Forrest Gump’s Lessons on Hiring Top Talent

Feb 17, 2015

Hiring Top Talent

Twenty years ago the movie Forrest Gump became an American icon. It remains one of my favorites. As I reflect upon this movie, it occurs to me that Forrest and his mother have a lot to teach us about running a company and hiring top talent. In my office, we like to say, “It’s all about relationships!” Through the years, I’ve found this is true in business as well as in life. We can learn a lot about people and about success in business as we ponder how Forrest viewed the world.

How to Screen Candidates

Life is like a box of chocolates, Forrest. You never know what you’re gonna get.

  1. This line from Forrest’s mother is probably the most memorable line in the movie. It became an oft-quoted adage because it hits a nerve. How much do you really know about people? When hiring top talent, you review resumes and check references, but is this really enough to know what you’ve got?

    Many companies tell me they get hundreds of resumes for each position. The average screener peruses a resume for about 20 seconds before they reject it or send it on for further consideration. How can this work? It’s ludicrous! How can your personnel possibly do an adequate resume screen in 20 seconds? You’d probably do just as well if you threw them all in a big spinning barrel and blindly pulled out 10 to interview. Some offices screen electronically, but this isn’t perfect, either.

    Here’s the thing. When you post a job on your company website you never really know what you’re gonna get. You really need someone to dig into each applicant’s history the old fashioned way. At my executive search firm, we check an applicant’s background, but we also check unnamed references.

    These are former managers or co-workers with whom we have previously established trusted relationships. We get an idea of what the candidate is like at work and under pressure. We know their work habits and characteristics. When we send the candidate for an interview, we have checked with people who can vouch for him. We believe that after doing this kind of background check, you have a better chance of knowing what you’re gonna get.

Cost of Bad Hires

Stupid is as stupid does.

  1. Do you feel like your back is up against a wall? Perhaps one of your top executives has moved on and you need someone good to replace him—and you need him FAST! I understand this, but I also know that employees are your company’s greatest expense and biggest asset.

    When you’re hiring top talent, you’re looking for someone who will be a difference maker. A bad hiring decision will cost you! It will cost you not only in the time and expense it will take to locate and onboard a new candidate, but it also can cost you in lost business and loss of your company’s reputation if you hire the wrong candidate.

    You can’t be stupid when it comes to personnel. Hiring top talent is crucial and will have a profound impact on you company’s future. If you use an executive recruiting firm to help you select top candidates, I see that as an investment rather than an expense. The cost of a bad hire can be so much more than any fee we would ever charge.

Pick a Runner

Run, Forest! Run!

  1. Aren’t you looking for someone who has initiative? I think this characteristic is often overlooked when hiring top talent. At times, it is even viewed as a negative. If you are looking for a “Yes” man, you can easily find one! But, if you are looking for someone who can take off and run like the wind—that will be harder to find.

    A self-starter, someone who has good instincts and is motivated, someone who will accept responsibility and run with it—that kind of talent is going to be more beneficial to your company. Keep this in mind as you’re hiring top talent.

    And when you find a winner, get out of the way! Often employers have exceptional people on staff but they don’t give them the opportunity to run! Don’t be afraid to step back and let your top talent perform. If they’re as good as you think, they’re sure to enrich your company. Don’t let company politics or bureaucratic policies hold your people back.

Nobody’s Peᴙfect

My Mama always said you’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on.

  1. Not all good candidates have unblemished records. But, you aren’t looking for unblemished records and flawless candidates. You should be looking for those who have taken on great challenges and for those who have shouldered great responsibilities.

    We learn from our successes, but we also learn from our failures. An applicant who has had some of each is probably your best bet. Let an applicant put the past behind him if he convinces you that he grew from that bad experience.

    Look for a candidate who is intelligent, honest, and who has integrity. These are the kind of employees you can trust! When hiring top talent you can teach certain skill sets but you never can instill character in a person who is lacking this basic quality.

Promote From Within

This is a new company record! If it wouldn’t be such a waste of a damn-fine enlisted man I’d recommend you for OCS! You are gonna be a general someday, Gump. Now disassemble your weapon and continue!

  1. You aren’t like this are you? Here, Forrest’s drill sergeant illustrates a bad habit common in many organizations. We don’t look inside our own company when hiring top talent. Or, if we do notice someone with potential we often want to keep her in place to continue a smooth operation in that location.

    We don’t want to shake things up. We want employees to continue doing their current job. If you are guilty of this, you need to reconsider this policy. There are advantages to promoting from within. First, the key employee is still there to mentor his replacement. And second, if an urgent situation arises, your key person is still there to offer assistance and advice.

    Nothing is more frustrating for top employees than a lack of promotional opportunity. If you truly have someone with promise, consider moving him up in your organization. If you don’t, there’s probably someone else willing to move him up in theirs!

Hiring Mistakes

“WOAH! Man, you just ran through a big pile of dog shit!”
Forrest Gump: “It happens.” Bumper Sticker Guy: “What, shit?”
Forrest Gump: “Sometimes.”

  1. It is estimated that one out of every five newly hired employees will quit within the first year. Up to 20 percent will leave during the first 45 days. It’s frustrating! It’s maddening! But yes, it happens! You have to start over again.

    When hiring top talent you try your best. You screen. You check an applicant’s background and references. You probably do a series of interviews including group interviews. You may even have onboarding down to a science. But sometimes, sure enough it happens! Your new employee may not be the perfect fit you had hoped for. Or, the employee may leave abruptly.

    Let me give you a hint. When hiring top talent, think about the characteristic that successful people in your company have in common and look for those kinds of people. You need to consider your company culture. Are your key executives aggressive or laid back? Are they quiet or extroverted? Are they a team player or do they take the bull by the horns themselves? When looking for key executives look for candidates who have the same DNA—the same qualities as your other top players.

    And remember, sometimes shit happens!

Hiring Top Talent

Recruiting is an art. The right recruiter can be a major asset to your company and speed up the process of hiring top talent.

Whether you do all recruiting in-house or use an outside executive recruiting professional, I wish you luck as you pick through your box of chocolates.

About the Author

Charlie Kimmel

As President and CEO, Charlie has dedicated his 25+ year career to executive search at Kimmel & Associates. Charlie began his career at Kimmel & Associates in 1990 as a Recruiter. In 1993, he graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he received a BA in History.

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