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How to hire a great fit guaranteed with Nancy Slessenger (pt 1)

Luke Szyrmer February 9, 2021 88

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Nancy is a world class hiring expert with a unique process derived from first principles that works–just as well when remote hiring just as well as in person. We chat about how Nancy uses her process and what she’s learned over the years, including: 

  • Why people who interview well may be your worst performers and vice versa, and what to do about it
  • Why bomb disposal unit experts get rotated every few years and what it means for your hiring process
  • How to make sure you really are hiring employees that fit the job you need done

About Nancy Slessenger

Nancy is the author of over 20 publications including “How to Write Objectives that Work” with sales of over 500,000 copies and “Difficult People Made Easy”, a booklet of practical tips for dealing with people you find difficult.  She started Vinehouse Essential Ltd in 1995, as a management training and consultancy company.  Nancy was asked to help a client in Australia hire people for his business. The result was the process she developed and honed that now achieves a success rate of over 91% (compared with the average success rate of 25 – 30%). It was developed to work remotely so is ideal for the current situation. Her company, Vinehouse Hiring, now specializes in recruitment and hiring for small to medium sized owner run businesses in the English-speaking world. Vinehouse has clients in US, Canada, Australia and Japan as well as the UK and is the only company offering a one-year guarantee on all its hires.  Before starting her own company, Nancy worked in manufacturing industry, initially at Mars, and was director of an electronics company a few years later. 


I had to pay for the number of times people have asked me for a player or someone with really exceptional communication skills, I’d be a very rich woman. What do you mean by exceptional communication skills? Are you talking to someone who can negotiate with terrorists? He’s never lost. For someone who can talk to an upset customer on the phone and turn them into a really happy customer or someone who can deal at the moment, you know, if you think about all the people in in hospitals having to deal with some really upset, worried, frightened people, in that context, the communication skills of some of those people are absolutely phenomenal.

But they probably wouldn’t want to stand up in front of 200 people and give a talk. The communication skills that we’ve got to be really clear. The easiest way to do that is to think, what do I need this person to achieve? How would I know they were doing a good job and start jotting these things down? But it’s hard and it takes quite a while to do that. But if you get that bit wrong, doesn’t really matter what you do for the rest of your campaign because you’re not going to get the right person.

I think that’s the fundamental thing. You are listening to the online remotely podcast, the show dedicated to helping lead distributor teams under difficult circumstances. I’m the host, Luke Scherba, and I’ve participated in a run distributed teams for almost a decade. As a practitioner, I’m speaking with experts on leadership, strategic alignment and work to help you navigate the issues start facing after you get. Welcome, welcome, welcome back. So today I am excited to be speaking with a world class expert in hiring, Nancy Schlesinger has a really unique approach to doing so, coming from a pretty technical background.

She’s come up with a process for vetting and choosing candidates for all kinds of roles. And she’s so confident in that she she guarantees the results for up to a year after the hiring process is completed. So if the candidate leaves within a year, then she basically guarantees you your money back as a hiring manager. So I’ve invited Nancy on the podcast today to discuss both her process and also what it means for hiring in general in. The unique environment that we find ourselves in and today will cover topics like why people who interview well may be the worst performers and vice versa and what to do about it.

Why bomb disposal unit experts get rotated every few years and what that means for your hiring process. How to make sure you really are hiring employees that fit the job you need done. And without further ado, here’s Nancy Nancy Slessenger.

Welcome to the podcast.

Well, thank you for inviting me. It’s a great pleasure. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into recruiting in the first place?

Well, and I’ll try to keep it recently, sort of people nodding off. But basically, I was a production manager and an electronics factory, and so I had to recruit people into my own department. I was 21. I had about 40 people working for me. So that was why I was hired, because they were actually to work for me. But one of the things I noticed was that there were a lot of people there who just weren’t really that good at their jobs.

So I wondered, well, how did that happen and why did we hire those people in defense of that company? I will say that there was an employment problem at the time. So it was almost like if someone had a pulse, you took them anyway. What I did was I went to my colleagues. There were about six of us production managers and asked people what do their best three and worst three people were? And in production, it’s actually quite easy to measure that because it’s a numbers thing and they’re producing the right amount of staff, is it the right level of quality and so on.

