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Big Blue Tarp Blog

1 Hiring Tip I Wish I Knew 15 Years Ago [Jan 12. 2017]

by Eric Musselman

A couple of years ago I heard a story at a leadership conference that immediately changed how I approached my hiring process and has proven to have dramatic results.  A while back the CEO of Southwest Airlines – a company that at the time ranked among the best in the nation in customer satisfaction - was asked by another executive if he could share Southwest’s methods for training employees to be friendly and outgoing.  The CEO replied that the secret wasn’t in better training, rather it was this:  “If you want employees that are friendly and outgoing, you need to hire people who are friendly and outgoing”

Hearing that story was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me.  Of course!  Determine the core, essential qualities that make a great staff member, and hire people who already have them.  There are some qualities and characteristics that some people innately have and hoping for young people to develop them over a ten week summer term was unrealistic.   Now, rather thinking I can significantly train my staff and change them in 10 weeks, I try to start off hiring staff who closely fit our ideal and make minor adjustments through additional training.

Our 5 “Must Have’s”

Our hiring process is now geared to determining if an applicant has our 5 “must have” qualities.  All applicants take part in a two-step process - a written application and a 30 minute in-person interview – which help us determine how well they score in these five areas:

1.    Loves, loves, loves working with children;
This might seem like a no-brainer for a business that works exclusively with children, but you would be surprised at how many applicants who apply to work at camp don’t necessarily love working with kids.  They have good reasons for applying – a desire to gain experience, a family history with the camp, wanting to work with friends, were former campers and want to give back...  They may even like being around children.  But they don’t LOVE it.  We’ve learned to look for the youth who’s faces visibly “light up” even when just talking about being around children because those are ones who are still smiling at the end of the summer!

2.    Demonstrates maturity and responsibility;
We remind our staff before the summer begins that they are going to be asked to personally care for and be responsible for other people’s most precious possessions, and that is a huge responsibility and privilege.  We believe that if our parents are willing to hand over the care of their children to us, we owe it to them to hire staff members who are capable of the task.  We look for staff members who can be role models in their attitude, work ethic, language, and character.   Hiring responsible staff means we can count on them showing up for work every day, looking out for the needs of their campers, and making good decisions.

3.    Shows creativity in using limited resources;
We have a saying at camp, ‘Make your plans, then expect them to change’.  There are so many unpredictable factors that go into running a camp program that we have to have staff who can improvise on a moment’s notice –either changing their plans or coming up with completely new ones.  Not to mention, that when plans change, those staff are often asked to use whatever is handy to come up with an alternative activity.  You’d be surprised at how many different activities you can do with a toilet plunger, some string, and a rubber ball!

4.    Is inherently optimistic;
Unless you’ve worked at summer camp, you probably underestimate how difficult  it is to be a really good camp counsellor.  Not convinced?  Think about inviting 5 other children from the neighbourhood – ones your child doesn’t already know - to join you for the next five days from 9 until 4.  You’ll need to entertain them, lead them in activities, feed them…and don’t forget everyone expects those children will go home with glowing reports about you and their fun day!  Add in summer heat, challenging personalities, teenage co-workers, parent expectations and a host of other unpredictable factors...  I think you get the picture!  If you don’t have a naturally optimistic outlook on life, a job like this can bury you pretty quickly.

5.    Is a friendly person that others like to be around.
You know exactly the kind of person we’re talking about:  good listener, makes you feel important, goes out of their way to help you whenever you need it, makes you feel comfortable in a group of strangers...Staff like this are magnets for campers and are the ones those campers remember – by name – years later.  I’ll bet if you were a camper once-upon-a-time you’ve already thought about a counsellor who fits this description!

Working at camp is hard work, and students and young adults who have these 5 key qualities not only survive their summer camp experience, but thrive at it.  Now imagine working with a team made up of people like this – who wouldn’t want to be a part of that!

I now have 15 years of experience hiring summer staff teams behind me.  I can say that overall, the summer teams from the past two years –using this hiring philosophy -  are easily the best two teams that I’ve assembled.  

What about your workplace – is it possible to hire for character over skills?  Have you considered what the personality of your ideal employee looks like?   If specific skills are required, is it worth hiring a person with slightly less skill but better character?  Does your company spend time trying to train character traits that certain employees may never be able to achieve?