On October 10, 2009 Kevin Houle, President of Tracks and Wheels, a manufacturer and distributor of mining equipment based in Sudbury, Ontario, took off in his company’s Piper PA28 from Kingston, bound for Sudbury, with his wife, his daughter and her boyfriend aboard. Eight hours later the wreckage of the plane was found in a remote area of Algonquin Park.
Kevin’s father, Conrad, was still majority owner of the company but had retired from daily operations years earlier. Now he had not only lost his son and other members of his family, he had also lost the most important person in his company. To make matters worse, 2009 was still pretty much the bottom of the great recession and business was difficult for the company, made yet more difficult by a long strike at one the company’s largest customers, Vale.
Within a year of the accident it became clear to Conrad that he would need to hire a new President, and Kathbern Management was selected to conduct a recruitment process to find the right person.
Location is a Major Factor in Recruitment
One of the challenges for this particular search was the location. Many qualified individuals lived in Southern Ontario and would not consider a move to Sudbury. After several weeks of research, Kathbern identified four individuals who came closest to meeting the overall recruitment specifications that had been established for the role of President. Two were from Northern Ontario and two from the Toronto area.
Interviews with all four candidates were arranged for the same day at the company’s head office in Sudbury. The interviewing team consisted of the owner, Conrad Houle, his son-in-law who owns and operates a very substantial business in the Sudbury area, and Larry Smith, President of Kathbern Management.
After a full day of interviews, three of the four candidates were still considered to be viable recruitment options with different pros and cons in each case. The two Toronto candidates remained, as did one of the Northern Ontario candidates. The discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate continued over dinner and into the evening. A ranking system was devised and each member of the interviewing team independently ranked each candidate on a series of criteria. At the conclusion of this process, when all of the rankings were tallied and compared, the result was a three way tie between the candidates. Despite this result, the owner had a strong preference for one of the candidates from Toronto, who displayed a tough “no nonsense” style that mirrored the style of the owner himself.
Breaking a Tie During Recruitment
At close to midnight, to break the tie, Kathbern suggested asking all three candidates to complete an online assessment of 80 questions which could be done in 20 minutes. If the candidates completed it the next day, the resulting detailed reports would be available immediately. Emails with instructions were sent to each candidate as the evening’s final activity.
The three recruitment candidates were prompt in completing their online questionnaires and, by noon the next day, we had detailed reports on each of them. These reports explored personality traits across a wide spectrum of management tendencies and styles including enterprising potential, achievement potential, independence potential, comfort with conflict, the ability to self-manage, lifestyle management, and sales management effectiveness.
In my experience, the true value in personality assessments during recruitment is not in being able to choose one candidate over another on the basis of a minor difference in score on one scale or another, but in looking for significant “outlier” scores that amount to real red flags – either positive or negative. Taking this approach, the assessments did provide some very interesting feedback in terms of red flags.
The Results of the Recruitment
The Toronto “tough guy” candidate, who was the favourite of the owner, displayed an extreme score on the “Comfort with Conflict” measure. With a score as high as this individual exhibited, it indicated that he was not only comfortable with conflict, he would be likely to create conflict. In addition to this problem, he had indicated his intention (should he be offered the position) to take up temporary residence in Sudbury, leaving his home in Toronto unsold and not relocating his family until he could determine, after six months or so, that the position was a good fit for him. This made some sense for him; however, for the company, this indicated a clear lack of commitment to the new role.
The other Toronto candidate scored low on a scale intended to measure independence. It was the owner’s plan to return to semi-retirement in Florida following the successful recruitment of a new President. After all, he had been retired for a number of years prior to being forced back into an operating role following the tragic circumstances outlined above. As such, he needed a President who would be comfortable in taking charge and making almost all decisions, outside of the most important strategic matters. The low independence score for the second Toronto candidate clearly indicated that he would not be a good fit under these conditions.
The remaining candidate, from Northern Ontario, displayed no “outlier” scores and was quite strong on sales management – an important consideration for any company that wants to grow.
Over the next few days, an attractive offer was prepared and delivered to this third candidate. His Northern Ontario references were familiar to the owner and were readily accepted. Upon his acceptance of the offer, the new President was named and this difficult chapter in the company’s evolution closed.