Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

How to Hire Right

Two professionals shaking hands at a tableThis is a note I sent to the CEO of a small company with about a dozen employees. He had just lost one of his key players and was looking to hire someone to replace her, and add a new salesperson, so I sent him this note to give him my best advice on how to make sure that he hired the right person. Give it a read for my best advice on navigating the hiring process as well as a few actionable steps you can take immediately.

Scott, making the decision to bring in a new person onto the team in your company is an extremely important decision, especially with such a small team. Done correctly, the new hire could potentially bring in significant additional revenues, new customers, new partnerships and innovative new ideas that can help make your company much more successful. Done poorly, hiring the wrong person can be an extremely expensive mistake that could set you back months and potentially do long-term damage within your team and with your customers. Therefore, I’d like to give you a little bit of advice on what I feel are some essential ideas and tools around hiring right.

The first thing I’d like to share with you is that for your type of business, the quality of the people that you get and keep on your team will be the single most important factor in determining the long-term success of your business. There’s an old cliché that says that people are your most important asset, but that’s wrong. Your best people are your most important asset; your worst people are your biggest liability, so you need to be very careful and effective in how you go about hiring new employees.

Whenever I counsel a business owner about the hiring process, here are a few things that I strongly recommend they do:

Create a very specific list of the attributes, skills, talents and attitude you are looking for in the new hire. Make this list before you interview, attached to, emotionally connected to, or invested in any candidate. Write down the short list of things that the employee you are going to hire MUST possess. These are non-negotiable; it doesn’t matter how much you like the person, how cool you think they are, how great they seem … this is the short list of key skills/attributes that anyone who fills the job absolutely must demonstrate—PERIOD! Next, list several things that would be “nice to have:” items that are above and beyond the core but might be a bonus to your business. Lastly, jot down a few things that would be super nice to have but are totally icing on the cake. Now, when you interview someone, if they do not have everything on the list of key elements—do not hire them. Actually, I think it’s a good idea if you put a point scale next to each of the items, such as 10 points for all of the “must haves,” 5 points for the “nice to haves,” and 3 points for the “really super nifty to have.” Then, create a baseline score and if the person doesn’t score at least, let’s say a 70, on a 100-point scale—they do not come back for a second interview. I see a lot of business owners that meet a potential candidate, sort of click with them, really like them, and then overlook the fact that the person does not have even the most basic skills necessary to be highly successful at the position they are trying to fill. I do not want you to make that mistake, so creating this scorecard is a clear, specific and objective way to help hold yourself accountable for only hiring people that are truly qualified. The goal is to hire really great people that you like a lot, and who also have at least a minimum score of 70.

Read some books or get some training on interviewing techniques (my favorite book on this topic is, Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street). Most of the businesspeople I’ve come across are pathetic at doing a thorough job of asking superb interviewing questions and knowing what to look for in a candidate. The list you have created in step one will help you form an agenda for asking questions, but the key here is for the candidate to spend 90% of the time talking while the interviewer is taking exceedingly good notes, watching body language, and asking additional probing questions. Unfortunately, this is almost the exact opposite of the way most interviews go, with the business owner going on and on about how great their company is, how great their culture is, how great their products are… and not asking any focused questions that would truly let them understand whether the candidate is the right person for the job they’re trying to fill. Again, I don’t want you to make that mistake, so have a long list of excellent questions prepared before the candidate is sitting in front of you, and then use that list to guide the entire interviewing process.

I’m also a big fan of team interviewing, getting a candidate who has made it past the first round to spend some time with the people they will work for, the people that they will work with, and the people that will work for them—so you can get feedback from everyone on how they feel the candidate would fit into the culture. Important: Anyone who interviews them should have some level of training on how to conduct a professional interview. You want to make sure that they ask good questions, the right questions and nothing that would get your company into trouble.

I also think it’s a good idea to get them to take a few tests, possibly a skills test and a personality test like the Myers-Briggs or DISC profile to make sure that they truly do possess the skills they are advertising and that they will likely be a good fit for your culture. In addition, call every single reference and ask them a few questions about the candidate so you can get some additional feedback. Again, this is where some good interviewing training will come in handy, because there is an art to asking the right sort of questions to references, who are often reluctant to be totally honest about any negative issues with a candidate. If it is a senior position, I encourage you to do a great deal of due diligence, call every reference, call their former employers and get as much information as you possibly can about the candidate before you hire them. Hiring the right person for a key executive position can make a major positive impact on your business; hiring the wrong person can land you in bankruptcy court.

