"Great vision without great people is irrelevant." — Jim Collins

You can find, hire, and retain great employees, but it is a lot of work, and worth every bit of your effort if done right.

I was working with an organization of several hundred people that was struggling with low-performing employees and with keeping the few employees that did perform well.

We analyzed the situation, and found that they sometimes hired people that worked out well, but more frequently, they made hiring mistakes in one or more ways.

In my research, I came to understand that the world of medicine in recent years learned an important lesson from the world of business. Medical professionals looked to manufacturers to see how it was that they could produce consistently high quality products at competitive prices. One of the many things they found was that many manufacturers use a simple but highly effective tool: the checklist.

By carefully preparing a list of steps, each one that is vital to the success of producing the product, and then holding each other accountable for following that list, the results are positive, consistent and profitable.

When medical researchers applied this concept to medicine, the results were encouraging and exciting. Complications during surgery were reduced 35 percent. The death rates decreased 47 percent.

We can use the same tool to find, hire and retain high performance employees.

There tends to be two major mistakes often made in hiring: Doing things in the incorrect sequence, or skipping steps vital to the success of the process.

For instance:

  • Many companies post the position opening before a job description is created or before the current job description is reviewed and updated
  • Interviews are often conducted before wage and benefit decisions have been made
  • Hiring supervisors sit down to select the finalists without having documented and prioritized the required qualifications or characteristics
  • ♦ New positions are filled before they know where the new employee will physically be located, or work supplies and equipment are acquired
  • ♦ New employees arrive at work on their first day with no orientation plan, no person assigned to shepherd them through their first day, and no formal training arranged.

With these mistakes so common, there is little question why it is so difficult to consistently hire and keep high performance employees.

My client looked for common denominators both when the new hire worked out, and when they failed. We also conducted other research to determine the best practices of other companies. We combined all of this and tailored a list of steps designed to meet the needs of this organization.

Some of the steps that seemed to have the biggest impacts on improving performance include answering questions like:

  • What condition do we want to exist as a result of filling this position that would not exist if we did not fill this position?
  • If we have had other people in this role, what additional skills or characteristics would improve the fulfillment of the assigned duties?

All of the steps were organized into eight phases:

  1. Preparation
  2. Recruiting
  3. Interviewing
  4. Screening
  5. Offering and Hiring
  6. Orientation and Training
  7. Supervision, and
  8. Discipline

We printed off small, spiral-bound books that listed the phases and the steps within each phase. A policy was established that required one of these books was to be used for each open position, that the supervisor needed to sign the book before any work was done on commencing the process, and that everything in the first phase needed to be completed and approved before moving on to the second phase, and so on.

Acceptance of the new procedure was not instant or easy. Supervisors preferred to do it in their own manner without so many rules and regulations.

But the results were dramatic and instantaneous. New staff hired following this procedure were more qualified, more prepared, more productive, and more content.

A year or two later, we noticed that the old problem with low-performing employees returned. Upon investigation, we found a clear cause and effect: where we had performance problems, hiring supervisors and their managers had stopped following the procedure. Once the procedure was put back in use, the problem reduced rapidly.

It is said that it is foolish to do the same thing over and over again and expect the outcomes to change. If you are not satisfied with your organization’s success in hiring and retaining high performance employees, you may want to step back, document what steps you need to take to improve your outcomes, then follow those steps and see how outcomes change. Modify the process as you learn through experience.

Hiring and retaining high performance employees is an art, but even an artist can benefit from the application of some science in the process.

Dave Bartholomew and his wife Nancy are retired and living outside of Leavenworth. The last 14 years of his career were served as a business adviser to leaders around the world. He and Nancy also owned Simply Living Farm, a retailer of goods for a sustainable life. Prior to that he was CEO of several manufacturing companies in the outdoor recreation industry. He has authored three books, written numerous regular columns and taught at many universities.