So people gave me those names and I then went to the H.R. department. I got out all their application details, but two piles, good, bad. And then I went through them and looked for correlations and I found lots of correlations, but they weren’t all the things I was expecting. What was the real surprise was that in that really good pile were many people who’d only just scraped through and we almost hadn’t hired. And in the really bad pile, lots of people who we thought were going to be fantastic and they turned out not to be good at all.

So to me, that was really interesting. I thought, how is that happening? So I started doing some research into what was going wrong and there were some key things. Now, remember, these were production people. So you want to really particular kind of person on the shop floor. And so one of the things you were looking for is manual dexterity, because they’re doing things with their hands and they’re actually very skilled people. So we have the skill test where you had a pair of tweezers and you have this little metal pins and typically metal opens up with the tweezers and put them in some holes that we’ve drilled in a block of wood.

Pretty straightforward, you might think. So we would judge them by how many they could put in in a certain period of time. Those kind of numbers they’d only put in 60 or whatever. That was it. They were out. Well, people who only just got enough pins turned out to be some of our absolute best people are the ones who did it all really easily. Turned out not to be good, totally counterintuitive. And the reason was because the people who did it really well were quite extroverted.

So they weren’t nervous when they were doing the test and they just do it. And that was fine. Whereas the more introverted people would be really nervous, a hand would be shaking. They couldn’t get the pins in the holes if you were really, really worried. But they were the sort of people that if you sat down bench taught them how to do something, it may be they took a bit longer to learn it. But once they got it, that was it.

They would just keep going like a steamroller. Nothing would stop them. And they just turned off and it would all be repeatable and good quality. Whereas the people who were the more extroverted ones, they easily got distracted, they lost concentration. They wanted to do something different. They got bored so that only did they not do a good job in their own job to go around disrupting the people who were doing a good job. They that was I know what I said.

Like, that is really obvious, isn’t it? But initially I could see how we’d got that wrong. But the stupid thing was we hadn’t checked. We’ve done the tests and we’ve never checked to see if actually people with good results on that test turned out to be people who were good in production. But another really simple thing was in electronics, this resistor color code, which you may be familiar with, where you look at the color bars on to tell you how many times it is orange for three in red for four to four yellow.

Still, though, after all these years and if you’re colorblind, that is a bit of a problem.

We didn’t do a test for color blindness, so it was another basic thing. And then another one was if you couldn’t see the wires, the wires were about twice the thickness of a human hair. My department. And half the people we hired couldn’t actually see the wires. There were some really simple things that actually without much effort, you could get a lot better. But the key thing was looking at what you’re doing, what you’re testing, and does it actually give you the result you think it’s going to give you?

And sometimes it does. At other times it doesn’t. So that’s how I got into it. And I also made some really mistakes. I mean, really bad.

Well, I mean, I think that that was before you did that analysis or.

Yeah. Or Yeah. And and afterwards, because hiring is really difficult. The better you think you are at it quite often, the worse you are because you get a bit blasé sometimes. I think we should do it a bit like the bomb disposal units in the army where they only let you do it for about three years because after three years you get a bit blasé and start making mistakes. There’s a time limit on how long you can do it, apparently.

So a bomb disposal person told me, say, you’ve got to be really careful not to get complacent and think your interviewing skills are really good and you can just do an interview without preparing and all that kind of stuff, because I don’t think you can trust me.

So what are common things that people assume are true about hiring that aren’t?

That’s a really good question. Writing a good résumé is really difficult and by a good one, I mean one that actually accurately represent your skills and what you can do for a company. I guarantee my own résumé. I’ve got someone to help me do it because it’s really hard to be honest and straightforward about yourself. So lots of people get professionals like me. I’m just helping someone with one at the moment. And unbelievably, the guy’s a copywriter. So you’d think you should be able to write a really good résumé and that he’s made some basic, fundamental mistakes.

So don’t rely on CVS and resumes because first of all, they quite often exaggerate things quite often. There are things on there that aren’t actually true, but probably worse than that. They don’t include really key good information because your job’s going to be different to other jobs they’ve applied for. So it’s going to be things that this person’s done that they haven’t bothered to put on their résumé because they just don’t think it would be relevant to the just forgotten.

That would be really good to know. When you don’t know them, you just toss that resume aside thanks to that person. So I think you missed a lot of good people by relying on resumes and CVS.

So presumably you have a different way of doing that first cut yet when you have a lot of people. So how do you do that?

