How Do You Hire Great Employees? Grand Circle Travel's Alan Lewis Starts With a Raw Egg

Last Updated Jan 10, 2011 10:42 AM EST

As the economy slowly improves, many small business owners who hunkered down with skeleton staffs during the recession are beginning to think about hiring. Now more than ever, it's critically important to get the right people on the bus. CEOs who are known for their savvy hiring practices, like Larry O'Toole at Gentle Giant Moving Co. and Rich Sheridan at Menlo Innovations, understand that behavior and character are almost always more important than skills (which can be taught) when it comes to interviewing and hiring new employees. Add to their ranks Alan Lewis, chairman of Grand Circle Travel (GCT), a $600 million Boston-based company that specializes in international travel for Americans ages 55-75. "The great differentiator in business today is not products or services, it is people," says Lewis. "As the speed required to compete in the marketplace increases, human capital has become a tremendous source of competitive advantage." But working at Grand Circle isn't for everyone and Lewis and his staff do their best to make sure that applicants know that from the moment they walk through the door. The hiring process prompts both GCT and interviewees to ask and answer these three questions:
  • Will they thrive in a non-traditional work environment? "We've designed our building with a front lobby that is very un-businesslike," says Lewis. "We pipe in foreign music from all over the world. And it's not music that's very tender to the ears. We have postcards from all over the world with quotes from travelers that are very provocative. When they first walk in, our goal is to make sure they know that they're not walking into a typical business. They're walking into an adventure."
  • Can they communicate openly and courageously? For their initial interview, prospective employees answer questions in groups that may include everyone from an aspiring executive vice president to an entry-level employee. "In that first hour, they're asked to tell us the biggest mistake they've ever made professionally," says Lewis "They need to answer that question in front of strangers, and if they can't come up with a mistake, they typically won't continue with the interview process." Lewis says that "open and courageous combination" is one of GCT's most important core values and he wants to tease that behavior as quickly as possible.
  • Are they willing to take risks? "We ask them to do an egg drop," says Lewis. All prospective employees carry an egg across a room on a very small spoon, "which has a tendency to cause embarrassment," says Lewis. At that point, it's not unusual for at least some of applicants to bail out. "Someone gets up to leave in every interview," says Lewis. "It feels too out of the box." That's fine with him. Because the exercise is not about keeping the egg on the spoon, it's about willingness to take risks and to potentially look foolish. If that's not part of your DNA, then you're likely to be miserable at GCT.
The group interview process usually weeds out between 20-30% of applicants, says Lewis. The survivors continue on to an interview where each applicant meets with three GCT employees, one of whom is in the room primarily to ensure that the applicant will be good fit culturally. GCT also asks applicants to take written tests such as the Predictive Index survey or Leadership Effectiveness Analysis, depending on the jobs they're seeking. "A small percentage of people who are interviewed are actually hired," says Lewis. And shortly after they're hired (and sometimes during the hiring process), new employees are taken to GCT's leadership training center in Kensington, NH where they're presented with several outdoor challenges - including the largest high ropes course in the Northeast - designed to teach teamwork and creative problem solving. "If they can't handle that, they sometimes leave," says Lewis. Like the egg drop, the program isn't about what employees can achieve, but the character that they reveal while trying.

How do you get the right people on your bus? What are the most important questions your prospective employees should consider before joining your company?