by Bo Keeley
(Swans - July 1, 2013) I was in a Miami Sports Authority yesterday buying a rain jacket when a scuffle broke out the next aisle over with yells and the crash of merchandise falling to the floor. The employee helping me with the jacket quickly stepped around the end cap and into the melee trying to pull off three youths with skateboards who had a headlock on another as the others kicked and punched him. Something about the victim's having earlier robbed the others. They all fled out the front door, and without missing a beat or flushing in the least the employee continued helping me with the jacket. The other workers approached him for instructions, he dispensed them with alacrity, and still advising another customer about shoes, the police came. He provided the robbery details, and as they wrote notes made change for a clerk and managed to continue to help me with the jacket. I ordered one on their in-store computer, "We pay the shipping direct to your house because it's not in the store." On returning to the office of the first large internet marketer that was #1 in the world in 2002, where I'm consulting on a racquetball project, I jotted the following note to the founder and owner in the office next to mine. Sometimes we communicate by raps on the common wall, but usually it's by email because it's too busy for leisurely conversations.
"If you ever need a good man, consider Victor Niederhoffer's hiring philosophy of picking a rough gem from athletics or another field and polishing him for the job, rather than recruiting a specialist from the field in that job description. He feels that the traits and habits that go into the character and making of an athlete or outstanding performer in some arena are chief. I just returned from the Sports Authority down the street and wish to point to the store manager who is worth shopping for. A five-minute visit to his store will prove his value. In 15 minutes he stopped a fight in the aisle, made cash for a clerk, helped another customer, filed a police report, and sold me a rain jacket. It was done pleasantly and matter-of-factly, and in that 15 minutes he performed two man-hours of work. His name is [Desmond], about 28, extremely fit and unruffled, and is faster on the computer than anyone who works at your office. He is athletically bald and is taking a full load in Exercise Science while working full time as the store manager. In two years he's risen from a stock boy to the manager, and now in the last year of college he plans to continue to grad school to become a physical therapist. However, the hurdle of $75,000 tuition and costs looms, and he says he doesn't know where he'll get the money but it will happen. Then he sold me the jacket. He is honest and square, so keep him in mind for a future job that may pop up."
"I know of two eccentric hiring methods," the note finished. "The first as described is polishing the gem to suit the job. The second is scouring the world for exactly the right fit for the job, as I learned from Art Tyde who founded Linuxcare. I know Art from teaching him how to be a hobo in a Michigan college sociology class. He caught a freight, upon graduation, to the West Coast and a year later was the cover boy of the Silicon Valley magazines. Art's method is he sits and says to himself, I am the best at this, but I need someone who is the best at that to complete my operation. Then Art personally headhunts the best in the world and "abducts" them. He started Linux by identifying the top programmer in the world, went to his home city in Rome, and tailed him. He secretly followed the Italian for two days until he had all the information he needed to seduce him at a "chance" encounter at an outdoor café, struck a rapport, and hired him on the spot into his outfit. In this vein I observed the fellow at the Sports Authority."
No sooner than I had dashed off the note there was a rap on the wall. Simultaneously, an e-mail flashed across my computer from the general manager of the large company. The tap was our code for urgent, and the note demanded simply, "Come immediately to [Joe's] office. I have something I want to tell you!!!" I thought I was in Dutch. I walked around the wall and through the door into the boss's office. He is a portly man with a photographic memory who just lost 42 pounds in 30 days on 400 calories with double-day workouts. He wore a loose-fitting black shirt and shorts. "Bo," he opened, "I want to tell you a story about how I was the Man in Black at a former company. Periodically I donned a black suit, shirt, and tie and made monthly walks through the building firing people. I spread the dismissals so I got to dress in black more often to weed out the poor performers and keep the organization viable. When I walked into an office there was a dread I enjoyed because it was in such contrast to all the other days of the month, of lots of private and public praise, motivation, and big bonuses. I think what made the black day so effective is it was a total departure from the other days of the month."
His general manager, seated on the other side of me, was a slight fellow with large biceps who never sleeps. He is a former Massachusetts state wrestling champion turned US Marine whom the owner recruited from managing a string of high-class nightclubs after seeing how effectively he handled people and calculated odds. "Bo," he began, "when I was hired here in 2008 the first task was to go to an Australia branch and clean house. They were stealing the company blind, but after my short visit that stopped. There was a complete staff overhaul where a lot of vacancies opened. I didn't go to the want ads, I didn't click online, and I didn't post help wanted ads. I hired people as I shopped and traveled wherever there was an outstanding performer. Once every other day you meet someone in the market, coffee shop, or gym who is smart, courteous, curious, and takes the extra moment to look you in the eye and help out. I quickly filled the positions and in three months it was no longer corrupt and I left knowing it would never be. I return every few months to dismiss people with the bottom 10% performance and keep the rest on top, and to replace them with fresh blood. It prevents company atherosclerosis."
I still couldn't figure out what I had done wrong to be brought to this meeting. Then the owner closed, "We just wanted to thank you for bringing a new potential employee to our attention." I suggested implementing a Man in White for the carrot and stick approach, because to rule by fear runs up the company profit in the short and medium term but in the long term caves in on itself. The carrot and stick approach is also psychologically thrilling and vitalizes an operation. Imagine hearing a footstep and a tap on your shoulder not knowing if it was the Man in Black or the Man in White.
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About the Author
Bo Keeley is a retired veterinarian, former publisher, author of seven books on sports and adventure, national paddleball and racquetball champion, commodities consultant, school teacher, psychiatric technician, traveler to 96 countries, and executive adventure guide who has been featured in Sports Illustrated and other national publications as an alternative adventurer. (back)