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Are You Hiring The Hard Way? 6 Important Hiring Lessons For Health And Fitness Entrepreneurs

By John Berardi, PhD

Hiring and Training

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As your business grows you’ll eventually need help. But how do you find talented, committed, ethical people you can trust? People who can help grow the pie vs. take another piece of it? Here are six important lessons I learned growing a team from zero to over a hundred.

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When Growth Gets Uncomfortable

If you’re entrepreneuring right you’ll eventually get to the point where the influx of new clients and customers outpaces your ability to keep up, no matter how efficient or effective you are.

This always presents an interesting dilemma.

On the one hand, you’ll feel on your way to achieving big goals.
On the other, you’ll feel more stressed and anxious than ever.

You’ll wonder why, if growth is supposed to be fun, you’re not having any.

Take heart, though. This is a great problem to have. (Too much business? Come on now!) Even better, these feelings indicate that you’ve solved your previous limiting factor and are now butting up against a new one: not enough humanpower.

Time to make hiring one of your top priorities, at least for a little while, until you address this new constraint.

I know this cycle all too well.

My Own Challenges With Growth

When Phil Caravaggio and I started Precision Nutrition, it was just the two of us. It was a few years before we hired our first full-time coach. It was a few more before we next hired help with product logistics and customer service. Then came someone to help with content. Then web development and design.

Precision Nutrition now has close to 150 people working as full-time team members or contractors. But, again, we started with only two.

I’ll be honest: Over the years I’ve had a mixed relationship with hiring. So many questions swirled in my head in the early days.

Can we really afford to pay someone to do what I’ve been doing? 

What if they can’t do it as well? 

What if they don’t care as much? 

Will they protect our brand reputation or ruin it?

At the same time I knew we couldn’t go on working the way we were. Our options were to scale back (moving in the opposite direction of our goals), try to work at a burnout pace (which never goes well), or take the risk and bring someone new onto the team.

We obviously chose the latter, learning some valuable lessons along the way.

Lesson #1:
Don’t Hire Until It Hurts

Most people don’t consider hiring until they’re struggling. The need for help slowly creeps up until they’re feeling overwhelmed and disheartened, even though their business is growing.

They’re making more money but working more hours too, and things in the business feel like they’re held together with duct tape. Left with no other choice, they finally bring on another team member.

This is a common experience. Many solopreneurs take a little too long to make their first hire.

Interestingly, many hire too freely after that, especially if the first went well. That’s why I encourage folks to “wait until it hurts” not only with their first hire, but with subsequent ones.

In other words, don’t hire when you or someone on your team feels: “I could use a little help over here.” Instead, hire when they feel: “This is growing so fast that, if I don’t get help, I’m going to split apart!”

This, of course, assumes you and your team have learned how to prioritize ruthlessly and build systems. You see, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with long to-do lists of meaningless or repetitive tasks and then put in a request for hiring.

Thus my caveat here. Yes, wait until it hurts to hire. But make sure the hurt is happening because of an explosion of new clients, customers, and opportunities. Not because of poor prioritization or lack of systems.

Lesson #2:
Get Clear On Exactly What You Need and Hire For That

A few years back, a group of seven women I know and respect got together to start a women’s fitness company. While it seemed like a cool idea to everyone else, I cringed. They shared similar backgrounds, skills, and interests, so six were redundant. They’d be splitting startup revenues among seven people when only one was necessary. This would make it impossible to hire the additional skills required to grow the business. Because of this, I felt the partnership couldn’t last.

It didn’t.

This is one of the reasons my partnership with Phil has been so valuable. When we partnered, we brought totally different—but complementary—backgrounds, experiences, and skills to the table.

I came with an extensive background in exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle, plus writing and speaking experience. Phil was a health and fitness enthusiast with a systems design engineering degree and a special interest in business.

Between us, we had enough raw materials for deep subject-level expertise, content creation, a digital presence, and business fundamentals. Neither of us was redundant; we were synergistic.

What’s good for partnerships is also good for hiring in many cases, but not all. So it’s important to get really clear on whether you need:

  • Someone like you but more junior, to help with work overflow.
  • Someone like you but more senior, to help level up your business.
  • Someone totally different, to bring new skills into your business.

Think carefully about what you need, exactly. Articulate it clearly. Then go out and try to find that thing in a person. The clearer you are the better your chances of making the right hire.

