How To Find The Right Hire In A Seller's Market

Reading time ~14 minutes

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Introduction

In the course of my work, I get to learn about particular aspects of our industry. I’ve recently had the opportunity spent a lot of time talking to people about hiring practices in the AEC industry as part of a research project. The overwhelming conclusion I’ve come to is that hiring is a very challenging process for employers. It takes a lot of time, costs money and there is never a guarantee that your newest employee is the right fit for your company. A lot of company founders and principals sing the same tune: the challenges they all face are all very similar. Every step of the process is a challenge, especially in a seller’s market where there is more jobs than candidates (more on that later). Don’t believe for a second that you are alone facing these issues.

Big or small, most firms go through the same process and employ very similar tactics to hire people. Bigger firms will tend to have more budget and being more willing to spend money to find the right employees, even when it comes to junior positions. By and large the way architecture and design firms hire are very similar across the board.

One distinction across all firms is the difference in hiring processes for Junior vs. Senior employees. More money and effort is understandably spent on filling more senior positions, as these employees have a greater impact on the health of the company.


The Challenges:

Finding the right people: from finding the right fit for your company’s culture, to simply finding people who actually have the qualifications they claim to have, recruiters have to do an incredible amount of legwork when it comes to doing their due diligence. This is not helped by the fact that we are currently in a seller’s market, where there is more job offers than qualified candidates. This makes the search for that unicorn, the candidate with the trifecta of qualifications, cultural fit and availability, all the more complex. It is not rare for recruiters to receive applications from people who do not have the desired qualifications, whether it be from a skillset perspective (juniors claiming to have more experience than they do) or even things like the lack of immigration status (people applying from overseas). Most recruiters waste a lot of time sorting the good from the bad.

Then there is the budget issue. How much money should one allocate to recruiting efforts? How much of that budget do you allocate to different tools and resources? Things like job boards, the interview process and legal fees all cost money, but how do you know how to allocate proper resources to each item? Do you not spend any money at all and dedicate only time (which is also costly by the way)?

Recruiters are expensive but also effective as they put their money where their mouth is, because they don’t get paid if you don’t hire their candidates. Therefore, they have an incentive to do a good job. Since they cost about 20% of your hire’s first year salary, it can be a tough pill to swallow, but they tend to make more sense for more senior positions.  

Job boards are great and free (or very cheap), but the main challenge is that they advertise your opening to the world, attracting all kinds of poor fits and forcing you to go through a long and painful curating process. The problem with job boards is that the a large portion of candidates are the bottom of the barrel. Most good employees never have to look for a job and more often than not they get recruited through their network and therefore never peruse the classifieds.

In his classic book, “What Color Is Your Parachute”, Richard Bolles claims that most companies recruit internally or within their network, only using more public means of advertising a position when they have no other option left. That’s because we tend to trust people in our networks much more than strangers so it makes sense that we tap into familiarity before we look for employees more widely.

If a colleague you know and trust recommended someone warmly, would you not make them your primary candidates? I know I would. When I look for people to work with, I always tend to naturally reach out to my network before advertising and when I do advertise it’s with very specific resources. There is a local college that I particularly like because they are known to produced skilled grads, namely people who have skills in demand in the marketplace. Every year I reach out to them to get a co-op student for summer, keeping in mind that these co-op students will eventually look for a job. When they do, we will be in each other’s network and will naturally tend to gravitate towards one another.

I never advertise on standard job boards, because I don’t want the aggravation of dealing with substandard candidates who don’t even take the time to research the company they are applying to and send generic cover letters. I once received an unsolicited application from an overseas candidate who CC’d about a hundred other people on his generic - gasp! - cover letter letter. Needless to say I had a little fun replying to that one, as I took inspiration from these guys to write a spirited response.

Industry-specific job board tend to be a little better than general recruiting sites (Monster and the like), as they attract a smaller subset of candidates, usually of higher quality than generalist boards.

One of the most common complaint is that people really struggle to find a good fit in terms of skill set but even more importantly, from a cultural standpoint. The most qualified of employees will not be comfortable working for a firm espousing values too different from their own. Worse yet, working for a firm who has no established values. In my opinion too many firms spend too much time focusing on skills and experience, as opposed to ensuring that a candidate will fit right into the office culture. Skills can be learned, knowledge can be acquired, but the right attitude, mindset and work ethic is a given we all have to work with. Better find the right candidate with respect to those soft social skills.


Opportunities to do things differently

Now that we’ve laid out some of the biggest challenges recruiters face, I’m going to expand on some ideas that will give you an edge when looking for employees.


