About Nancy Slessenger and the Vinehouse Story

In Nancy’s Words…

About Nancy Slessenger, Vinehouse, and why this hiring system just… works.

Hiring is often a really time-consuming, painful exercise that results in a new employee who leaves or doesn’t work out, costing you a lot of money in the process.

I never would have guessed that my days as a production manager and my love of graphs would have led me to a pain-free hiring process that finds the right candidate 92% of the time.

I’ve always loved mathematical brain-teasers. Some of my earliest, most treasured memories are of my brother and I “helping” my dad with the washing up, begging him to give us another mental arithmetic puzzle. He made what can be a laborious task fun. It was a great lesson to learn.

My father left Germany with his family shortly before war was declared. It was a narrow escape. On my mother’s side, my great, great Aunt Sarah was a suffragette – we have a photo of her being released from Holloway prison with Mrs Pankhurst. Tackling problems is in my blood.

Great Aunt Sarah and Emmeline Pankhurst
Great Aunt Sarah (third from left) and Emmeline Pankhurst, (fourth from right) outside Holloway Prison

Over the years my dad often discussed thinking problems along with other issues at work – he was the Head Teacher of a school, Grove Hill, for 22 years. He stressed the importance of looking at the facts. One of the funniest things he mentioned was a reference he had been sent by a former employer of a candidate. It said: “The person who can get this man to work for them will be very lucky.”

My father laughed as he told us. He also told me about an interviewing course he was sent on by County Hall. He said it was interesting to note that the people who thought they were the best interviewers turned out to be the worst. I remember wondering why that was.

Some Analysis

Over the years in my early career as a production manager in the manufacturing industry I interviewed a lot of candidates, not always as diligently and carefully as I should have done. I even did some research to discover why we had so many people in jobs they didn’t seem to be very good at. I simply correlated the expectations we had of candidates after their interviews with their actual performance in the role. I love a graph, you can tell so much from them. This one told me that we got it completely wrong more often than not.

The people we thought were going to be great in the job often turned out to be complete disasters. Many of those who had just scraped through turned out to be star performers.

My Worst Hiring Mistake

The worst mistake I ever made was in interviewing my replacement. Ewan (not his real name) applied for the post of Production Manager in the electronics company I was working for. I was moving into Sales and Marketing. Recruiting my replacement was part of the deal.

I’d been head-hunted for the Production job and hadn’t wanted it. I felt that part of my career was over. But then I heard the words “New Factory” and had negotiated a deal whereby I agreed to sort out the Production department and then transfer into Sales and Marketing, an area where I had no experience, but needed it if I was to build my corporate career.

I had taken on a poorly disciplined department with low efficiency and many quality problems. Within a month we had doubled the output and got the quality under control. The Finance Director told me I’d saved my entire annual salary in my first month.

The team were pulling together. I’d reorganised them and promoted some into supervisory roles. There were some real stars there and we’d had a lot of fun along the way. They had all risen to the various challenges I had thrown at them.

So, when I interviewed Ewan, I was looking for someone to take on my lovely team, they were like my family. We had a pleasant chat at my desk. He was extremely well dressed and several of the department mention afterwards; they thought he was also pleasing to the eye. This should never be a criterion, but It’s so easy to let a person’s appearance bias you, even if you are not aware of it.

He seemed friendly and nice. As I took him and showed him round the production line, he commented that I worried him. I asked him why. He said because he couldn’t really see any way of improving on what I’d done. I naively took this to be idle flattery.

We appointed him. In the weeks before he arrived, I prepared a careful list of key tasks that needed to be one by specific deadlines each month.

On the day he joined, he sat down with me at my desk and I handed him the list. He tore it up in front of me and threw the pieces into my bin without even glancing at it. “I won’t need that.” He laughed. It was like looking at the psychopath in a horror film.

I felt the icy fingers of foreboding encircle my heart. What had I done?

The Guilt

Every day I had another person in tears at my desk in the Sales and Marketing department with stories of what Ewan had done, how badly he was treating people, how he had shouted at people, demoted the most senior person, promoted completely the wrong person, ignored requests and complaints. How had this happened? How had I missed the signs? Why had I not done a better job of interviewing this person? How could I have let this happen to my team? How could I have been so sloppy? I could not forgive myself. I swore I would never let it happen again.

