I belong to LILA - Learning Innovation Laboratory - an organization that works out of Harvard. Each year LILA establishes a theme, and members engage in WebEx calls and meetings to listen and offer perspectives on the theme. This puts us in conversation with entities such as Bechtel, Deloitte, ETS, Independent Schools of Australia, Steelcase and The Army University. This year’s theme is Adaptive Cultures: How institutions set conditions for success. We started with discussing strategies we use (it’s remarkable how much all of these institutions have in common) to create an adaptive culture within our organizations and then began discussing how we hire to ensure that our cultures remain coherent. Hiring is not an exact science, and all of us have hired people who turn out to be a bad fit, but we at Beaver adhere to five strategies that have proven effective.
1. Wait … Back up
When an employee, no matter how effective and beloved, departs, ask some questions before looking for a replacement. Any departure presents an opportunity to think about how to reorganize and rethink. Do we need to replace this person? Can we think in new ways about the skillsets needed? In schools and in the private sector, we tend to replace a person with the same skillsets regardless of changes going on within. Don’t think, “How are we ever going to replace this person?” Start with a blank slate. It’s important to do this with every hire. So along those lines...
2. Hire people not resumes
When advertising a position, precise job descriptions with prerequisites around years of experience, kind of experience and specific degrees can scare away your best candidates. Maybe the candidate with two years experience is a better fit than the candidate who has the required 5+ years experience. Yes, a chemistry teacher needs to have content mastery, but there may be multiple avenues to acquire that mastery. Construction is almost complete on our Research and Design Center - a new academic center on campus we think of as the library of the future. This is a place that will more deeply and in more diverse ways explore the nature of research; that will encourage students and faculty to create, to iterate and to make mistakes; that will emphasize non-linear learning. Initially, we were going to hire a librarian/IT person who would oversee tech support staff. Then we said, “Wait. Let’s just hire really smart, skilled and creative people.” Right now we have an IT person with a vast IT background, a person with degrees in mechanical and chemical engineering, the head of our math department who will transition to the R+D Center, and another math teacher. While their obvious credentials are a great fit, there’s more than meets the eye with this team. The IT person’s undergraduate degrees are in scene design, the engineer has been a television producer and has started two companies, the math department head has an MFA in creative writing and is a published poet, and the other math teacher has experience in the private sector with Productivity and Process Improvement. Our R+D Center will be a success because these people are much more than their resumes.
3. Communicate your brand as clearly and forcefully as possible.
Your brand is not just about customer. It is equally as important for recruiting and onboarding new hires. How well do your website and print materials inform and attract candidates? What kind of language do you use when advertising positions? Is there a consistent thread in the way you describe all job opportunities? How does the interview process reflect the organization’s values and culture? Among other things, we are a very tech savvy school that focuses on essential skills (like collaboration, iteration, visual communication, etc.) to prepare students for the exciting and ambiguous world they will live in. We embrace change – and we move quickly. Our recruitment process and onboarding process need to reflect that.
4. Don’t hire yourself, but …
For all organizations, not just schools, it is crucial to have a diverse employee profile - race, religion, ethnicity, socio-economic background, age, sexual orientation. We know that. That diversity ensures that we will have different perspectives on how to realize our vision, our ambitions. But we need to assemble a group of people who share that vision and those ambitions. I always encourage our faculty and staff to imagine we are a jazz ensemble. We will each improvise and interpret the piece in different ways, but that doesn’t mean people can break into Bach. Our individuality brings the piece alive, and the chords and structure hold us together.
Finally, this seems obvious, but...
5. Do very thorough reference and background checks.
I continue to be astonished when someone leaves Beaver to take a key position at another school, and no one contacts anyone here for a reference. It happens too frequently. Or, when someone does call for a reference check, the questions are superficial. Once a head of school did call me for a reference for a key position and asked, “Everyone who met X thought he was a really good guy. Is he?” And that was it! This happens in the private sector too. Yahoo anyone?
We always contact at least three former supervisors and ask questions based on what we observed in the interview process and the candidate's fit for Beaver. And we always ask, “If the candidate were to apply to return and you had an appropriate position, would you hire the candidate back without reservation?” Any hesitation or equivocation in answering the question should give you pause.
As I said, hiring to match organizational culture and vision can be an inexact process, and we make mistakes. But, given that hiring is perhaps the most important thing we do to strengthen our culture and realize our ambitions, it is critical we are as focused and thorough as possible with our process.