In a recent article, I suggested that far too many people use maxims like “getting the right people on the bus” as an excuse for failing to develop the people they already have. That said, companies that are successful in hiring great people will always be a step ahead. I’d like to introduce you to a company that focuses relentlessly on hiring the very best people—and in doing so has become one of the biggest U.S. business success stories of the past decade.
In 1984, Jim Crane borrowed money from his sister to start a small freight-forwarding company in Houston, Texas. A decade or so later, publicly-traded Eagle Global Logistics was one of the world’s top logistics companies—with operations in over 100 countries and annual sales of more than $2.7 billion. Eagle had some of the most sophisticated logistics technology in the industry—which allows it to provide services to companies like Dell and Hewlett Packard—companies that put logistics excellence at the center of their ability to compete.
I once asked Crane (now owner of the Houston Astros) about the secret to Eagle’s success—and he gave me three simple rules: (1) Find the best people available; (2) “Get em’ in a headlock and don’t let them go till they are on the team” (his words); and (3) Make it personal.
Everyone’s an executive recruiter
To find the best people, I assumed a company of Eagle’s size would have an executive search firm budget measured in the millions if not tens of millions. I was wrong. In the past year, Eagle spent almost nothing on executive search fees. How did Eagle find all these great people, I asked? “Simple,” responded Crane, “we ask the customer. When I want to expand into a new region,” he said, “I visit ten to fifteen top customers in that region and ask, ‘Who is the best freight forwarding person in town.’ I asked customers in Southern California that question, and the name Joe Bento kept coming up—so I knew that some guy named Joe Bento was the guy I needed to get.”
Get ‘em in a headlock.
I later met Joe Bento (who later became president of Eagle), and asked him about the story. He laughed and said, “To understand the way this company works,” he said, “you need to hear the whole story.” Bento explained how, out of the blue, Jim Crane began to call him and urge him to join Eagle. At the time Eagle was only a $10 million firm and Bento had a great job with a company five times Eagle’s size. The more Bento resisted Eagle’s overtures, the more determined Crane became—calling every month with a new angle. One day Crane called Bento’s home and Bento’s wife, Teri, answered the phone. Crane introduced himself and asked if Teri and Joe would join him at the Ritz Carlton for dinner—and Teri accepted. During the dinner, Joe got up to go to the bathroom, and Crane reached into his pocket for his checkbook, wrote out a check for a five-figure signing bonus—and slid it across the table to Teri. “The day your husband comes to work with us,” he said, “you can cash that check.” When Joe returned from the restroom, Teri turned to him and said, “Honey, you start Monday.”
Stories like this cropped up again and again as I interviewed Eagle managers. Eagle managers have learned to not take no for an answer from a potential recruit. As I reflected on this, I realized how often companies “fill a position,” instead of insisting on the very best. When I wrote my first book—I decided I wanted to find a writing partner. In New York with the editor of a leading national magazine—I described the person I was looking for and asked him for the name of the best person he knew. In the first five minutes of my call to her, she gave me four reasons why she couldn’t accept my offer. I asked her to take a minute just to listen the concept for the book— and at the end of my comments—asked her what it would take to convince her to say yes—since I was simply unwilling to settle for second best. Within an hour of hanging up I got an email from her saying she had spoken to her agent (at a leading New York literary agency) and he wanted to represent me. I ended up writing the book with one of her best friends.
I know that if I hadn’t followed Jim’s advice, I would have never even had the conversation that led me to finding a terrific agent and a perfect writing partner.
I recently tried this out myself. I’m looking for a writing partner for my upcoming book. So in a meeting in New York last week with the editor of another leading national magazine—I described the person I was looking for and asked him for the name of the best person he knew. In the first five minutes of my call to her, she gave me four reasons why she couldn’t accept my offer. I asked her to take a minute just to listen to the concept for the book—and at the end of my comments-- asked her what it would take to convince here to say yes—since I was simply unwilling to settle for second best. Within an hour of hanging up I got an email from me saying that she had spoken to her agent, researched my proposed book title, and was seriously considering partnering with me. I don’t know where the discussions will lead—but I know that if I hadn’t followed Jim’s advice, I would have never even had the conversation with her to begin with.
Make It Personal
The third, and probably most important part of Eagle’s “hire great people” strategy is to “make it personal.” Crane tells the story of being turned down by a person he was recruiting with the line, “It’s not personal Jim, I just don’t want the job.” Jim responded, “It may not be personal to you, but it is to me. And what I am asking you to do is to make it personal, because that personal is how we run our business.” The recruit took the job. Make it personal--reflecting on that simple statement, I thought of all the books that have been written on corporate culture—and how convenient the concept of culture is in making the spirit of a company seem somehow separate from the people running it. I realized that if more leaders did what Jim suggests, making it personal, maybe a lot of the problems we categorize as “culture problems” might just go away on their own.