Hiring right: the people in your organisation can make or break you

Getting the right people into your organisation is a challenge - and something we often get wrong, says UCT's Tim London.

By Dr Tim London, senior lecturer at UCT’s Graduate School of Business

Regardless of industry, nation or other variables, almost all organisational leaders will tell you that one of their main challenges is “getting the right people”. The problem is, once you start to probe what those “right people” might look like, the answers get a bit vague. The people in your organisation can make or break you, though this highlights how wrong we get it sometimes when looking for those people. While skills are important (at least a minimally acceptable level of skill in the role), there has also been an increasing call from HR experts to strongly consider not just aptitude for the job, but attitude for the work/organisation. So, how do you make that work for you when you need to fill your next opening?

Know your organisational purpose
It is rare for people in organisations to talk about their purpose, which this is incredibly problematic. Your organisation’s purpose is its “why”: why are we all here as part of this group? This goes beyond just what the organisation does or makes or provides as a service; those are all parts of the organisation’s mission, or “what” it does.

If you only focus on the mission side of things, you’re going to set out searching for people who have a certain set of skills or credentials. While there are obviously some baseline skills and competencies you’ll want your people to have, if that’s the only matching characteristics you’re examining, you’re only getting a tiny glimpse of what that potential employee will be bringing to work with them.

If you’re clear about why your organisation exists, however, then you can examine how each applicant will fit that purpose. In other words, you’re not just looking to get a fit on skills, you’re also looking to get a fit for your organisation’s culture and values (talked about next). Why is it so important to focus on these facets as well? When employees buy into the organisation’s purpose, they are going to be more engaged, more productive, and more willing to develop, as they are going to be passionate about the organisation. People who bring in a high level of skill but don’t buy into the purpose will be the type who do the minimum to get by or to earn their promotions.

Know your organisational values
Tied to the purpose of the organisation are the values that drive and guide it. Just as with the organisation’s purpose, it’s essential to know what these are and to incorporate them in the search and selection of any new employees. While many organisations have espoused values (in other words, they’re written down somewhere), they often don’t put those values into action. This means the organisation’s structures (rules, regulations, policies, etc.), culture (the work environment and sense of what it’s like to work there), and people are lacking from the benefit of the alignment that comes with agreed upon and consistent values.

New hires certainly don’t need to have identical values to the organisation but it is imperative that the values are compatible with each other. When you have this compatibility, it allows everyone to operate as their authentic selves, develops a shared language on how issues are framed and discussed, and allows your employees to build a professional accountability system that can be enormously valuable in supporting and holding each other accountable.

This reduces the number of rules and regulations required to try to force compliance and changes the dialogue from “what can we get away with” to “what’s the best thing to do to help us reach our purpose”. This is the difference between a cohesive group that challenges each other to improve as they try to reach a shared goal versus one where everyone is out for themselves and leaders have to spend a large proportion of their time checking to try to prevent harmful behaviours.

Make sure you know how to get people who buy-in
If you know your organisation’s purpose and values, the next challenge is ensuring that you can get people on your team who will help in supporting those key dynamics. That means going beyond the boiler plate processes of checking for academic qualifications, years of experience, or asking generic questions about “a time they had to lead a team”. While those all have value, they are unlikely to give you much insight into exactly what that person will look like in your specific organisation.

It’s important to remember you’re not hiring people to be a job title, you’re hiring someone who is going to be a member of your team. So, think carefully about who you want for your team: a disruptor, an innovator, a collaborator, a technician, or something else that speaks beyond just their title and place in the hierarchical chart.

An excellent way to start is by asking applicants what their values are; the follow up question to ask is “how have you lived those values in your life?” This gets you to the heart of not only what they believe in but how they enact those values in their lives. Other ways of generating insight into what a prospective employee would be like if they joined you would be to have them:

  • do activities with existing employees to get multiple points of view;
  • pitch their development plan as part of their interview (essentially, have them lay out their areas for development and how they will work with your organisation to personally develop in ways that speak to the organisation’s needs; and/or
  • explicitly make the case for how they would support the organisation’s purpose, not just be able to complete the tasks in the job description.

Obviously, there is no single way of assessing candidates that will give you all the information you need, so it’s essential that, in the limited time you have with them, you choose those techniques which you feel are most critical to evaluating them in relation to your unique realities.

Make sure you find ways to help them live those values
Finally, it’s essential that you continue to support people once they’re hired if you want them to truly buy into what you’re trying to accomplish. Organisations that can embed their values into the work environment in fundamental ways help to build engagement with their employees. While this is essential for productivity, it’s also at the core of building a productive and sustainable organisational culture. Simply leaving employees alone and hoping they figure it out is not an effective strategy for building the kind of constructive environment upon which thriving organisations depend.

By proactively taking steps to reinforce the values and build in opportunities to discuss how those values are working in practice, you can engineer a much stronger organisation.

Steps to do this are relatively simple but must include multiple facets to ensure the maximum impact. Useful initiatives would be a strong and dynamic coaching or mentoring process, regular professional development conversations (these should be two-way engagements about development, not simply an annual reporting activity), opportunities to work with and get input from cross-functional teams, and leadership approaches that maximise the opportunities for ongoing feedback across hierarchical levels. All these steps can be very useful as they focus on formative feedback – for the individual and the organisation – so that there is a constant monitoring in relation to how well the values of the organisation are being lived and how aligned the work practices are in reaching the organisation’s purpose.