Find juniors before they get out of school and keep your network alive:

Since we’ve already established that networks play a huge part in recruiting effort, it pays off in the long term to maintain and expand that network on an ongoing basis. Keep tabs on current and future cohorts of new grads and identify the best of them as much as you can. By the same token, an ongoing internal internship program is a great way to test people out in the wild and see how they mesh with your culture. Other tactics that will help you in that regard are as follows, in no particular order: attending design crits at local school, job fairs, attending industry events, etc.

Outside of the post-secondary education system, it’s good to identify promising prospects and keep tabs on them. Stay in touch once in a while and ask them what they’re up to. You’d be surprised how much a quick check-in once in a while can help you find the right candidate when time is of the essence. That graduate you’ve kept in touch with for years may very well be your next hire if the stars are aligned. A friend of mine maintains a list of people she would like to work with and has coffee with them once in a while, when a position opens at her firm, they are the first ones to get a call.

In a similar fashion, don’t hesitate to have meaningful conversation with your peers on your challenges, successes and good candidates that have showed up on your radar. The sharing of knowledge contributes to everybody’s efforts and makes it a little easier for everyone. It’s also a good idea to sift through the mass of unsolicited applications to keep the interesting ones for later reference. Bonus points if you can have mini pre-screening interview with the candidates that showed interest and look promising. It will give you a good idea of what they’re about. You can always purge that pile of applications more than 6 months old as these tend get out of date quickly. A quick coffee date with a candidate can go a long way and make the interaction a little more human and personal, which never hurts.


Outsource it:

Sometimes it makes sense to hire a seasoned professional to help you with your recruiting. They have the network, resources, expertise and experience that you don’t and can really make a difference when it comes to narrowing down the field of candidates. Some people mistrust recruiters as they are sometimes seen as ruthless mercenaries that will poach people from their current jobs with little or no scruples.

While I can see that being an issue, and I am sure you’d find unscrupulous people out there doing unsavory things in just about every industry. Let’s not forget that these guys have a whole lot of skin in the game as they don’t get paid if you don’t make a hire through them. As far as incentive alignment is concerned, it’s difficult to make it more favourable than that for you. When it comes to ruthlessly poaching people, I would argue that this is the hard law of the marketplace. But if you’re experiencing people routinely leaving your office for greener pastures, I would highly recommend looking past the financial and emotional aspects of such transactions and take a long, hard-look at your culture. The best way to prevent people leaving your firm as soon as something better presents itself is to define, refine and constantly strive to improve your office culture. A great culture creates loyal, fulfilled employees to whom a job is much more than just a salary. I know first hand of such companies: their staff routinely decline other better paying jobs because they’re having way too much fun. Which leads me to my next point:


Work on your company’s culture and constantly refine it:

As a keen observer of the marketing industry, Terry O’Reilly likes to observe and analyze a company’s touch points to see how they interact with their stakeholders (employees, suppliers and clients). O’Reilly says that there are innumerable untapped opportunities for improving any of these touch points: from the way you sign-off your emails to your on-hold phone recordings, via your website and your social media presence, to name a few. The same goes for recruiting: how would you like your potential employees to perceive you and how would you go about them going “I want to work nowhere but there” upon leaving their first interview.

If you don’t know your company culture well enough to explain it in 1-2 sentences, on the spot, you probably have what I call a “by default” culture. A strong culture is your best bet to attract the right talent as it helps in creating an environment where everybody is valued and treated well. Every single company with a strong cultural foundation that I have observed first hand, has happier, engaged, loyal employees, often that wouldn’t leave their job for a salary substantially higher than their current one.

A great culture, as my friend Stephen Shedletzky puts it, equals values x behaviour. In other words, it means that you have to be clear on your why (purpose) and have well-established values. Not only that, but you need to live those values on a daily basis. Values that are not constantly used as a framework for decision making are useless.

GREAT CULTURE = VALUES x BEHAVIOUR


Don’t recruit solely based on skills and experience, and make the hiring process a family affair:

By the same token, a strong cultural foundation will help you focus on what matters most in prospective candidates: their personality, work ethic and ability to integrate an unfamiliar environment. Vitsoe has become a master at hiring slow and firing fast. They are so keenly aware of the need for new recruits to fit in with the culture that they notoriously dismiss candidates that would be perfectly fine for most of the rest of us, mere mortals. A story that stuck with me over the years is that of a technician that they were trying out on the job. On paper, the candidate was a great fit, but on day one, at the end of the work schedule, he tossed his tools in the toolbox and left. The fact that he did not carefully place his tools back in the order they belonged was a deal breaker for them. Needless to say that they collectively decided against hiring him.

I recently got wind that the email address “iwanttokickfearinthenuts@rvltr.studio” I have listed in a summer internship posting that I put up at a local photography school, turned off a potential co-op student who was apparently offended by its attempt at humour. Instead of feeling bad about it, I realized that I had probably dodged a bullet by avoiding someone who would not understand our company’s culture and values. Better to have no fit than a poor fit.