Analysis

Over the years, though it wasn’t my main focus, I did quite a lot of hiring and recruitment. Each time I did it I carried out a careful analysis of what was required and how we could test for it. When we made a mistake, I went back through the records to find out how we could do better next time.

When we did a particularly good job, I worked out why and how we could repeat it.

First Principles

Then one day an Australian coaching client of mine asked me if we could do his recruitment for him. He had recently bought a business, it was making a loss and he needed the right people in his team to turn it around. “Dave, you are in Australia and we’re in the UK.” I pointed out, laughing. “Yes, so come back to me with a plan next week.” He said.

That pulled me up short. It made me go back to first principles and review everything. I went through everything with a fine-tooth comb, step by step. What we needed to achieve, what tools we had available (by now there were many different aspects to the process) and how it could be carried out remotely. I realised it could be done. Not only could it be done, but by updating the process and incorporating some new ideas and spreadsheets, it would be better.

Dave was delighted with my outline (he’s a graphs and spreadsheet guy) and we went ahead, honing along the way. In just nine months his team was thriving and the business was making a healthy profit. There were a few “off piste” moves and they didn’t go well; we discovered it was always better when we stuck to the process.

When things didn’t work out, we could look back through our spreadsheets, work out what had happened, and update accordingly so the process was constantly improving.

Open and Honest Feedback

Dave shared my values about being open and honest with everyone. We were able to give candidates clear feedback on why they had not got the job if they wanted it. I was later to discover that this was the key to the whole process.

Years before I had been called by a client who asked me to find out why all her staff kept leaving. It would have been easy to give her a pat response, but I did a piece of research to make sure I was giving her the facts. It turned out that many of them left because they could not get clear reasons for why they had not been promoted. The response would be “You’re just not operating at that level.” Or even worse: “The fact that you don’t know shows that you are not ready.”

This was beyond frustrating for these very bright and capable people.

I had also been lucky enough to see Carol Dweck (author of “Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential”) speaking about her seminal research on feedback. It had been like being hit with a brick. It changed everything for me. Marian Diamond, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, said: “Without feedback there is no learning.” She was talking about the physical connections in your brain (the dendrites), and how feedback is vital for generating them when you are learning. Carol Dweck showed how to make sure you got that feedback right.

I realised that this poor excuse for feedback given by my client was no good. And I also realised it was so poor because the manager herself was not clear on her criteria for promotion. That was why she wasn’t giving the feedback.

She hadn’t identified things like:

“To take on this role you need to be able to set clear objectives. The objectives you have often been misunderstood by members of your team.”

Or:

“This role requires the ability to manage projects at a detailed level. That means you need to be able to use our project management software and track every stage of the project in it. So, you need to move away from the spreadsheets you are using at the moment.”

Imagine Giving Candidates Feedback…

Hiring a new person is the same as promoting someone, you need clear criteria. And once you have those, everything else falls into place. If you imagine yourself having to tell a candidate why they didn’t get the job and being able to explain it to them openly, honestly and with care and love, then you will automatically hold yourself to the high standards that will mean you do a good job.

As a result of holding ourselves to these standards, we have managed to achieve a success rate of 92%. That means 92% of our candidates are performing well a year later.

What Happens When It Goes Wrong

Yes, it still goes wrong sometimes. When one of our US clients took on one of the three finalists we offered them, they were delighted with everything she did and how she got them all organised. Then, 11 months into the job, her previous company poached her back. Unfortunately, these things happen.

We got straight back on it and found them someone else. They told us he’s even better and he’s now been there well over a year.

Our guarantee is simple; if your candidate doesn’t work out in the first 12 months, we will replace them. Even if they were run over by a bus. It’s that simple.

In our process doing the right thing is the easiest thing, that’s how we’ve designed it.

If you’d like us to work with you and help you find your dream candidate, or if you’d just like to talk about it, I’d love to hear from you. Use the button below to let us know more about your dream hire…

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