Allison Vaillancourt Of Segal On How To Hire The Right Person
An Interview With Ken Babcock
Involve your team. There are several reasons to involve your team in the hiring process; here are just two. First, having multiple people evaluate candidates is an effective strategy for mitigating potential bias and distinguishing between candidates who talk a good game and those who can actually do the work. Second, when team members help select their new coworker, they will be more likely to support their new colleague’s success.
When a company is looking to grow, the choice of who to hire can sometimes be an almost existential question. The right hire can dramatically grow a company, while the wrong hire can be very harmful to morale and growth. How can you know you are hiring the right person? What are the red flags that should warn you away from hiring someone? In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders who can share insights and stories from their experience about “How To Hire The Right Person”. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Allison Vaillancourt.
Allison Vaillancourt provides organizational consulting services as Vice President and Senior Consultant in the organizational effectiveness practice at employee benefits and HR consulting firm Segal. She has more than 30 years of experience in human resources strategy. Allison has worked in large research universities, healthcare settings, media organizations and nonprofit organizations.
Thank you for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
If I could spend 12 hours or more a day just reading, I would. I am one of those people who finds everything interesting, so my biggest challenge is organizing and wading through all of the books and articles I have collected. Fortunately, being curious is a good attribute for my work as an organizational consultant, because all of the reading I do helps me see trends and connect dots for my clients.
I joined Segal as a consultant about two years ago after leadership roles in several organizations, including the University of Arizona, the University of Colorado and the American Cancer Society. But the lessons I learned in my first career as a journalist have stayed with me, I have never stopped asking questions or trying to make my point with as few words as possible.
On the personal side, I am about to celebrate my 34th anniversary with my husband, a scientist, who couldn’t be more different than I am. We have two funny and fiercely independent adult daughters, as well as three hunting dogs who have way too much energy.
You’ve had a remarkable career journey. Can you highlight a key decision in your career that helped you get to where you are today?
When I was 32, I decided to return to school to pursue my doctorate in public policy and administration. I did this while continuing to work full time and raise two children under the age of four — it was not easy! While the letters after my name opened new career doors, the true value of the experience was that it taught me that working in a very focused way for at least two hours a day (I wrote my dissertation between 4 am-6 am every morning for more than a year) can produce powerful results. I am usually at my desk by 5:30 and am able to accomplish a lot before other people begin their days.
What’s the most impactful initiative you’ve led that you’re particularly proud of?
When I was at the University of Arizona, I established an academic leadership institute that is still running almost 15 years later. The program was designed to prepare the next generation of department heads, deans and vice presidents and it contributed significantly to the quality and diversity of the university’s leadership. In the program’s second year, I encouraged a faculty member in the business college to apply. She did so reluctantly and told me that she had no interest in leadership. After completing the institute, she admitted that her views on leadership had evolved. She is now the dean of one of the top business schools in the United States.
How about a mistake you’ve made and the lesson you took away?
My biggest mistakes have been related to how I managed some remarkably talented but also really mean leaders who reported to me. Because I appreciated their gifts and expertise and am also optimistic by nature, I let them stay for too long. I hoped that if we had direct conversations about their career-limiting behavior, they would ultimately change their ways. In each case, the problematic leaders refused to take ownership for their behavior. I eventually invited each of them to seek career adventures elsewhere after I gave them too many chances to change their ways. Not dealing swiftly with bad behavior led others on my team to question my judgment and integrity. Key lesson? Be clear about expectations and ensure that actions have consequences.
How has mentorship played a role in your career, whether receiving mentorship or offering it to others?
There is a movement afoot to rebrand mentors and mentees as “learning partners.” I’d like to see that take hold because I have learned so much from my mentees.
I have never been one to seek a formal mentor, but I have been extremely focused on building a diverse “brain trust” of eclectic people with diverse skills and perspectives. My brain trust members have helped me avoid political potholes, made sure I finished writing books and coached me to talk less in meetings. I feel so fortunate to have honest and encouraging people in my life.
Developing your leadership style takes time and practice. Who do you model your leadership style after? What are some key character traits you try to emulate?
I have acquired solid leadership skills by watching bad leaders and keeping track of all the behaviors that I did not want to emulate. After observing my fair share of shamers, micromanagers and narcissists, I have worked hard to treat people with respect, assume good intentions and to trust until someone proves they are untrustworthy. I am proud of my track record of propelling people into big roles that they did not believe they were capable of winning. How? By helping people to see their potential, talking them up to others and encouraging them to be bold even if it sometimes means failing and giving regular and direct feedback delivered with kindness.
Thank you for sharing that with us. Let’s change paths a little bit. In my work, I focus on helping companies to simplify the process of creating documentation of their workflow, so I am particularly passionate about this question. Many times, a key aspect of scaling your business is scaling your team’s knowledge and internal procedures. What tools or techniques have helped your teams be successful at scaling internally?
I am a huge fan of process mapping. Documenting workflow is critically important but reducing work steps also yields big payoffs. I recently worked with a client who had excellent process documentation for their hiring process, but after we engaged in several hours of process mapping, we determined the hiring process had 131 distinct steps. Yes; 131! While process mapping can feel tedious, I find it consistently reveals extra steps and unnecessary complexity that can be eliminated to create more efficiency.
