Before last week, the last time I'd seen Larry O'Toole, he was carrying my favorite chair on his back, down a narrow staircase in a Beacon Street brownstone in Boston. I was moving. Or more accurately, O'Toole, then brawny and bearded, was moving me. That was 26 years ago, but I still remember what a pleasure he was to work with and how gently he treated my meager but precious possessions. O'Toole's Somerville, MA-based company, Gentle Giant Moving, now racks up $25 million in revenue, and I'm betting that the thousands of customers he's moved since I first met him have had similar experiences to mine. And that has a lot do with how O'Toole hires his staff, a subject he talked about last week at the Inc. Magazine and Winning Workplaces Leadership Conference.
"My grandfather told me that if you pee in your soup, it's bloody hard to get it out," says O'Toole, who frequently slips into an Irish brogue. The business lesson: if you hire the right people in the first place, you won't have to worry about how to get rid of them later on. So O'Toole has a very unconventional, but highly effective, interview strategy. Anyone who wants a job as a mover at Gentle Giant must run the 37 sections of stands at Harvard Stadium - training exercise that the six foot six O'Toole regularly performed as a varsity rower at Northeastern University. Sure, he wants his movers to be fit, but there's more to the stadium run than just a demonstration of physical prowess. "People reveal themselves at the stadium," he says. Here's what he's looking for in job candidates:
Enthusiasm. "We tell them that after six to ten sections, your body is going to tell you to stop and that's when you have to reach down deeper," he says. "We don't want quitters working for us, so it's better to identify them there."
Honesty. "They may try to skip a section and we're looking for that," says O'Toole. He wants to be sure he's hiring movers who, for example, wouldn't even consider keeping an envelope full of cash discovered on a moving job.
Positive attitude. "The stadium is great for identifying whiners," says O'Toole. "When things get tough, you have to tackle it with humor, enthusiasm, and support for one another." So while you may finish all 37 sections, if you're a whiner, you won't be invited to be a Gentle Giant.
O'Toole knows that his employees, who always run on a job when they're not carrying something, are the key to differentiating his company in a commodity industry. If he spends time on recruiting, hiring, and training, then the customer service that the company is so famous for will essentially take care of itself. "We're not just a moving company, we're a leadership development company," he says. "We always have people moving up so they can replace people who are leaving. We're all about consistency." Gentle Giant, by the way, was Winning Workplace's Top Small Workplace in 2007.
While O'Toole certainly doesn't recommend that every business owner put potential employees through their paces at the local stadium, he does feel strongly that all CEOs should come up with an interview challenge or test that will tease out the character traits that are most likely to lead to success on the job.
Do you have an unusual interview technique? Share it with your fellow entrepreneurs.
Image courtesy of Gentle Giant Moving Co.