Yeah, we do that by asking them to fill out an application form. When you ask which are the biggest mistakes, and I think probably the even bigger mistake, which is really fundamental, is not being absolutely clear about what you need, which is very difficult, especially I think a lot of people that might be listening to this will be hiring someone for a new post. So it’s not as though you’re replacing someone who is perfect, which makes it a lot easier because then you can say, well, we want someone just like Luke is three degrees in this and all these other skills and speaks two languages or have you speak whatever when you’re hiring for the new post, you can’t do that.

So you have to be really clear about what you need that person to be able to achieve. Most clients come to us and they say, we want someone who’s got these really great interpersonal skills, who’s a player. So what does that mean? If I had a pound for the number of times people have asked me for a player or someone with really exceptional communication skills, I’d be a very rich woman. What do you mean by exceptional communication skills?

Are you talking to someone who can negotiate with terrorists and who’s never lost? For someone who can talk to an upset customer on the phone and turn them into a really happy customer or someone who can deal at the moment, you know, if you think about all the people in in hospitals having to deal with some really upset, worried, frightened people, in that context, the communication skills of some of those people are absolutely phenomenal. But they probably wouldn’t want to stand up in front of 200 people and give a talk.

Mm hmm. The communication skills that you’ve got to be really clear. The easiest way to do that is to think, what do I need this person to achieve? How would I know they were doing a good job and start jotting these things down? But it’s hard and it takes quite a while to do that. But if you get that bit wrong, doesn’t really matter what you do for the rest of your campaign because you’re not going to get the right person.

I think that’s the fundamental thing.

So basically this form would reflect what you’re looking for. Right.

So what we do is when we’ve worked out what the person actually needs to be able to do, what skills and behaviors we’re looking for and the values are, we then devise a way to check each one of those criteria so we could have, say, 50 or 70 criteria. And we look for a way of checking each one of those and we pick out some of those to go on the application form. So we try to pick the key things, because what you’re trying to do is if you’ve got 100 people, you want to whittle that down as quickly as you can to the four or five people who have got the kinds of skills you’re looking for.

And that’s quite a good way to do it. Much easier than sorting through resumes and CVS.

Does it matter what type of skill? It is? Not my experience. No, we do it for all different skills. We have someone complained the other day that at his level he shouldn’t have to fill in this form. And it turns out that judges in this country have to go through a process not unlike the one that we put people through. Lots of senior people have to go through a process like that. And we do it for warehouse people, for pays, for admin people.

Obviously, the questions are completely different for each role. And even if it’s the same role in two different companies, the questions are still different because the jobs are different, the culture is different and so on. Let’s see what are the down to the the five or so that you want to speak to. What’s your approach to interviews and how to figure out amongst those five?

Right. OK, let’s say you’ve got 70 different criteria. You pick out some of those that will then go on the application form and that filters out most of your candidates. And then you use the rest of those questions when you’re interviewing people. Now, we tend to do two interviews, so we do one for our clients and then we send them an interview that they do for the final candidates. And quite often that could just be one or two people because we’ve filtered out everything else.

It depends on what you’re trying to do. We have one particular criterion that we apply to virtually every role that we hire for, and that is, does the person take responsibility or do they blame people? They blame others for things when they go wrong, because in my experience, working with people who just blame other people when things go wrong. It’s not much fun. It’s really damaging way to behave when it can be not too much of a problem, but it can also lead to all kinds of issues.

So for us, if someone feels that hurdle, then no matter how good they are on everything else, basically they failed. But depending on the job, sometimes if you’ve got 90 percent of what? The client requires that actually that’s fine, because they can learn the rest of it, that you ask questions at the interview to find out if the person has actually done the sorts of things and achieve the kinds of things you need them to do, or if they could learn how to do this, because most people aren’t looking for exactly the job they’ve already got.

They’re looking to progress in some way. So you’re not going to get someone who’s just going from director of whatever it is to exactly the same in another job.

Well, I think also, especially as you go up, there’s a different mix of skills required depending on the company and certainly for roles like product manager or it could be marketing based on other one. It could be almost the developer, for example.

Yeah. And all under the same label. Oh yeah.

That’s another minefield actually. Now that you’ve brought that up, his job titles, job titles, it’s got a lot worse since I was young when I didn’t think there were that many different jobs like there are now. And the job titles can be just nothing like what you’d think they were. And where we’re advertising the same job in Australia and the US at the moment, completely different job titles for exactly the same job. So you’ve got a research that really can’t be, because if you get that wrong, you are just not going to get candidates that you need because people won’t be looking for it to thing basically.


