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Youth movement Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008

David P. O’Brien didn’t get a chance to slowly acclimate himself to his new job when he graduated from college. He was pushed into the deep end and left to sink or swim. Though equipped with the necessary skills to survive the tasks thrown at him, he could-n’t help but think there was a better way to break in new talent.

Decades later, O’Brien — now president of Oswald Cos., an insurance firm specializing in life insurance, financial services, risk consulting, workers’ compensation and wealth management — is championing a hiring practice that avoids the all-or-nothing approach he had to endure.

“It’s not just, ‘Throw them in the deep end of the pool and see if they can swim,’” he says of entry-level hires. “We wanted to teach them how to swim.”

To do so, O’Brien and his team at Oswald launched the Professional Associate Program. The two-year program puts associates under a mentor in a series of quarterly rotations that encompass ever aspect of the company. This comprehensive orientation not only familiarizes young employees with Oswald’s culture and strategic vision, but its accommodating pace serves as an enticing prospect for the best talent entering the work force.

“We had a firm belief that if we could get young, creative, smart workers, they’ll be around for a long time, and they’ll challenge the status quo of this business and take us to the next level,” O’Brien says.

Since being introduced in July 2004, the Professional Associate Program has affirmed the leader’s beliefs, and Oswald Cos.’ annual revenue has grown 65 percent during the past three years.

Going from implementation to such measurable success isn’t easy. O’Brien says that creating a hiring or development strategy is more akin to a lengthy swim upstream.

Here’s how O’Brien and his team at Oswald introduce new hires to the company — one challenge at a time.

Put a plan in place

Oswald’s Professional Associate Program didn’t begin as O’Brien’s pet project or necessarily as a means to retroactively ease the struggles he had faced upon his own abrupt introduction to the industry. The program began out of need.

A few years ago, the company’s human resources department found itself sifting through a short list of suitable candidates to fill the needs of the growing company. The best candidates certainly had the resumes for the task, but they were often too established and set in their ways to seamlessly buy in to a different culture, strategy and vision.

These managerial headaches sparked an internal dialogue about possible staffing alternatives.

“A lot of us looked at it and said, ‘Let’s develop our own,’” O’Brien says. “‘Let’s not just try to find the best person who’s looking for a job or try to recruit the very successful person who is going to be tough to recruit. Let’s grow our own successful people.’”

He appointed a director of education and business information to lead the initiative, opting for an existing employee who combined an educational background with prior business, management and mentoring experience. To assist her, he also appointed his chief operating officer and human resources manager to the task force.

O’Brien says internal staff members are best suited to handle the initial planning. Whereas a consultant might bring outside expertise, experienced employees have an intimate familiarity with the needs and demands of day-to-day operations, and that knowledge is invaluable when devising a plan comprising the obsessive level of detail that O’Brien demanded from his own team.

“Really develop specifically what you foresee (the young associates) doing for the first two years,” he says. “Be as specific as possible.”

He says a detailed plan acts as a blueprint for the entire program. Like all good blueprints, there will inevitably be some deviations that must be addressed along the way.

“Before we did this, we said, ‘What will happen the first two years?’” O’Brien says. “Some of that we were dead-on right, but some of these things we didn’t move fast enough. Some of them we moved too fast.”

He says it’s important to address such changes and the overall progress of the plan through constant re-evaluation from its authors.

“(The task force) would get together on a monthly basis and really just evaluate how it’s going, what do we need to improve, what’s working and what’s not?” O’Brien says.

Communicate the time commitment

By implementing the plan, O’Brien was forgoing the experience of seasoned candidates in favor of raw talent who would require considerably more training.

“These young people, whereas they may need some more development and molding, you’re better able to develop them,” he says. “That requires a lot of training.”

Training requires a lot of commitment, and it’s something that Oswald’s 225 employees were more than willing to offer. O’Brien says it’s easy to get buy-in simply by communicating how an in-house training and development program can solve pesky staffing woes.

“Very rarely are we saying, ‘We’ve got to get a list of 20 candidates, interview five, do second interviews with three, pick the best one and put them in a spot because we have a need,’” he says. “We just have that person ready to fill a hole when the hole’s going to be there.”

Conveying just how much time participation in the program entails can prove a bit more difficult.

“The real issue was making sure we all understood that this was a tremendous investment of our personal time to develop these folks,” he says. “Time with education, time mentoring, time spent going through a project, and then spending two hours with them after the project to talk about why we did certain things and how we did things and why it’s important.”

