[IMGCAP(1)]One of the keys to success for companies is choosing the right person for the job. Selecting the right people greatly improves your chances for success—whether you are building a CPA practice, staffing a client team or climbing Mt. Everest.

I recently finished reading a book entitled “Undaunted Courage” about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Most everyone can recall learning about Lewis and Clark in high school. Not much was written about Lewis and Clark before the expedition, and it is rarely mentioned that they were handpicked by President Thomas Jefferson.

The book details the expedition and describes the qualifications of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It also provides insight into Jefferson’s in-depth knowledge of Lewis accumulated over a number of years through prior employment of and association with Lewis.

What we can learn and apply to business about this daring feat and Jefferson’s selection for this crucial mission is as important as the expedition itself.

Jefferson’s Lesson #1: Before interviewing, determine critical objectives for the position or project and define the experience and skill sets required.

Fully understand and then prepare a detailed description identifying the key requirements for the tasks and/or position before starting your search. A best practice follows Jefferson’s approach: first try to source the person best qualified from those you know or those with whom you have had direct experience. Previous colleagues, business acquaintances, competitors and co-workers should always be considered top-of-mind, but only after a detailed description is developed. Unless a person has a unique, “must have” skill set, avoid the all too common mistake of writing a position description to suit the person available.

Jefferson’s Lesson #2: Select the person you believe most closely fills the requirements of the position description and therefore offers the most likelihood for success.

Jefferson knew that the challenges were formidable, and the odds of a successful expedition and safe return were slim. Jefferson’s direct experience with and knowledge of Lewis’ abilities were undoubtedly the main reasons he selected Lewis to lead the expedition. In Jefferson’s opinion, Lewis possessed the skill set, fortitude, courage, creativity and experience required to lead such an exploration of the American West.

Jefferson looked beyond well-deserving statesmen and patriots that were his close friends who would have jumped at the chance to lead such an expedition. Jefferson had defined his objectives and chose Lewis— the person that he believed had the best skills for the job and offered the best chance for success.

Jefferson’s Lesson #3: Excellent professionals often know other talented professionals. Ask your colleagues, trusted friends and advisors for recommendations of solid potential candidates to add to the organization or to be on your project team.

William Clark was hired on the direct recommendation of Lewis. Lewis knew Clark as a fellow officer and had firsthand experience working with Clark. Realizing he needed an excellent second in command—his “go-to” person if you will—to improve his chances for success, Lewis approached Jefferson with his recommendation to hire Clark. Outlining the mission’s critical path requirements and how Clark’s background and experience met these imperatives, Lewis was so sure of Clark’s capabilities he told the president he would be willing to share his command of the expedition to get Clark on board.

Lewis and Clark then handpicked their team from hundreds of men who had signed up, selecting those who came highly recommended as well as those who they felt offered the best chance of success based on the expedition’s objectives.

Jefferson’s Lesson #4: Be prepared to have a new colleague join the team. A proper workplace and tools should be ready for them when they arrive to begin work. Don’t consider hiring someone unless you can afford the time to properly equip, “on-board” and support them.

When a member of our firm meets with a new client to conduct a business review, we are surprised at how often the “expedition hasn’t been fully supplied.” The on-boarding process is a critical time to assure a successful start to employment, yet we’ve seen accountants hired without a laptop and have witnessed support people brought into a firm without desks, workstations, phones or computers.

Often there is no formal process for “on-boarding,” and new colleagues are left to their own resources. Certainly it is important to take the time to hire the very best people but don’t stop there.

The Lewis and Clark expedition was outfitted with all the necessary supplies before the journey had begun including boats, muskets, medical equipment, food and hand tools; other necessary supplies were replenished along the way. Jefferson made properly outfitting and supporting the expedition a priority.

Jefferson’s Lesson #5: Make training a top priority and “inspect what you expect.” Do this by engaging minds and providing appropriate and ongoing training and support for the best chance of success.

As Lewis and Clark selected their team, the men were immediately engaged and their minds kept sharp with readiness assignments. Drills and time schedules were established, and expected behavior and conduct were defined, measured and enforced.

Although the men hired for the expedition were experienced woodsmen or soldiers, many were required to learn new, enhanced and/or supplemental skills. Learning and excelling at these new skills was part of their critical path for success.

As these new skills were taught, the men were drilled and inspected directly by Clark, who took responsibility for the men and their training and coaching. Everyone was required to work together for success, as mistakes could be catastrophic to both the mission and the team. Clark “inspected what he expected,” and anyone unwilling or unable to perform was promptly released.

Much like the journey to build a business, the journey to find the Northwest Passage and open the American West was arduous and filled with challenges and setbacks. Not everyone who set out with Lewis and Clark made it successfully; some never returned.

Similarly, not every startup accounting firm or professional practice group goes on to become an established thriving entity. However, having clear objectives, selecting and hiring the best people for the job, effectively on-boarding your new colleagues, providing the proper equipment and training along with continuous coaching and support can dramatically improve your chances for success.

Bill Taylor is president of Corporate Ladders, a business development consulting and coaching firm specializing in helping accounting and professional services firms profitably increase top-line revenues. He can be reached at (201) 825-8296 or wbtaylor@corporateladders.com.

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