The pandemic forced many companies to adapt. Implementing remote onboarding and professional development — in addition to maintaining culture — challenged organizations. Can you share with us the challenges you have faced, with remote onboarding and hiring? How have your internal processes evolved as a result?
While we adapted to remote hiring and onboarding quickly, we have found that helping new members understand our culture and navigate our ways of working is certainly harder in a remote environment. Those “got a minute?” conversations we used to enjoy just don’t happen anymore. In our firm, we have been incredibly intentional about encouraging new hires to participate in online community-building events that include various business resource groups, all-staff DEI education and well-being programs as well as our weekly “Candid Conversations” sessions. We find that building a strong and diverse network is critical for a sense of belonging and support.
With the Great Resignation/Reconsideration in full swing, many job seekers are reevaluating their priorities in selecting a role and an employer. How do you think this will influence companies’ approaches to hiring, talent management and continuous learning?
Many employers are frustrated by the amount of turnover they are seeing and are focusing on improving their recruiting practices rather than focusing on their organizational culture. That is a mistake. This is definitely a time to reflect on how to create a workplace culture and set of workplace practices that are appealing to quality talent.
Candidates have multiple options when it comes to selecting a new employer and they generally want to do work that matters inside a principled organization. They want to be valued, trusted and respected. Importantly, they want to learn and grow. Employers who have established a strong employee-centric culture that is complemented by inclusive leadership will outcompete competitors with less progressive practices.
Strategic employers are focusing on hiring employees who believe in their organizational mission, are resourceful and agile learners and demonstrate the ability to work effectively with diverse coworkers. Once they have hired individuals with these attributes, they need to focus on helping them learn and grow through stretch assignments and special projects and to always be thinking about what role they might do next.
Super, thank you for sharing all of that. Next, let’s turn to the main focus of our discussion about hiring the right person. As you know, hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill? Please share an example for each idea.
Hiring managers often ask, “What tips can you share that I can use to make sure I am hiring the right person?” Here are a few strategies to consider:
1. Involve your team. There are several reasons to involve your team in the hiring process; here are just two. First, having multiple people evaluate candidates is an effective strategy for mitigating potential bias and distinguishing between candidates who talk a good game and those who can actually do the work. Second, when team members help select their new coworker, they will be more likely to support their new colleague’s success.
2. Require candidates to demonstrate their skills. Need an employee with strong writing skills? Have candidates them prepare an impromptu memo. Need someone who can manage data? Provide a small data set and ask that it be analyzed in three ways. Looking for someone who can manage difficult customers? Have your candidates participate in a mock client call in which the “customer” begins the conversation with, “You people are idiots.” Brief assessments can reveal if candidates are as good as they say they are.
3. Look for learners. Constant change means that employees must continually develop new skills and acquire new knowledge. Develop interview questions that reveal each candidate’s learning orientation. For example, “Tell us about a time when you didn’t have the skills or knowledge required to complete an assignment. How did you figure it out?”
4. Seek humility. Humble team members are more likely to share credit, accept feedback, and emphasize collective success over personal gain. To assess humility, consider these questions:
“When did you last disappoint someone at work? What happened and how have you reflected on what went wrong?”
“How do you make work teams stronger?”
“What do you value most and least about your current work team?”
“If we were to ask your current manager to identify your greatest development need, what would we learn?”
5. Don’t confuse charisma with competence. It is easy to be captivated by people with energy and charm. Charisma can be intoxicating, but it can often hide incompetence. When you feel mesmerized by a candidate, consider whether style or substance is at play. Readers might want to check out Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and how to fix it) by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.
In contrast, what are a few red flags that should warn you away from hiring someone?
There are several red flags that should warn you away from hiring someone.
- When you ask in an interview, “What makes you really angry at work?” and the answer is: “People who fail to demonstrate the respect I deserve,” that is a red flag.
- When a candidate looks at only the white men in the room and not the other people, you should expect that your candidate will not be an inclusive colleague.
- When it seems unusually hard for the candidate to provide references, or if the references refuse to talk to you, consider that a clue.
- If the candidate is rude to the scheduler or receptionist, it should be game over.
What software or tools do you recommend to help onboard new hires?
I am blessed to be part of a company that has a team dedicated to taking a detailed look at what an organization needs to reach their goals, and then helps each organization assess the best software and other tools that is best for them, including onboarding. We believe that it’s important to create a personalized approach that meets the specific needs of the organization, the department and the new employee. Segal has also created its own onboarding app that we use in our onboarding client engagements, but at the same time we work hard to provide clients with multiple options as one size does not fit all. Onboarding is all about people so it’s important not to delegate the process and responsibility solely to a tool.
Because of your role, you are a person of significant influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your ideas can trigger.
If I could inspire one movement, it would be to make all workplaces inclusive and inspiring, regardless of the kind of work being done. That means teaching managers and supervisors how to be better leaders. We spend so much time at work and I truly believe that in the right conditions, work can give our lives purpose and help us forge meaningful connections with people who make our lives better.
This was truly meaningful! Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise!
About the interviewer. Ken Babcock is the CEO and Co-Founder of Tango. Prior to his mission of celebrating how work is executed, Ken spent over 4 years at Uber riding the rollercoaster of a generational company. After gaining hands-on experience with entrepreneurship at Atomic VC, Ken went on to HBS. It was at HBS that Ken met his Co-Founders, Dan Giovacchini and Brian Shultz and they founded Tango.