The right stuff Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

Forget about headhunters and staffing firms, Jim Sexton believes in one degree of separation when it comes to hiring.

Sexton, founder, president and CEO of ready-to-assemble furniture manufacturer Z-Line Designs Inc., says you need to ask employees and industry contacts for referrals in order to get the best pool of candidates in front of you.

From there, it’s asking a little bit about their past and, more importantly, how they can help you in the future.

“These are really direct questions,” Sexton says. “‘Can you do this? When? How?’ It’s just like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. We want to know right now what can you do, what can you do fast. I think a lot of other corporations and people that I talk to it’s more of a, ‘Where have you been to school, and what have you been doing, what was your job like?’ and that type of thing.”

Smart Business spoke to Sexton, who has 250 employees, about how to hire the best person for the job.

Use your resources to network. I’ve been in the furniture business for probably 30 years or more. So when you’re in this industry you sort of meet people over the years that you’ve respected that are sharp people.

We go out there. We’re looking for people that are related to the industry that we can plug into something immediately.

There are two big problems if you’re going out looking for people, and these are two horrendous problems. No. 1 is if you go out and you just go to an agency and hire someone. If you’re in my world where designs and customers and everything that we’re doing, you have to be so protected about. So, when someone brings me someone in here, I want to know what they can do for me tomorrow and what (they can) do for me right now. Tell me about what’s going to happen here.

Then, the second part is you have to learn to have a level of trust with this person because once you open that door to your business, that door is wide open and they’re going to see how you operate this business.

You can’t just hire someone just because you go to an agency and they say, ‘Oh, well, we know these people and they’re a really smart person, and send them in here, and let someone else hire them.’ It doesn’t work that way in my opinion.

What I try to do is reach out around my world with my wife, with anybody that’s in my world, and say, ‘OK, we need someone to do this job. Does anybody have any ideas?’ What we’re trying to do, again, is pull from the people that are inside this world. We’re looking for people that we know a little bit about, we don’t want to hire people just off the shelf because we’ve tried that and, quite honestly, they’ve bombed two or three different times.

Go to everybody in your building and say, ‘Look, we’re looking for a such and such; got any ideas?’ That’s a lot stronger because the people there know a certain person, a certain idea, a certain guy or girl, whatever, and that brings you strength with it so you can say, ‘OK, here’s kind of putting your neck on the line that you know this person.’ That’s very, very important.

Ask the important questions. A guy came here because he heard about Z-Line, and he wanted to come chat with me about a job. He came to see me, and we talked for a while. We talked about who he sells, what kind of products does he have, who are they made by — he’s giving me a long list of what he can do for the company. My answer is, ‘OK, what can you do for the company starting tomorrow? Show me what you can do right now.’ We hired him in 24 hours.

Once you can convince me that tomorrow I can start going here and here and here and here, and I can make this work, and you’ve proven that to myself and a couple of different people — we bring in other people into the interview — I say, ‘You know what, I think this guy is really, really good.’

You’re always asking, ‘What can you do for me tomorrow?’ That’s the biggest question of all. It’s really about I’m sitting here, you’re sitting here, tell me what you’re going to be able to do that will make a difference to my business. That’s the big thing right there — how are you going to dial my business up?

Involve employees in finding candidates’ experiences. First of all, you want to know who are you hiring. Say, ‘What is this person being hired for? What are we looking for?’ So you’re trying to find out the experience they have — how long have they designed, or how long have (they) been in sales.

It’s basically, ‘What’s your background?’ Not collegewise because college is so-so, it doesn’t really formulate into a corporation automatically. You go to college, and you graduate, and that’s wonderful, but the fact is that when you come in here and you’re trying to get the job, you want to look at this person and see what they’ve done outside of just college. You want to see some experience they’ve got.

(We) will have two other people besides myself that will interview these people so that, again, it all goes back to the same story — hire great people. Let them interview also because I’m not going to be able to think of everything, but let these other two people do the same thing. Then we get together again and say, ‘OK, we asked this question or this question or this question,’ so it comes back to that networking inside my company again to say what do you think about this person and then we start to put the answers together.

How to reach: Z-Line Designs Inc., (925) 743-4000 or