Building the right staff Featured

7:00pm EDT January 30, 2006
There are few things more crucial to the success of a business than having the right people in the right positions. As any executive can attest, there is a substantial difference between an employee who is properly matched to their job and someone who is not.

“If you don’t have the right person in the right position, you can’t do your job or meet your objectives,” says Dr. Ken Nielsen, the president of Woodbury University. “If I don’t have the right person teaching architecture, then we won’t be able to deliver the product to our client, the student.”

Smart Business spoke with Nielsen about what attributes to look for when making a hire, how to keep valuable employees in the fold and where to assign a company’s best employees.

What is the most important characteristic to look for when making a hiring decision?
Attitude is the single most important characteristic that you look at with any employee. If they have the attitude that matches the mission and goals of your institution and what you’re trying to achieve, the success will likely come.

In our case, I am very clear that one of the attitudes we have at Woodbury is that this is a family-oriented university. If you don’t have the attitude that you can be warm and fuzzy and get your arms around the student and say, ‘I’m going to help you in every way possible to have success,’ then you won’t fit in this organization.

There are also some other things that I look at when hiring employees. I look for a history of successes. Were they the class president in their third-grade class? Did they sell more newspapers then the other kid? Did they earn their way to camp by selling candy?

If you look at small success patterns, it’s something that you follow throughout their life. If they’ve been successful in the past, they’ll be successful in the future.

Once you’ve identified the right people for your organization, how do you identify which positions they should be in?
In our role at the university, we try to identify the right people, but we have very specific positions that they’re going into. For instance, if I’m hiring a vice president for finance, then I’m looking for a finance person. We won’t take just anybody and then try and fit them into our slots. We look for those specific skills that an employee might have.

I would say for a CEO of an organization the most important responsibility is to hire the right people. Then after hiring the right people, the vision needs to be set for the institution, and goals and objectives set for the employee. And then you get out of the way and let them do their job.

Once you have a good fit, what are some ways to keep a valued employee on board with the company?
You need to pay them the right salary and you need to increase that salary as their responsibilities or their experience expand with the organization. You need to have a system of goals and objectives that you set annually and that you review monthly. This feedback is very important and they need to know where they are and what their status is.

There are other rewards that you can give people, by verbal recognition and by other kinds of recognition within the organization, so that they know that they are being successful. On the other hand, if a person is not doing well, during the monthly progress reviews you need to be clear with what you expect and what you want.

Is it important to mix one-on-one communication with group communication?
Absolutely. In my case, I have a weekly staff meeting with my six direct reports and then I also meet individually with them once a week. Communication is an ongoing process and it has to go both ways. You have to be open to hear from your direct reports — their objectives, their ideas and things that they think need to be changed. Certainly the CEO still needs to make the decision, but they need a lot of input.

Where should a CEO or business owner put their best people?
You put your best people on the biggest problems or the biggest opportunities. For instance, we recently went after a bond to finance some buildings. I put our best finance person in charge of that responsibility to help us through that process. Whether it’s an opportunity or a problem, you want to get the best people to solve that issue.

Ken Nielsen is president of Woodbury University. Reach him at