How is recruiting like an Ironman Triathlon? I’m fairly certain that you’ve never been asked that question nor have thought about the relationship between the two. I am the co-founder and COO of TheLadders, and on August 11, 2012, I competed in the Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City. As I reflect on my experience, I have drawn some parallels between competing in an Ironman and recruiting extraordinary people.
Start with a Map
Study the best employees to help you define the attributes of what makes an “extraordinary” employee at your organization. For the past 35 years, Ironman has been regarded as the pinnacle among all endurance sports, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon. A competitor who finishes in less than 17 hours is called an Ironman. What I find pretty cool is that there are more people who finish the NYC marathon every year than finish any of the Ironman races around the world. People do Ironman to find out what they are made of! It is the same with your best employee. So, find out what drives your best people and then create interview questions that will reveal the “Ironman” within them.
I think too many people are afraid to fail and, as a bi-product of their fears, don’t strive to achieve the best. Failure is an essential part of the learning process and one of the best ways to learn. For Ironman, my goal wasn’t just to finish; I wanted to finish within 13 hours. I aimed high and pushed myself hard. The same mantra applies to recruiting. Do not settle on the first six candidates you have interviewed. Do not stack the deck. Do not recycle candidates from your prior searches. Do not settle for anything other than an extraordinary employee.
Ask Questions that Reveal What They’re Made of
During the last 10 miles of the Ironman, as I was in pain and struggled to get to the finish line, a man looked at me puzzled and said, “Why would anyone want to do this?” I thought he asked the wrong question. The question I asked myself was, “How many of us can truly treasure the life-changing experience of a single day, excluding a birth or a marriage, for the rest of our lives?” For 2,500 people, August 11, 2012, was that day. People come to Ironman to find out what they are made of. If they can complete an Ironman, they can do anything in life. These are the kind of people you want to hire. Do not hire for experience, hire for character.
“Pain is Temporary, Ironman is Forever”- Sister Madonna Buder
Seek people who have overcome failure and who chose to keep moving forward. In 1982, Julie Moss was in the lead of the women’s race at the World Championship Ironman in Kona, Hawaii. But, with a short lead, Julie could no longer run after swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26 miles, so she tried walking. Her legs buckled. She tried to stand and walk again. Her legs buckled yet another time. So she did the only thing that she was able to do . . . she crawled to the finish line even after being passed at the very end! She showed amazing perseverance in the face of adversity. Hire people who have experienced failure in their life (personal or professional), but who chose to move forward. Extraordinary employees are resilient. Resilience leads to high performance on the job.
You are Never as Good as Your Next Race
Finishing Ironman is an extraordinary event in someone’s life. Once the race is over, one should celebrate the achievement, but not for too long: every day is an opportunity for a new challenge. When is your next race? Are you ready for it? Will you do better than the prior one? The philosophy that applies to athletes applies to recruiters. You are never as good as your next hire. Think about your clients or the hiring manager. Their main concern is: “What have you done for me today?” In the world of recruiting, we can never rest. You have to get back in the “pool” and practice your swimming drills every day.
Hire People who Commit First
People who are extraordinary commit to their goals first, and then figure out the plan to achieve them. They have the self-motivation to get across the finish line on their own. Unlike most people, I opted not to hire a coach for Ironman. Instead, I researched and designed my own training program and nutrition plan. That way, I could own both the success and the failure. I did not need to hire someone to motivate me. Unless you plan to spend a lot of time motivating people, look for self-starters who do not require a constant push.
Gratitude and Smiles:
I learned this lesson from my friend Dave Carvajal, CEO & founder of Dave Partners, a premier executive search and advisory firm, and a two-time Ironman finisher (for reference, Dave hired me 12 years ago at HotJobs). On his blog, Dave talks about the lesson he learned during his first Ironman.
“On the eve of Ironman Canada, Sister Madonna Buder offered some great advice: ‘Pain is inevitable; suffering is an option. Whenever you hit an emotional low point, make sure you smile. The harder you hit a low point, the harder you should smile.’ At mile 15 of the Ironman Canada marathon, I discovered the human physiological effect of smiling that Sister Madonna spoke about just days earlier when my runner’s knee re-emerged after years of silence. It only takes 17 muscles in the face to smile versus 43 to frown or have agony on your face. Further, the muscles in the face are connected to the brain in a way that affects endorphins and serotonin – the natural pain killers and feel-good hormones. Externally, smiles are contagious and people want to support you more. Spectating crowds would literally single me out from the mass of runners to cheer me on because I was smiling!”
Hire people who smile. They are pleasant to be around and they get stuff done.
Alex Douzet is Co-Founder and COO of TheLadders. In this role, Alex is responsible for the company strategy, global business operations, and product development.