Lesson #3:
Get Some Help With Recruiting

When hiring for a role at Precision Nutrition, we look for individuals who we think could have a high probability of succeeding in our culture and in the role. In some cases, this means starting with hundreds of applicants, narrowing that group down to dozens of prospects, and narrowing that group down to three “can’t lose” candidates.

Contrast this with what most small business owners do: Search their own contact list. This can sometimes work. But it’s often a recipe for failure, as individual networks are rarely large enough to produce even one “can’t lose” candidate, let alone three. (This is especially true if they’re looking for someone totally different, who can bring new skills into the business.)

Working with recruiters, whose job it is to build huge networks of well-qualified and well-vetted candidates, helps to strategically expand your own network. It magically puts you one degree of separation from any talent or skill in the world.

But how do you find a recruiter in the first place? If you know someone who works in human resources or recruiting, ask them for guidance. They may know the top recruiters in your area.

If you don’t know anyone in the industry, begin with an internet search. For example, if I were hiring for a marketing position at Precision Nutrition I’d type in “marketing recruiter Toronto.” Or, for an executive position, I’d type in “executive recruiter Toronto.”

From there, narrow your search to firms with a strong track record of placing people in the kinds of positions you’re looking to fill. This gives you access to the biggest networks and increases your chances of finding the right person. But don’t just take their word for it, ask for references. Talk to people who’ve been hired through them as well as people that didn’t chose them and ask why.

Is this process more time-intensive and expensive than the alternative? Absolutely. However, the cost of hiring the wrong candidate is far higher. In my experience, it’s far better to wait a little longer to begin a hiring search, so you can do it right, than to hire haphazardly and get the wrong person.

Lesson #4:
Put Less Stock In Interviews, More In Assessments

Let me say this without sugar coating: On their own, interviews suck.

Unless someone’s belligerent, antagonistic, or mentions how much they hate some aspect of your product or service, interviews will rarely give you clues into a person’s fit for your work culture or their ability to do the work you’re hiring for (unless, of course, being interviewed is part of the job). Yet that’s how many small businesses hire: By doing job postings and then interviewing the candidates.

Over the years we’ve learned a much more rigorous approach. Our goal is to make sure candidates are a good fit for our culture and can actually do the work, so we explore both, as follows:

  • Culture assessments: We’ve experimented with many personality and work-style assessments to vet candidates. The Caliper Profile (which ranks people according to 20+ leadership, interpersonal, problem solving/decision making, and personal organization/time management dimensions) and the Kolbe Index (which identifies people’s natural tendencies for how they take, or don’t take, action) are the ones we use most consistently.

Even if someone has a stellar resume, we’re unlikely to hire them if their Caliper and Kolbe results don’t suggest a good fit for the organization. (Caliper offers a valuable service where their in-house experts will review a candidate’s results, in the context of your needs and culture, to help you make sense of whether someone is a fit for your organization or not).

  • Work projects: If you want to know whether someone can do the work, why not ask them to actually do the work? If their Caliper and Kolbe profiles look good, we either have them help with an actual project or create a simulated project for them to help with.

Depending on the scope of the project we’ll either pay them for this or send them a surprise gift. Then we ask a panel of credible experts to rate their work, especially if we’re hiring to add a new capability and don’t have an internal team that knows what a great job looks like in this new domain.

Only after these two steps are complete do we interview candidates. Remember, I said interviews, alone, suck. However, interviews done to clarify what you’ve learned through personality and work assessments are useful.

Indeed, most of the time we spend in interviews is about exploring, in dialogue, how a candidate’s Caliper and Kolbe results might relate to their previous work experiences. And how their work projects can give us insights into their thought processes.

Lesson #5:
The Hurting Doesn’t Stop Once You Hire

In Lesson #1 we discussed how it’s often best to “wait until it hurts” when considering hiring. The implication is, of course, that hiring will make the hurting stop. Sadly, that’s not true in the short term. Hiring actually makes the hurting worse.

Hiring requires a lot of organizational “onboarding.” The bigger the organization, or the higher the rank, the longer the process. This means the first few months, possibly even years for executive hires, are about teaching “how things work around here.”

If you’ve ever started a new job, you know the feeling. You have to get to know:

  • the people, how they think, how they work.
  • the systems, how to log into them, how to use them, how not to break them.
  • your roles and accountabilities, what’s expected of you, what’s not.
  • the products, what they offer, what they don’t.
  • the customers, who they are, what they’re looking for.

