business advice | Feb 2, 2021 |
What’s the secret to hiring in a virtual world?

Dear Sean,

As I’ve grown my team, I’ve been so proud of the close-knit work family I’ve built. Now we’re hiring again—and it’s going to be someone we’ve never met. In this virtual world, should I abandon the idea of a “culture fit” and focus on the new employee’s technical skills? What’s the secret to hiring in this environment?

Stumped on Staffing

Dear Stumped,

The quick answer to your question is culture first, technical capabilities second.

In my last column, I talked about the importance of culture and the metrics of success that you set. It is axiomatic that a fantastically run subpar system is almost always better than a poorly run superior system. I am of the belief that the value of new hires is mostly in being a solid support system with great team skills, as opposed to being rock stars.

To think of sports for a second, if the game is dependent on the strength of the weakest link (soccer, football, baseball) more than the strength of a superstar (basketball, hockey), then overpaying for a superstar does not make nearly as much sense as finding the best support player (whose pay is likely less than the superstar’s). For the most part, design firms have only one superstar (that’s you!), and everyone else is support. So ironically, even though you would think that design firms are star-centric, they really are not; they are weakest-link-centric.

Enter Herbie, a character from the business book The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, which tells the story of a Boy Scout hike to demonstrate the theory of constraints. There are 10 Scouts, each carrying a 50-pound pack; the hike is a few miles long, and no one can eat until everyone finishes it. Herbie is the kid who is much slower than the rest. For the group to complete the hike, their goal must be to bring him not only back into the pack, but to the front to set the pace. They are able to do that by taking weight out of his pack and redistributing it to the others—discovering along the way that if any one Scout gets overloaded, they soon become the new Herbie of the group.

The real question for you is, are you still in the mode of offloading weight?

If you are, then you want to hire the strongest player in the area you are looking to hire for. You need to look at who the best in that market is and be willing to pay for them. This means you have to look at your billing practices and make sure your pricing reflects the talent necessary to do the work your clients demand of you, your art and your firm—all in the context of your culture.

Easy enough. However, the larger point is to understand two things about Herbie: First, you are Herbie. If it is about offloading weight so that you can keep up, then the only way to do so effectively is to know that it is permanent. If you are getting dragged back into production, then you really have not offloaded weight.

More important, though, is to recognize that the real value is when you can improve Herbie. For instance, if weight is related to speed, then if Herbie lost 10 pounds, he could take on eight pounds and still be faster. So if you invested first in what would make you stronger in what you do (likely design, both creation and detailing), you would be able to move more efficiently and provide a better flow to your team. Then, Herbie would be pushing instead of dragging, all while taking some weight back.

If you hire support team members who know how your system works and are technically capable, your firm will get exponentially better. The whole point is to focus on you, the single most important asset in the business. Most stop at offloading the pack, when the real opportunity exists in investing in making you better (i.e., hiring a trainer). If you rethink your question in that context, perhaps you will not only get a competent employee, but also improve your culture.

The improvement will look like a distillation process whose result is an ever-purer expression of what your design stands for. Clarity of purpose is where resilience and conviction live, and this conviction, above all else, is what your clients pay for. Developing deeper conviction will reveal better clients who will provide the future you seek. Better to hire for this mission than just to fill a gap, right?

Homepage photo © Tampatra/Adobe Stock


Sean Low is the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.

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