Hiring A Players

WHENEVER A SPA OPERATOR ASKS ME HOW TO find good employees, I look around for a comfortable place to sit down. There is no higher return activity for a spa director, manager, or owner than ensuring their facility is staffed by the most talented, motivated, and dedicated people available. But there is no single process or tactic that ensures you'll be able to do so.

Like life, staffing your spa is a journey, not a destination. Around here, we tend to smile when a manager describes his or her team as being "staffed up." This blissful moment tends to be fleeting—sort of like summer in Alaska. According to Bradford Smart, author of the book Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching and Keeping the Best People (Prentice Hall Press, 1999), an "A" Player is part of an elite group, the top 10 percent of talent available at the rate of pay you're offering. Promoting a Chronological, Structured In-Depth Interview (CIDS), Smart insists that the best predictor of an employee's future success is his or her past success. On the flip side, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman's book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (Simon & Schuster, 1999), based on data compiled by the Gallup Organization over many years, argues that an applicant's history is not as important as their pure, raw talent in predicting future success.

Let's pursue that strategy for a moment. What type of talent are you seeking in your spa employees? A talented massage therapist may still be poor at retaining guests. I've hired some incredibly gifted people whose work went unappreciated because they couldn't muster the courage to invite a guest to return, even after that same guest raved about his or her treatment. I've also hired very talented estheticians who rubbed their co-workers the wrong way. Their managers spent countless hours mediating feuds and cleaning up communication collisions. How much profit was eaten up by this kind of waste? The high-performance prima donna may make the cash register ring, but when employees see you turn a blind eye to her bad behavior, it tells them that you'll happily compromise your values for a buck, which is a bit hard on morale. In most spas, when the prima donna is invited to explore her career opportunities elsewhere, everyone else's performance rebounds. The talent we seek in spa employees is the ability to retain customers while enjoying positive relationships with co-workers. A spa is an exquisitely interdependent environment, and our product can only be described as "good vibes." Alas, those good vibes are delicate and can easily be ruined.


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Increasingly, employers are relying on personality surveys to determine an applicant's ultimate suitability. If you profile a core group of stable, productive employees at your spa, you'll spot key patterns in their behavioral traits. We know that spa employees are largely relationship driven, rather than results driven. Accountants and engineers thrive on accomplishing tangible results; we spa folk thrive on helping others feel good and working with people we like. We can see that line employees (non-managers) tend not to be very dominant. We can also see that our reliable "good citizens" are consistent and willing to conform to rules.

Hire a wonderfully talented massage therapist with a dominant personality to work as a line employee, and you may end up with a "D" Player. Promote that gentle soul who does amazing massage to supervisor, and you may get another "D" Player. It's not just a matter of "getting the right people on the bus," as Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't (Harper Collins, 2001), calls it. It is ensuring that the right people are in the right seats. "A" Players are only "A" Players when they are playing the right position. Sometimes, you have to find different seats for talented employees who are literally "mis-fits" in jobs for which you've hired them. Applying this process at a high level is an organization called Talent + (www.talentplus.com). Healing Waters Medical Day Spa in Wichita, KS, has developed a success profile for medspa employees, which it is now offering to spas in conjunction with Talent +.

Speaking of personality styles, be careful when interviewing someone with the same personality style as yours. Classic personality styles include Expressives (think outgoing, energetic types), Amiables (think massage therapist), Drivers (think Type A, achievement-oriented folks), and Analyticals (think intellectuals). Why is having the same personality style as your interviewee a problem? You'll experience instant rapport—that's what happens when two people of the same style meet. If your style is Expressive, like mine, you'll jabber on for hours with your new best friend and forget to ask all sorts of important questions. Rapport is a sort of opiate. It has nothing to do with a person's skill, talent, or knowledge—but rapport still confers instant credibility. Your best defense? Use a set of questions. Be willing to go off the pavement and explore interesting statements, such as when they allude to their six-month trip to Bali. It can offer a good clue as to how much vacation time they expect. But don't abandon a structured interview in favor of something purely ad hoc. Trust me, your instincts are not that good. The one exception to the rule? If you have a negative, nagging doubt about someone or are on the fence, don't hire him or her.

Some spas try to shortcut this whole time-consuming and tedious process and instead hire employees who will bring clientele with them. This tells the employee that they are welcome to hijack your clients, too, and make off with them when they decide the grass is greener elsewhere. This is old-school beauty business skullduggery, but it's alive and well in our industry. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Don't hire for clientele. If you end up with some, it's a lovely bonus.

There is no process or system that will guarantee that you'll hire the right person every time. You can substantially reduce your chance of making mistakes by using good hiring tools, but the fact is, we never know all there is to know about our employees until we see them in action in real world conditions. Happily, an "A" Player is an "A" Player right out of the gate. The honeymoon period with your new hire will be wonderful. It never gets better than those first weeks of sheer bliss. A bumpy start is almost invariably a sign that you've made the wrong choice. The admonition "Hire Slow, Fire Fast" will spare you and your entire team tremendous pain.

At General Electric (GE), former CEO Jack Welch ruffled many feathers by insisting the lowest performing 10 percent of the company's employees be terminated annually. His relentless pursuit of a company populated by pure "A" Players was legendary. On the other end of the performance spectrum, GE's talent is also developed with single-minded passion. Training and employee development are constant, and mentorship is deeply institutionalized.

"Knowing what you know now about this employee, would you enthusiastically rehire them?" Thus goes my favorite gut-check question for managers who are trying to build a great team. This one always makes our consulting clients squirm. Heck, it makes me squirm. Welch's seemingly ruthless behavior addressed a truth we must all admit to ourselves. Twenty percent of our employees have 80 percent of the regular clients, and 20 percent of our employees create 80 percent of our headaches. Who knew? In sparing that other 10 percent, Welch was actually being nice.

While the feel-good culture of a spa would never withstand the angst caused by such competitive herd-culling, most spa operators could benefit from a more objective measure of the effectiveness of the team. A very personal, "family" business culture may work when a spa is small. With growth, however, that spa becomes—like a lot of families—dysfunctional. "A" Players don't want to be adopted. They want to play for a winning team.

The more "A" Players you have, the easier it becomes to attract still more of them. When this phenomenon kicks in, you'll find that your job becomes much easier. I've been told that the two responsibilities a business owner never fully delegates are financial management and hiring. So don't expect to ultimately hand off your "A" Player hiring now that things are running smoothly. Building a terrific team is the most important and satisfying thing you can possibly do with your time.

Peggy Wynne Borgman is the CEO of Wynne Business and the director of two Preston Wynne spas. Borgman is a principal consultant and seminar leader for Wynne Business and author of Four Seasons of Inner and Outer Beauty: Spa Rituals for Well-Being Throughout the Year (Broadway Books, 2003). She is also a member of the Day Spa Association's advisory board. You can reach her at [email protected].