Finally, once you know all that can you get to the work.

Think of the implications here if you’re the one doing the hiring. Just yesterday you were occupying the role yourself. The responsibilities were overwhelming and you weren’t sure you could keep going for too much longer. Now, you still have to do all that work. And you’ll also have to do the work to oversee your new hire’s onboarding.

Yes, it can feel disheartening to know that if you wait until it hurts to hire, the hurting continues. At the same time, if your new hire is onboarded well, not only will all the onboarding come to an end eventually, but they’ll also soon take over the roles and responsibilities they were hired for. So hang onto that. Difficult times feel much easier when you can see light at the end of the tunnel and you’re playing an active role in reaching it.

Lesson #6:
You Don’t Have To Become A Manager, Executive, or Leader

As Precision Nutrition grew, I carried with me a particular narrative. I believed that:

  1. as founders hire new people they have to become managers,
  2. as founders hire new managers they have to become executives, and
  3. as founders hire new executives they have to become leaders.

In other words, I thought Phil and I had stay “at the top” of our organization, to eventually become C-Something-Os and then eventually become presidents or chairpeople at the highest point of an imaginary Precision Nutrition totem pole.

This made me absolutely miserable. In the early days, I spent my time researching, writing, crunching numbers, and telling stories. As an introvert I got long stretches of uninterrupted, quiet time for focused work.

Then, suddenly, I was in meetings all day, every day. People wanted me to tell them what to work on, to help them prioritize their daily activities, to make decisions, to sync up the team. Work weeks would end and I’d be frustrated and angry. I hadn’t created a thing. My unique abilities weren’t being utilized. I was exhausted from the constant interpersonal work.

This affected my family life too. I didn’t have much energy or joy to share with my wife Amanda or our children. Finally, in the midst of a depression, I decided to call it quits. I remember writing a list of ways I could escape the scenario. It included many reasonable options like selling my shares of the company to Phil. It also included a host of unreasonable ones, the most chilling of which was “Drive off a bridge so Amanda and the kids at least get some insurance money.”

That last one was a real wake-up call. I found a great counselor to help me through the depression. And I talked with Phil, who suggested a different way to think about my work.

Instead of worrying about having to be a manager or an executive, he encouraged me to go back to doing what I loved. We can hire managers and executives, he told me at my home, the day I shared my struggles with him. In fact, he said, hiring them will probably be much easier than trying to find someone to replace what I do best.

He was right. Now, years later, PN has an awesome team of managers and executives, a fantastic group of people who allow me to work within my unique abilities without having to be something I’m not.

Keep this in mind as you consider your hiring plan. You get to make the rules within your company. If you love management and leadership, by all means do what’s required to grow in that area and tackle the challenge. If you don’t, that’s okay too. Build out your team to handle those tasks while you focus on the things that bring you, and the company, the most value.

Key Takeaways

Don’t hire until it hurts.

Ensure you’ve mastered prioritization and have good systems in place before you hire. When there’s an overwhelming amount of work (due to new clients, customers and opportunities) then, and only then, should you consider hiring someone.

Get clear on exactly what you need and hire for that.

Define what you skills and attributes you need and be able to articulate it clearly. This will help you ensure that your hire is additive rather than a redundant or unnecessary.

Get some help with recruiting.

Work with recruiters to help expand your network. Sure, it’s more expensive than simply choosing someone in your network. Yet the cost of hiring the wrong candidate is much higher.

Put less stock in interviews, more in assessments.

Interviews rarely test a person’s ability to do the work or to fit into the company’s culture. Assessments, such as the Caliper Prole and the Kolbe Index, along with a small or simulated project, provide much better information.

The hurting doesn’t stop once you hire.

Hiring requires a lot of systems creation and organizational “onboarding.” Taking the time to do it right will pay dividends later.

You don’t have to become a manager, executive, or leader.

As you hire and grow a team, stay true to your unique abilities and your values. You can be a leader and a manager if you want to. But it’s also fine to hire others to do that work.

Want To Learn More? Dive Deeper?

Then download this FREE sample of my latest book, Change Maker.

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Whether you work as a health coach, strength coach, nutritionist, functional medicine doc, or rehab specialist, Change Maker will help you discover the right direction to take, the fastest way to make progress, and the practical steps required to build the career of your dreams in health and fitness.

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