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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Payne

Recruitment - What's in their bones?

In writing the piece on company culture recently, I touched on recruitment, but in doing so I thought it was worthy of expansion and covering the subject relevant to culture in more detail such is its importance.

When it comes to recruiting the right people for your business that will embrace and thrive in the company culture that you have started or continue to develop, you should have already made some decisions in keeping with your values, ethics, and red lines that determine who you should potentially employ and who you shouldn't and your recruitment process will be heavily influenced by this.

As with "ideas" you develop as a business leader, you glean information from other people throughout your life and career, so when you start out from school or uni, you know very little about the business world, and as you get older you should at least be constantly learning from others and from day to day events, otherwise known as experience. In doing so, you grab what I called "chestnuts" that I clung onto and shamelessly incorporated them into my own thinking. These influencers start out as your parents, teachers, bosses and mentors but I learnt in actual fact that some of the best content came from the most unexpected sources, so I used to make a concerted effort to try to listen harder and glean something from any conversation, but that is for another blog. Sometimes these chestnuts are in fact nuggets of gold that create a spark of excitement.

One of these gems that resonated with me was something I heard about fourth hand about how the MD of a business interviewed everyone who was potentially going to work for that business from Directors to weekend staff, no exceptions. As a piece of incoming information, I found this fascinating. It wasn't a small business either, but it felt like a really good idea. As I understood it, they wanted to make sure that there was no margin for error in selecting the best people. I was at the time rebuilding a business after acquisition spending a lot of time creating a brand bible, defining cultural values, so the timing was very relevant for me.

Now there must be balance between what is practical and what could hold a business back. I heard another anecdote once about how a multimillion-dollar business still had their CEO signing all the cheques as he couldn't trust anyone else to do it, but a process could have covered that. Could a process safeguard the culture of a business, until such time as it has become second nature and ingrained into the sinew and fabric of it? I decided no it couldn't. It is all well and good having a vision and creating a culture that will define the values of the business and then define what type of people should join it, but how do you maintain the standards, make sure it wasn't compromised? I had to become the gatekeeper, the brand ambassador as I later called it.

So, from that point forward as MD I interviewed every single member of staff that potentially came to work for the business, however, interviewed was maybe the wrong way to describe what I envisaged we needed to do. In thinking about the type of people we wanted to join the business I felt we needed to be screening candidates differently. Up to that point I had still interviewed most people that came to work for the business, but not all. A first interview was conducted by a Manager or Director, then a second or third would take place with the Director and/or then me depending on circumstance. I immediately started doing these interviews with my Managers and Directors and it dawned on me straight away that we were pretty much conducting the same interviews by and large, asking very similar questions on targets and performance, asking for examples of this and that, we just wanted to hear it for ourselves from the applicant.

This carried on for a few weeks whilst I tried to distil in my mind what I wanted to do and how best to get there, and I kept reminding myself of the gatekeeper analogy. You had to get passed me to get in. As such I changed the process with my guys so I was the last interview alone, the gatekeeper, and in coming to see me, they had in fact passed muster up to that point, which in itself carried some value with the candidates, and actually made people want to work for us. We weren’t a small business, but everyone was very impressed with the fact the business was making so much effort in the screening process that they had a private hour-long meeting with the Managing Director. It was during this realisation that I it occurred to me that I had to change the orientation of my own interviewing technique.

I had always been a little more unconventional in my style, but what was I interested in? Was it sales, viewings or conversion rates? No, my Sales Director will have covered all that and would have been satisfied it was up to scratch otherwise he wouldn’t be wasting my time with the meeting. It was the cut of their jib I was after, the cut of their cloth. I best pictured it as what was in their bones themselves, their very essence that could never be changed by anyone. Cut one in half like a stick of rock and you see what they were made of. The penny dropped on how to articulate it to others. It was nature as opposed to nurture. I wanted to know whether they were the type of person that would fit in, would share our vision, for being a professional, highly trained, compliant organisation where well publicised estate agency tricks of the trade were not tolerated, where we played hard but treated people honestly and fairly. That's all I cared about so that's was all I asked about.

From that point I changed the way I conducted these meetings. As I mastered the way I did it, I started each meeting by saying that I was not going to ask them a single question about their previous employers, performance or jobs, and I am sure my Sales Director has covered that. Instead I just wanted to chat to them and get to know them better. And that was it. I honed my craft, played my version of scruples, tested their judgment in different circumstances, set them good cop bad cop traps to see if they would be tempted, and through my countless thousands of interviews just relied on my instincts as to whether they were likely to be one of us. I received constant feedback from people saying, they had never had an interview like that, and that they really enjoyed it, and it was a bit different, refreshing. When that started, I knew I was on the right track.

Picture the interview process in Channel 4s Who Dares Wins when 25 challengers see if they have what it takes to pass SAS selection. It was in principle, if you swapped the army fatigues for suits, the Scottish mountain for a London office, the same. If you watch the series, you will know they don’t care about fitness, muscles, how hard you were or any of the machismo or impressive stats about deadlifting weights. All they cared about was the measure of the man, character traits such as integrity, honesty, and compassion. Could he be relied upon as a loyal team member to cover their backs when it got tough? They could change everything else, nurture can be controlled and manufactured, fitness achieved, muscles grown. Nature is the DNA of the individual, the salt, the value set. That was what could be relied upon on the battlefield. Conditioning could be reversed, corrected.

I read somewhere that this value set of an individual, our morals, our sense of right from wrong, our ethics, our sense of loyalty, our nature is defined as early as 10 years old. Nature is done by age 10.

All I cared about was the nature of my potential employees no differently, and hearing that story that day helped crystallise that in my mind and redirect my focus on what getting the right people meant to me and our business. I could nurture and train them to sell and let houses our way, tick our boxes, follow our processes. I couldn't rewire them though. No one could, so they were either a fundamentally right fit or not. It's down to every business, team, group or organisation to work out what the right fit is for them and then design a selection process around that


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