How Hedgehogs Hire

In my last column, I explored Jim Collins' "hedgehog" principle, and how powerfully this can be used to attract great employees. After many dozens of CEO interviews, I'm convinced that leaders with well-defined hedgehogs deploy the most successful hiring models.

Recent job growth figures mean that more firms are competing for the same talent. This causes additional pressure on us to determine how we can minimize attrition of our best people.

I interviewed CEO's of successful small to medium-sized companies to find out how they are addressing this trend. They had to meet two criteria: First, they had to report consistent profitable growth for the last 3-5 years, and second, they had to demonstrate a serious passion for attracting and retaining good people.

Rod Walker, President and CEO of Knightsbridge Technology, a consulting firm based in Chicago, meets the criteria. According to Walker, "recruiting the best talent is my number one priority. As we experience 41% CAGR, we've been challenging ourselves to attract premium people quickly while maintaining our culture." It's no wonder that Knightsbridge boasts a 15% voluntary turnover rate, much lower than today's services industry average of 25%.

I also spoke with Janet Amirault, President of Software Consortium in Towson, MD. This firm provides strategic IT consulting services to clients such as Black& Decker, Sylvan Learning, and Marriott Corporation. They have delivered 15+% annual growth in the last 9 out of 10 years. Of the two good performers who resigned in the last year, both became corporate clients.

These leaders shared common strategies:

1. Design the position first, then recruit. Amirault suggests, "Document the key knowledge, skills and behaviors that you need for every position." In my experience, many firms still rely on job descriptions to attract good people and skip this critical step. Some positions will always require certain credentials and education. What's often missing are the key behaviors you'll need to rapidly align this person with your company's culture, processes, and values.

You'll also need to review your interview questions. For example, if you want to ensure this person has a commitment to lifelong learning (a behavior), how would you know? Amirault recommends that you "Ask very specific questions, such as 'what were the last two courses you enrolled in while you worked at ABC Company?"

2. Implement multiple candidate data collection methods. Consider personality surveys (such as PDP/Dynapro and Myers-Briggs) and external background checks (such as Kroll America). Most of these programs require less than 30 minutes of your time and may cumulatively cost less than $500. The investment is a fraction of the cost of one bad hire, which ranges from $100K in IT to millions for mortgage brokers.

3. Beef up your systems and enabling technology. According to John Walsh, President of Del Mar Database in San Diego, "Growing your own leaders can be a very effective strategy, but it requires very good business processes and technology. Internally promoted teams need better tools because of their lack of experience." The Mortgage Bankers Association projects a 47% IT capital budget increase in 2004--two thirds of which is slated to streamline processes for loan origination professionals.

4. Increase your commitment to consistently providing professional development. Knightsbridge invests over $1M annually in training and pays special attention to new hire and junior consultant development. That's nearly 3% of revenues. Software Consortium have shifted a solid percentage of their training budget from standard technical skills to leadership and sales disciplines.

These great examples prove that if you treat your hiring system like gold, and your hedgehog is strong, you just may 'outfox' your competitors!

Lisa Nirell is President of Nirell & Associates in Del Mar, CA. ( She helps services leaders who create outstanding client experiences by attracting great employees. She recently completed a 10-month study of top performing services CEOs. For a free subscription to NirellNews and a Special Report on this study, call 858-481-8787, visit, or email Please mention "" in your response and you may qualify for a free audio CD ($37 value) on profitable growth strategies.

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