While this kind of pickiness may seem extreme to some, I believe it shows that a company who knows what they stand for to such a degree, will not hesitate to make such decisions because they know the weight that a wrong decision can carry down the road. And being so picky is another way to turn off people that wouldn’t be a natural fit, so the people you’re left with at the end are the best fits for your company. Which doesn’t mean they’re a good fit for anyone else either, by the way.

On a side note, fire fast doesn’t mean rudely dismissing people without empathy. It just means letting go of the bad fits quickly. It’s certainly not a free pass to be an asshole about it. We still all have a duty to be humane, even in the most uncomfortable of situations.

Additionally, the hiring process shouldn’t be just a HR process. People you hire will work with others and most company with a great culture make hiring decision while involving all concerned parties from the Janitor to the CEO. It does make perfect sense to ensure that one’s coworkers can get along with or your run the risk of mutiny.

Ultimately, a resume and cover letter are a quick and efficient way to separate the good from the bad, but to determine fit, you have spend the time with the candidate and test their mettle, better yet: do it under pressure, as it’s when everything goes to shit that problems arise. Try them out in the real work environment and see how they respond to challenges, big and small and more importantly how they treat other people. You probably want to avoid the person who’s going to think that the janitor doesn’t deserve even the smallest of acknowledgement.

Once you’ve made that hire, keep watching them during the honeymoon period and at the first sign of trouble, address it immediately.


Conclusion:

Ultimately, recruiting is a lengthy, challenging process, in which we all tend to be be way too emotionally involved with. While a great culture will help with making interactions more human and personal and ultimately, hire people that feel at home in your company, it is important to remove as much emotional attachment to the decision making process. In other words, trust your gut but don’t become emotionally attached to the outcome.

In Vipassana meditation practice, this is called “Anicca”: the ability to not have any aversion for negative situations, feelings and sensations as well as for the positive ones. Meditation is a great tool to be able to reach that level of zen master self-control, I highly recommend it.


Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaud{at}rvltr.studio.

A vision for the future of architecture?

~ 4 minutes read

In the countless business-oriented books that one can find, there is a trend in recent years of books discussing the core of a successful enterprise. Heavily rooted in empathy, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, it makes empathetic interpersonal relationships the center of attention. Heck, Entire businesses are created around developing empathy-based company cultures and leadership.

There are many stories of business leaders and creatives who created businesses (and failed many, many times while doing it) that were centered on providing satisfaction to their stakeholders in one form of another. There are books focused on teaching us to be better listeners, claiming that in this culture of telling, listening is a rare skill that can lead to great outcomes when wielded properly.

Over the last few years, while continuously educating myself on the matter, in order to understand empathy better and more importantly, why it has become such an integral part of the business thinking zeitgeist, I integrated some of these lessons in my own work. This led to developing services helping architects to develop better cultures and communication strategies.

What is empathy anyway? The dictionary definition is as follows:

“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

It’s when someone tells you the details of a creepy story and you get the heebie-jeebies because you can picture yourself in that predicament. It’s when you become sad because your friend lost a loved one and you remember your own similar experience from a few years ago. It’s when someone tells you about skydiving out a flying plane and you get a rush of adrenaline just imagining what it would feel like.

You may say “OK empathy is great, but what’s your point?” Empathy is important because by gaining a deeper understanding of another’s circumstances helps us understand any given situation better. Combined with the outsider’s perspective, we are now equipped to help others overcome seemingly intractable problems, by having the ability to look past the blinders, yet understand their position at the same time, in other words effectively putting ourselves in their proverbial shoes.

The epiphany

On this journey to learn more about empathy and relationships, I slowly came to the conclusion that the architecture and design industry was in dire need of such help. In the course of my work, I get to interact with many architects and designers and invariably end up looking at their communications and marketing at one point or another. What became painfully evident to me is that there is a trend in the industry for incredibly uniform communications. In other words, architects, by and large, all convey the same message. You can go to any of their websites and you’ll find very similar descriptions of their companies, culture and work.

This lack of distinction in the way firms communicate leads to a general perception that architects are a commodity and therefore interchangeable. While this is also true in many other industries and conversely, one can find designers out there who stand out and buck the trend, the architecture industry is incredibly uniform in that sense. I believe that this is due to a couple of reasons:

  1. Architecture schools don’t teach critical business skills: Marketing, communications, business management, sales and HR among others are painfully absent from architecture curriculums, or an afterthought at best. The heavy emphasis on design and technical knowledge creates amazing designers but largely ill-equipped business leaders.

  2. Architects are generalists: Architects are trained to be generalists and often try to do everything. I think the future of the business lies in hyper-specialization. Instead of competing with a virtually infinite numbers of generalist firms, there is value in picking a niche and becoming the best at that very thing, competing with few or better yet, no firms at all. It may seem scary and limiting, but is in reality liberating because it cuts out a bunch of distracting activities and focuses a firm on one, narrow area of expertise.