O’Brien says the best way to communicate these new responsibilities is to show employees the plan.

“If you just have an idea, I’m not sure you can really put it in front of people and say, ‘You realize the time and commitment this takes?’” he says.

“The key was to have a plan so people could see that this was going to take time. ‘Well, we’re going to have to do these classes. That class is going to take this much time; it’s going to take this much prep time. I’ve got to find a way to create the capacity for myself to do that.’”

No matter how cooperative your staff may be though, there will always be instances when an existing employee can’t devote adequate time to the program. O’Brien says to be accommodating to those needs.

“If they don’t have the time, they don’t have the time,” he says. “You have to recognize that and not just force it because it will fail.”

Seek out the best candidates

Though O’Brien started the Professional Associate Program to avoid tedious hiring practices, he says you must still devote time seeking out the best young candidates on the front end.

“They have to have some natural ability,” he says. “The best skill sets are still going to rise to the top.”

Before you start skimming talent from the top, O’Brien says you must first devise a solid recruitment plan. Prepare a detailed job description and outline of the program — as outlined in the original plan — to present to potential candidates. Then, identify a number of arenas in which to focus your recruitment efforts.

O’Brien’s task force approached a number of area universities, specifying what it was looking for in terms of curriculum qualifications. The task force also went to a number of local job fairs, such as (i)Cleveland, where it eventually found Oswald’s first recruit.

Since that time, the program has essentially become a self-serving entity subsisting off of contacts from existing young associates.

“Now, the recruiting class comes from our past recruits,” O’Brien says. “A candidate comes in with some knowledge because a friend or an acquaintance or an associate has been here, and they’re excited about it because they’ve already heard about it from someone who went through it.”

The process has become so effective that O’Brien and the task force now charge existing young associates, with supervision from the HR manager, with hiring potential candidates.

“They know what it takes, so they can really scrutinize,” he says. “We put a lot of weight behind our people who have come through the program to identify candidates for it.”

In addition, O’Brien says this added responsibility is a great way to foster ownership and get buy-in from the associates.

Mold associates through experience

One of the biggest advantages of the program is the candidates’ lack of experience. Whereas industry veterans may exhibit a stringent allegiance to familiar behaviors, entry-level hires can more seamlessly align themselves with new strategies or visions.

O’Brien and his task force understood this potential and literally set out to teach their young associates the Oswald way of thinking, much of which was accomplished in a traditional classroom setting.

“We have an actual class on our values and our mission statement, culture, and our history,” O’Brien says. “We wanted to have some basic classroom education just to make sure they’re getting a good foundation of the specific, technical nature of our business.”

Some of these courses were taught by Oswald employees who could comfortably speak on given areas of expertise.

Other opportunities arose through outside educational opportunities within the industry.

“We do utilize outside opportunities within the insurance industry, so there may be an insurance company intensive two-week program we’ll send these people to,” O’Brien says.

Whatever the case, O’Brien says it’s important to invest the time and money in this area of training. Not only does the classroom piece bring young hires up to speed, but it also serves as a perfect opportunity to communicate specific company goals and values.

Still, only so much can be taught in a classroom. To gain the necessary real-world experience as well as a better understanding of the company itself, Oswald’s young associates participate in quarterly rotations in different areas of the firm.

“We have a two-year rotation where we get people working for 90 days at a time in different specialty practice areas of our business,” O’Brien says. “Our younger people, who ultimately are going to develop an area of expertise, first develop great peripheral vision and breadth of understanding of the company.”

Within those rotations, associates work side by side with a designated mentor who oversees their progress and growth. O’Brien says to continually underscore the importance of that relationship with the mentors, the mentors are the ones who are charged with the development of each associate, and, in turn, the long-term success of the company.

O’Brien also designated his director of education and business information as the head mentor to gauge associates’ overall development, collect feedback and solve any problems that might arise within a given mentoring relationship or rotation.

But for as much emphasis as O’Brien places on education, rotations and mentoring relationships, he says the success of the program ultimately comes back to commitment.

“I would absolutely accentuate that you have to be committed to making the investment in these people, and you have to stick to it,” he says. “It is an investment of time — probably more so than people will think initially — but the return will be there.”

HOW TO REACH: Oswald Cos., (216) 367-8787 or www.oswaldcompanies.com