which means they take advantage again and again.
Have weekly check-in calls
The calls don’t need to be long – even something like 15 minutes is long enough. Rob has a 15-minute call with our marketing team for The Property Hub every Monday morning, and it follows this structure every time:
- Share a win and personal update
- Share the latest “numbers” (new subscribers and unique visitors to The Property Hub; open rates for weekly newsletters; new social media subscribers…)
- Discuss one focus issue (the marketing team can decide on one issue that they want to discuss before the meeting, like an idea for something to try, or a concern where they’d like support)
- Discuss what’s coming up (Rob explains what’s happening in the forthcoming week – product launches, new initiatives, etc.)
- Closing comments
(This structure was adapted from Mastering the Rockefeller Habits.)
By catching up for 15 minutes every week, the marketing team and management team (us) can keep on top of what’s happened, what’s coming up, what’s working, what’s not, and what we should all be thinking about.
This is all a work in progress
We still sometimes make the wrong hiring decisions, do our employees’ work for them, act like we know better than them, etc.
And we’ve learnt that it’s best to have an “it’s our fault” attitude at all times when we have problems with our employees. It’s easy to blame them and moan about them, but it’s far more helpful to accept that it’s our fault for not briefing/motivating/hiring appropriately: it leads to remedial action rather than pointless venting.
None of us wants to be the big mean boss – nor do we want to be the meek weakling who gets walked all over. The happy medium is in there somewhere, and through following the principles outlined in this post, we’re getting better at finding it each time we hire.
What do you think?
What have your experiences been like or hiring and managing?
Are you about to make your first hire for anything? How are you preparing for it?
Let me know in the comments!