Hire for Attitude, Train for
You can’t build a great company without great people. The problem: How do you know the great people when you see them? Rules for smart hiring from Nucor Steel, Silicon Graphics, and Southwest Airlines. BY PETER CARBONARA
First appeared: FC04, p.73
In a conference room on the first floor of the Houston Hobby Hilton, Jose Colmenares surveys a group of 13 women and 3
men and wonders which — if any — have the “right stuff” to become flight attendants with Southwest Airlines. Colmenares is not looking for a fixed set of skills or experiences. He’s searching for something far more elusive and much more important — the perfect blend of energy, humor, team spirit, and selfconfidence to match Southwest’s famously offbeat and customer-obsessed culture. This search occupies Colmenares all day, every day, and it
unfolds in hotel meeting rooms from Texas to California.
Southwest has been the country’s most acclaimed airline for the past decade. And runaway success attracts lots of attention. Last year, the 22,000-person company had openings for roughly 4,500 new employees — and received more than 150,000 applications. It’s the job of recruiters such as Colmenares to work through that vast applicant pool and identify the elite few who can make it at Southwest.
Libby Sartain, vice president of the People Department, says, only half-jokingly, that taking a job with Southwest is like joining a cult. The ultimate employee is someone whose devotion to customer and company amounts to “a sense of mission, a
sense that ‘the cause’ comes before their own needs.”
Colmenares speaks in the same near-spiritual terms. What’s he looking for in a candidate? “An attitude,” he says. “A genuineness — a sense of what it takes to be one of us.” To begin today’s group evaluation, Colmenares asks the 16
hopefuls to fill out and read aloud a personal “Coat of Arms” — a questionnaire on which applicants complete statements
such as, “One time my sense of humor helped me was”; “A time I reached my peak performance was”; “My personal motto is.” Most of the answers are unremarkable, but a few stand out. One man declares his motto to be, “I am the master of every situation.” One woman describes herself as “zippy” — a term that fellow applicants find hilarious, but that Colmenares finds
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The day’s most involved and revealing test is a group exercise called Fallout Shelter. Applicants are told to imagine they are a committee charged with rebuilding civilization after a justdeclared nuclear war. They’re given a list of 15 people from different occupations: nurse, teacher, all-sport athlete, biochemist, pop singer. They have 10 minutes to make a unanimous decision about which 7 can remain in the only available fallout shelter. As the candidates propose, wrangle, and debate, Colmenares and some colleagues watch from across the room.
They grade each person on a scale ranging from “passive” to “active” to “leader.”
At the end of the session, Colmenares and his team compare
notes on what happened. They decide to ask back four people
for in-depth interviews. That’s not bad; many sessions end with no callbacks. They like the “zippy” woman, who was active without being domineering. They like the poise and assertiveness of a young man who emerged as the leader toward the end of Fallout Shelter — although they’re not without their doubts. The man has declared himself a fan of self-help guru Anthony Robbins and described how he built his self-confidence by
walking over a bed of live coals.
“We wonder if he’s for real,” Colmenares confides. Finding out is what the next round of evaluations will be all about.
Four Rules for Hiring Smart
The proposition is undeniable: you can’t build a great company without great people. But how many companies are as rigorous about hiring as they comfortable...
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