The Arts & Business Alliance of Eugene’s Creative Academy helps business owners tackle their greatest challenges through the artistic process and by better engaging Eugene’s vibrant arts community. These interactive sessions are led by business and arts leaders who provide different perspectives on addressing common business problems, giving leaders new ideas for how they can overcome them.
On May 14, about 20 local businesspeople attended a session on “Creative Employee Engagement” with Terry McDonald, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul, and Willow Norton, director of Oregon Performance Lab and an artist-in-residence at Lane Community College. The workshop focused on creative ways to hire and retain good-quality employees.
Speakers and audience members discussed numerous ideas during their two-hour gathering. Here are five key takeaways.
Set minimum expectations – then allow people to grow
One of the best ways to hire employees who will stay for a long time is to set clear expectations during the interview process.
“I talk a lot about assumptions with people that I’m hiring and the way that I like to work,” Norton said. “And I ask them about how they like to work and if they have any understanding about what are their strengths and how we can work together. I try to let them know exactly what my process is. I like to start on time. I expect you to be early and ready to go. I’ll never keep you past this amount of time. I expect you to come prepared.”
“What Willow is describing and what we talked about is a box,” said McDonald. “You have to start with what you expectation are. This is what this company needs, this is how we do business, these are the minimum standards…. Then the next statement after that is, ‘We don’t want to shove you into a box. We want you to have the opportunity to move on. So this is the bare minimum… but from there, how can we make this company better by thinking outside of the box.'”
McDonald drew a box with dashed lines to indicate that a person’s job duties can move outside of the box after they’ve met the minimum standards. This ability to grow within a job and tackle tasks they find meaningful and engaging is one of the best ways to keep a good employee once they’ve been hired.
Communicate culture in the hiring process
Employees need to know that a job fits with their skills and interests. But they also need to know that they’ll like working for the company and with its existing employees. That’s where a conversation about culture comes in.
It’s important to tell employees who you are and what your company values during the hiring process, McDonald said. “You define who you are, you define what your goal is and who you want to serve. So the hiring process starts off, ‘This is who we are. If this is a culture that you buy into, if you like this idea, if you like this culture, you should work for us.'”
An employee isn’t just a person who performs a task in a bubble all day long. They’re part of a team that works together toward a common goal. One participant, a senior executive at a local bank, volunteered that he was once asked to do a very unusual interview by a company that wanted to ensure he was the correct “fit.”
“They took me golfing,” he recalled. “They said, ‘We’ve got to figure out if we want to work with you, not if you can just do the job. We’re going to spend a lot of time together, can we even stand each other?'”
Get to know your staff
Understanding a staff member’s strengths, weaknesses, goals and dreams is important during every part of their involvement with your company. “You should be really interested in the human being,” said McDonald. “You’re not hiring a widget, you’re hiring a person. If that person is not going to be appropriate for retail or middle management or whatever else, they may have a different skill set, and you’re all looking for good people.”
“People aren’t always aware of what their strengths are,” said Norton. “Sometimes they think they can do a job and they don’t actually have that skill set. But maybe they have this other skill set that they don’t value but that we value. Then we can move someone that really wants to be a part of the organization and has strengths in other areas.”
Once the person has been hired, regular one-on-one meetings can be a good way to learn about them. “I do a lot of walk and talks with my staff where we’ll go have coffee or something,” relayed a participant who works as a senior hiring manager for the City of Eugene. Having that more informal connection and open conversation gives the staff member a regular opportunity to relay their interests, ambitions and skills.
Recognize good ideas
“You never know where a good idea is going to come from,” said Norton. “Even though someone does one type of job, including them in the larger picture can be really beneficial because there might a great idea where you never knew it could come from.”
“Talk about a tool for retention,” added McDonald. “If you really believe your employees are your most significant asset, you’ll give your employees the opportunity to express their ideas in a way that is safe and allows you to say, ‘You’re allowed to fail.’ One of the things that’s been said at St. Vincent de Paul over the years is you can have good ideas, we can try those good ideas and if they fail, it’s okay. Because we can’t move from here to there in our product base unless we try and fail.”
There should be a structured time or process for accepting ideas, Norton said. For example, an intern should not be shouting out ideas for improving a play during rehearsals.
In addition, she said, “You need to give credit. I always want to give credit to the person who had the idea because it will help retain them. They’ll think their ideas are worth something and they should be actively thinking of ways to benefit the company. It also builds part of that culture, where people will think, ‘So and so’s idea was actually listened to and applied and that made such a difference. Maybe I could be thinking of ways to better the company as well.'”
Ask the right questions
Hiring the right person is often about asking the right questions in a job interview. But what questions will really get to the heart of whether the person is the right fit for the company or job?
One seminar participant, an HR manager for an international firm, suggested that behavioral questions – asking a person to recall how they reacted in a situation – and situational questions – what they would do in a situation that’s pertinent to the job – can be the best interview questions. They give better insight into how a person will act once they’re hired.
“One of my biggest strategies is starting out with not too leading of a questions and letting… a potential employee to walk away with a lot of slack,” another attendee said. “You can learn a lot about their character and what kind of questions to ask after that.” He works as a general manager in the craft beverage industry, so his first question during an interview is sometimes, “What kind of alcoholic drink would you describe yourself as?”
“If I’m dealing with line staff instead of upper management, I always like to start with the thing that stands out mostly oddly,” said McDonald. “The first thing I say is, ‘What was that all about?’ I want to know what made that happen because it tells me more about the person.”
“I’ll often ask people – especially if it’s other artists or designers I’m looking to hire – ‘Have you seen anything lately that you really liked or that really inspired you?'” Norton said. “And then they’ll start talking about, ‘Well, I saw this show and it was like this and these are the things I thought were amazing.’ And then I get a really good understanding of the way they can critique the work we’re about to do together and the way they talk about the work and their attitude toward it. If someone is really negative and snarky and they have nothing positive or creative to contribute to the conversation, I have an understanding of how they look at the world.”
“There are no odd or strange questions associated with the interviewing process,” McDonald said in summary. That goes back to the idea that if a good person isn’t the correct choice for the job they’re interviewing for, they may be a perfect fit somewhere else. The trick is to assess where to place them so they’ll grow, contribute and stay with the company for years to come.