business advice | May 17, 2022 |
What should I be looking for in a new hire?

Dear Sean,

I’ve been following your column for a long time, and I am familiar with your “coffee table test” as a measure of whether or not a junior employee is empowered to make the best decisions. But how do I get to that place? I’m in the process of hiring now, and I am wondering: Are there specific qualities that you suggest I look for? I have reviewed candidate portfolios, but I suspect there are better measures of potential that I would be wise not to overlook.

Now Hiring

Dear Hiring,

The “coffee table test” is first and foremost a measure of culture. To summarize: A junior employee is alone in the house at the end of a big install day. They notice that the 500-pound coffee table, which sits on a thin rug, is six inches off in one direction or another. What do they do? They could call back the install team to have the table properly moved—perhaps at significant expense to either you or the client. They could shove it with all their might, or even try to MacGyver the situation, perhaps putting towels under the base.

But the first step in the test actually starts with you: It’s about understanding what you would do, and what you would want done. The only right answer is the one that fits your culture. “Get it done” means giving the table a push. “Get it done right” always means the install team. “Get it done with ingenuity,” if possible, means finding towels.

When you are looking for a new employee, you have to first be candid with yourself. Do you want someone who loves following orders, and the more tasks given the better? In that case, you’re searching for a good soldier—just do not expect interpretation or independent decision-making. Or do you want problem solvers, those who refuse to provide anything other than what they would stake their job on? This entrepreneurial employee will be voracious in their effort to be better—and you might become frustrated if all you want is for the task at hand to be completed, not the ever-present challenge to improve. Truly, the candidate is a unicorn if they embody both qualities.

All of the above said, I absolutely believe that the future belongs to those that seek out integrity: integrity to stand behind their work no matter the circumstance; to be honest about their capabilities and timing (no martyrs); and to be curious about what could be better. If this is whom you seek to hire, challenge your candidates with an unsolvable problem like the coffee table test, give them a tight time frame to complete it, then see what comes back. Next, talk to former employers (and even teachers), and find out your potential hire’s mindset by asking questions not about their performance, but about their attitude. To paraphrase Good to Great, a book on leadership and company culture by business advisor Jim Collins, I would rather have the right people on the bus than have them sit in a particular seat.

Hiring a new employee is a classic example of making a long-term decision (after all, firing anyone is an effort and almost always happens later than intended) for what might be a short-term problem (you are super busy and need help now). The aim is to find those who will grow with your new opportunities and whose efforts provide support for your business as it matures well into the future. Yes, they must have the chops to handle what you are putting in front of them (for example, no one is ever going to pay me to sing), but most everything can be learned today given a baseline skill set. Resumes are two-dimensional relics, and I am never a proponent of hiring a “savior” with extensive experience on paper who may or may not fit your culture in real life.

Here is the biggest takeaway: Your clients expect professionalism, integrity and transformation from you. Why would you not expect the same of your employees? You can discover all that if you allow space for someone to reveal themselves. Beware of the platitudes that riddle the hiring process. Entrepreneurship begins with attitude, so ask questions where the answer is idiosyncratic—personalities will be revealed and you will find the alignment you seek.

Homepage photo: Shutterstock.com


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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