But within job posting systems like Monster Interesting’s. So you have this process that you find from first principles. How is it different than what? People would instinctively do if they’re looking for someone. Well, I think most people, they start off by saying we want a product manager so that come to us with the job title and then we’ll go through it with them and we’ll say, actually, this isn’t a product manager. This is something else. So the first thing they would have got wrong would be advertising the wrong thing and they would do some ads.

That is to say, oh, we’re a great company, kind of work for us. It’s going to be fantastic. There’s a little bit about the company and really not much about the job or it’s a very flattering view of the job. Now, what happens then is, first of all, you don’t get the right applicants because you’ve got your job title wrong. Secondly, they think it’s all going to be this particular role, all lovely. And it then turns out not to be.

So of course, they’re not going to be happy. They’re not going to be the right person and they’ll probably leave. One of the things I think it’s really important to do is to be absolutely honest about what the job really is. And some people are quite reluctant to do that. But what they forget is that there are parts of the job because quite often our clients, they used to do this bit themselves because they’re entrepreneurs who are growing their company.

So they used to do everything themselves when it first started and then gradually delegating things off. And these are things they don’t like doing. They just love doing the marketing, but they hate doing the actual sending the stuff out, organize the manufacturer something and see what they’ll do is they won’t be very explicit about the bits they didn’t like because they sort of think nobody else likes this because I don’t like it. It’s actually that’s not true at all. There are a lot of people who actually love doing the things you hate doing.

And we actually did an ad years ago, which I think the headline was Help. Can you sort me out? My desk is a mess. I need someone who can do these things, which I hate. Got a fantastic woman because she loved looking after other people and tidying up after them. I know that sounds bizarre, but there are people who like to do that and they like the other people to do those bits. They don’t like doing so.

In fact, years ago when I said to my department, I was looking at how much people like their jobs, I was trying to find out how to make jobs more enjoyable for the people in the sector. I was running and I sat down with this woman, Margaret Lovely, were really skilled. And I said to her, Do you like this job? And she said, This is my favorite job in the whole factory. I said, OK, come on, you don’t have to say that just because it’s maybe it’s OK to tell me why do you like this job if you pointed to a job in the corner of the factory, she said, well, I would hate that job over there because you’re just doing ten little things on a board.

It’s a pretty circuit board every few minutes and it’s boring. It’s just not enough variety. And I thought, OK, and she said, you also sat on your own. You can’t talk to your friends. OK, that makes sense. Then she pointed to the job that would have been my favorite, which is making the prototypes. And she said, I would hate that job. You’d be really good at that. I would be so nervous.

I was going to make a mistake. And I thought, OK, and it’s too complicated for me to chat to my friends while I’m doing it. So I thought that makes total sense. And then she said, But I love this job because it’s complicated enough not to be boring, but it’s not so complicated. I can’t touch my friends while I’m doing it. I know I’m doing a good job, a printed circuit board with it right in front of us.

She put in all these components in which the next person, other one would arrive all day. And then I thought, yeah, that’s great. She turns to me with this look of pity in her eyes, put her hand on my shoulder and said, But it must be awful doing your job, because every time something goes wrong, everyone thinks it’s your fault.

That was one of my all time favorite jobs. Not that never occurred to me that someone might not want that job. It was like, wow, what arrogance. Never thought of it. She taught me such a lesson. So you always have to think there is going to be a person who will love this job. Be totally honest about it. As clear as you can and people, the right people, I think I love that job where everyone thinks it’s my fault when everything goes wrong, changing direction a little bit, although not completely.

Where do you fall on the importance of cultural fit versus competence or other factors?

That is such an interesting question. I had just been reading something about this recently. Have you read the book Messe by Tim Harford? No, just plug it because it’s really worth looking at. I’m a great fan of Tim Harford. He talks about whether we should be really well organized to spend all our time finding things and all that kind of stuff, but also about diversity and the benefits of diversity and how groups where you mix things up a bit and you’ve got somebody they don’t really like would ever actually seem to achieve more.

I think you have to be really careful about cultural fit versus am I just recruiting more, Mieze? A lot of people who are the same, who are never going to change anything, that they’re going to have any different ideas, and I hired probably one of the best people I’ve ever hired is who is our bookkeeper. And the cult of personality of a bookkeeper is someone who’s a bit annoying because there are nitpicker, they need to be able to look at something and say, Nancy, there’s one problem here was but that’s what I’m bookkeeper’s.