Equipped with that knowledge and seeing the opportunity to change the way architects communicate in order to change the public’s perception of the value of architecture (#architecturematters) we are helping clients develop their culture, visual communications and marketing strategy.

Stay tuned for next week’s follow-up article on how we went about doing this.

What do you think stands to be improved in the architectural field?


{Insert flight pun here} Let your projects soar with aerial photography.

When I hear the words aerial photography, it evokes a different perspective, looking at the world through a bird’s eyes. Since we humans, are so accustomed to looking at things from the ground level, which means looking up at the city; having access to this view from above, gives us the ability to appreciate the urban environment from an unusual perspective. A different point of view which makes us appreciate the amazing setting we’re a part of. I personally marvel at the level of human achievement every time I get a chance to look down at the city, as it suddenly comes into focus.

With the advent of consumer-level drones, aerial visualization & photography has become a bit of an ubiquitous commodity, but it has not completely superseded traditional aerial shots from aircrafts, if only for regulatory reasons that make flying a drone in the city both complex and a huge liability (drones also have the bad habit of being very prone to randomly crashing, speaking from experience). That means that to shoot anything from the air in the city, there is not yet a good substitute for planes and choppers.

This is why rvltr partnering with our dear friend and veteran aerial photographer Brett Price(linkedin) to offer you his expertise and knowledge of shooting from the air, combined with our knowledge of the city and its surroundings. Over the course of the first 2 weeks of September, Brett and rvltr will be available to shoot all over the GTA and beyond.

If you had projects under consideration for some yummy aerial photography, now is the time to act and book Brett + rvltr here. Spots are limited and going fast!

Instagram @brettprice / @revelateur_to

The fine print: Each location is shot to your specifications (Close ups, or to show property in relation to amenities etc). If you are interested, book us here, or have any questions please contact us, with the address of the property you wish to have photographed along with roof colour, and size of property. We will get back to you promptly to discuss the details of your project and come up with an appropriate scope of work and budget, based on your needs.

You're not you when you're a commodity.

Last week, we took a look at well-know advertisers and some of their campaigns, as well what makes great advertising.

In this second instalment, we take a look at how creativity is here to save the day, how empathy can help us gain a deeper understanding of our audiences and ourselves as well as the value of risk-taking in a safety-obsessed world.

 

Creativity is only way to stand out

There are many examples of ads out there that were able to stand out and be remembered many years after they were released. If not all of them, the huge majority are remembered because they were conceived in contrast with other, more conventional ads. It’s that contrast with the conventions that made them stand out.

Creativity can take many forms, but humor is the widely considered to be the fastest way to break the mold and send a message that company X isn’t like companies A,B,C and D. It takes courage because as humans, we generally do not like to stand out and want to blend in, to relate. A company with the confidence to stand out, is a company that knows itself well enough to know what makes them unique and not be afraid to communicate that message in their adverts.

 

Understanding of one’s audience is the only way to truly connect.

The risks taken in setting oneself on the path to stand out from one’s competitors can be mitigated by researching one's audience and gaining a deeper understanding of who they are. You need to learn about them, their fears and their aspirations. By doing so, you will gain two things: first, a direct path to forming an emotional connection with them and second, the ability to cut through the noise and send a message that they will instantly relate to.

 

Understanding oneself

Similarly, companies have to spend time understanding themselves and do their homework reflecting on what makes them unique, as well as combine that knowledge with that gained of studying their audience. Finding a purpose is a great place to start. A lot of companies out there have a default purpose that is uninspiring. It is necessary to dig down to what the aspirations of the business are. Every great company has clear and concise purpose and is very clear on what that is.

Armed with the tools of empathetic understanding of itself as well as its audience, any business can set itself on the path to stand out.

 

But I'm afraid of taking risks!

Setting oneself apart is taking a risk, no question about this. There are many examples out there of companies that alienated their audience because their messaging veered too far from what people were accustomed to. However, armed with the right tools, solid knowledge about itself and its audience, a business should be able to find a way to both stand out and not alienate the people it caters to.

Ultimately, it comes down to this choice: either one is willing to take risks and the potential reward is great, or one decides to stick with the status quo with the high probability of commoditization and increased competition, making it harder to run a successful business. Do you want to be Old Spice or Charmin?

It is also important to remember, and O'Reilly explains that in detail in his book, that the large majority of companies who have taken a leap of faith and changed their messaging for the better have seen tremendous returns. Case in point: Snickers with their ongoing "You're not you when you're hungry" campaign has seen their global sales in the first year of running the campaign increase by 15.9%

What are examples of businesses you’ve seen taking similar risks and get results? Comment below to share your thoughts!