The Two Stages of Hiring

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Note: My partner and I have bought a Harley dealership in St. Augustine, Fla. Now that I'm an active dealer again, I'll focus my column a little more on day-to-day issues, but always with a strategic management perspective. I hope the articles have value — especially since I'll be putting my money where my mouth is.

Hiring sounds tactical, doesn't it? Enlisting a technician, salesperson or bookkeeper doesn't seem to require much "strategic management." But nothing could be more strategic than building up a staff that reflects your strategic vision.

Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, had it right when he espoused the philosophy of hiring for personality, integrity and work ethic. The company finds people with these qualities, then teaches them the airline business.

Who could argue with the success of SWA over the last quarter-century? It has had the best on-time record, least lost luggage, lowest fares, highest customer satisfaction and most loyal travelers. The company is consistently profitable when the rest of the airline industry is in the tank. Have you been on a Southwest flight lately? You get singing and joking flight attendants, cordial pilots, a friendly ground crew, and tons of smiles.

But Herb and his team didn't train them to be that way. They were already smiling before they were hired. SWA's environment allows new folks to maintain good attitudes. At the same time it teaches them the rules of how to execute the plan and manage an airline in an efficient, effective and profitable manner. The title of the short movie at www.EagleSchoolMovie.com makes the same point: "You Can't Send a Duck to Eagle School."

A positive attitude, smiling, a sense of humor, caring, going the extra mile — these are all "soft" phrases. But isn't that what your average customer wants when he or she walks in to spend thousands of dollars? And isn't that the vision you had for your employees when you structured your strategic plan? Sure, you also threw in high levels of efficiency, effectiveness, measurability, profitability and other hard-nosed dictums, but you likely had a picture of a friendly staff that your customers loved and wanted to return to time and again to help them spend their money.

Competence

But wait; does that mean SWA hires pilots who smile but don't have the skills to fly a plane properly? Obviously not. SWA has one of the safest accident records in the commercial airline industry.

Should you hire rookie technicians who can smile but can't fix a bike? Or salespeople who are friendly but can't log all the traffic every day, or take the customer through the sales steps? How about apparel folks who are cute and perky but can't properly size a helmet? Of course not. So here's where the importance of aptitude comes in.

Whether you're just starting out or thinking about revamping your team, the importance of hiring for aptitude is paramount to a successful dealership. Nothing will sink your ship faster than untrained, inexperienced staff. You must have competent people at all levels and points of contact with the customer.

But likewise, you wouldn't want a skilled technician who constantly rubs his fellow employees the wrong way, nor a veteran salesperson who disrupts the entire sales team's momentum.

So which is it — attitude or aptitude? Which strategy will lead to short- and long-term success? Both. Never hire an applicant if you have any doubts about the person's attitude, integrity or work ethic. Regardless of track record, experience or sales awards, if any of these issues surface, that person will cost you many times any short-term gain you might get.

If you're confident that the individual passes the attitude test, then (and only then) evaluate the person's aptitude. Take into account the level of experience required and the department manager's ability to train that person.

Hiring an employee is always a gamble, but if you focus on aptitude and personality, your odds of long-term success increase immeasurably. But don't take my word for it — just ask Herb Kelleher.

Clark Vitulli founded America's PowerSports, for which he served as chairman, president and CEO from 1998 to 2006. Send comments and comments to editors@dealernews.com.