Therefore, they need to say your expenses are not getting paid to do that. Used to say they’re not there by the end of the month. You just don’t get until next month. I own the company. Look, if I still had these rules.

But the thing was, she was great for the company because we needed someone who wasn’t as laid back as I was about those sorts of things. I’d like everything to be perfect, but I’m not as fast about as she was. And so it was fantastic. And she was pulling up on things but throwing other ideas that we haven’t thought of. Absolutely great. She’s so dedicated to still working from for her hospital bed when she was literally dying. The point that Tim Harford makes is that when you look at how well and say towns and cities do the ones that have immigrants and your polish my dad’s an immigrant from Germany, the ones that have immigrants in them are more successful because those people come in with new ideas, new perspectives and so on, see things in different ways.

And he talks about when Hitler got rid of all the Jews in science in Germany, basically wiped out science in Germany for quite some time because he took away the group, was adding a lot lot of good ideas. So I think you need people who share your values. And we have some very clear values in my company and the key one and that I realized over the years is the absolute heart of everything we do is that every candidate we should be able to honestly and openly and clearly give them feedback that will help them in the future if they didn’t get the job.

I mean, obviously, if they did as well, because it’s a bit easier in that case. But if we can’t do that, then we’re not doing our job properly because we should just be out by hand on one hand and say, look, look, in this role, we need someone who can spell perfectly in your application form. There were these four spelling errors and there were 10 in your CV. So if you want this kind of job, you’re going to have to do something about that.

But what I probably also do is say, quite frankly, that I’ll be looking somewhere else if I were you, because this isn’t suited to you. And you need to look at a role where these other skills that you’ve got are more important. But that’s really key to me. And it sets how we do everything. Basically, it means we have totally clear criteria, totally clear ways of finding those things out and of treating people. We don’t always get it absolutely right, obviously, but we certainly try to clarity is absolutely critical.

How do you go about achieving that level of clarity?

Sometimes it’s not that difficult, but it can be because I think a lot of people, if you go back to that communication thing, they’ll just be saying, oh, yeah, we want a really good communicator. Well, what do you mean? Well, you know, just a really good communicator, you know? So the easiest way to do that is to take people through actual specific situations and say, right, what is a really difficult communication situation this person would have to deal with?

How would you expect them to behave and what would you want them to achieve in that situation? On the values, a lot of people have worked out values because to me that’s the thing when you talk about cultural. That if they’ve got the right values, then usually. That works, but I think you have to be a bit careful about cultural stuff without a thing, just recently some guy on a case because he’d been told he wasn’t going to be a cultural fit to fit in with a bunch of eight women who he’d actually been working with for the last year.

The trouble is, that was just a headline and it could have been totally valid. Yeah, I don’t know. You might have been. Behaving quite offensively, so I don’t know the details, but I’d really advise people to get people from outside their.

Sort of normal group, if you possibly can, but the values are the key thing, I think there is an argument for keeping the values central and that could be a wide variety, you know, different types of people. So you still get the plurality of perspectives.

And that’s the key thing about the values, is values drive behavior. Right. So if you are not there but someone shares your values, then when you’re not there and they have to make a decision, then more likely to do the kind of thing you would have liked them to have done. If you’ve got the right values, they drive your behavior. So you will do the right thing. When whoever’s in charge isn’t there, if you haven’t got those, that then can be a real problem.

And that is when I used to do a lot of work with people who were so-called difficult people. And I’d be there kind of trying to turn them into good employees. And the biggest problems were when they just didn’t share the right values. And then it was like, this is going to be a lot of effort and we’re not really going to get a good result at the end of the day. So really, really important. As you can hear, Nancy’s got a great way of quickly getting across the key points related to hiring, which maybe feels quite abstract and difficult to get your head around.

I think my biggest takeaway is the importance of process, even in this context. And and in particular, going back and check, it’s actually telling you what you think it’s telling you, because just having one isn’t really enough. You may be following your process, but actually hiring people that then turn out to be a bad fit. Tune in next time for part two of the discussion. Thanks for listening to this episode of the online remotely podcast, if you enjoy the show, please leave a review on iTunes, Google podcasts or wherever you get your podcast.

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