A few years ago, I attended a conference of 400+ CEOs on hiring, retaining, and growing top talent. After we came together, dozens of workshops, panel discussions and lots of dialogue, this esteemed group of senior leaders came up with two key ideas on hiring:

  1. Hire for attitude and aptitude—train for skills. As long as the person has the “must-have” skills for the job that you created in your list, and they show the ability to learn, always hire the person with best attitude. If someone has all the skills and a bad attitude, there is no book you can give them, no class you can send them to, no seminar they can attend that will turn a person who has a bad attitude into a positive and productive employee.
  2. Hire slow—fire fast. Even if you are in emergency mode and desperately need someone to fill a gap in your business, I urge you to take the time to find the right person and not just hire the first person that walks in the door (unless they truly are a great fit). Employee turnover is expensive. By the time you bring someone on board, train them up, fill out all the paperwork and get them in your system, you have invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, resources and money—if you have to terminate them, or they quit within a few weeks or months, it’s costly all the way around.

One last thing: a strategy I used when hiring key people for one of my businesses. When they’ve gone through all the steps above, the team loves them, the tests were all great and the references all checked out, I would tell the person that they were the candidate we wanted to hire, and I would give them the job offer with salary, benefits, vacation and everything else included in the position. However, I would tell them that they could not accept on the spot; they needed to go home and think about it, to talk to their husband, wife, or best friend. And then I would tell them this before they left my office: “Do not take this job if it is only about the money, the benefits and vacation—because I will figure that out very quickly and I will fire you as fast as I possibly can. On the other hand, if you love what our company stands for, if you think this is a great culture that you would fit into well, if you like the other people you’ve met and you’re truly excited about our products and services—then please take this job as it might be the last job you ever take and you will retire from here. But I’m deadly serious: If it’s just about having a “job” do not accept this offer because you will NOT last long.” Amazingly, after going through all the interviewing, passing all the tests, getting great reviews from all the references… 70% of the people did not accept the job. They were not really committed and were not truly excited; they were not honestly passionate about our business—they just wanted a job and could not make the commitment I was looking for. When I told one CEO about this practice of mine, he said to me, “It sounds like you’re running a cult.” After thinking about it for a minute or two I replied to him, “Yes, I am … it’s a cult of excellence … do you have a problem with that?” He quickly answered, “Nope, not at all—just checking!”

Scott, you have a great company with a fantastic culture, and anyone would be lucky to work with you and your team. I’m sure you’ll get plenty of people that apply for these jobs, but take your time, use the list, do the tests, do the team interviewing, check all the references—and only hire somebody who meets or exceeds all of the criteria you have laid out. Following all of these suggestions is time consuming, I fully admit that, but it is worth every single minute of it—I guarantee.

I hope you found this helpful, my friend. I wish you every possible success in bringing some superstars onto your team. Take good care – John

Hiring the right people is never easy, but with these actionable steps I hope that you can navigate the process. I hope you can take the following key steps back to your team to drastically improve the hiring process:

  • Create a skill scorecard with “must-have” skills earning 10 points, 5 points for “nice to have,” and 3 points for “really super nifty to have.” Only candidates that earn a score of at least 70 get a second interview and the rest are tossed.
  • Train a group of team members to be able to properly work through the interview questions with right questions.
  • Utilize all your resources like employer references, personality tests, and even your own employees to evaluate if they would fit into the culture of the company.
  • Ensure that your candidates desire the job for the commitment of the company and its growth, not just the money.

Best of luck in your hiring journey. – John

A Midyear Checkup: 2019 Trends

Neon sign with an arrow upward saying "go up and never stop."At the beginning of the year, a client asked me to put together this video on the main things I learned in 2018.  I had worked on a myriad of projects from delivering dozens of keynotes and workshops to several strategic planning retreats and a lot of executive coaching. As I looked back on all of these, I saw five major trends that I challenged all of you to focus on for 2019.

While hard to believe, here we are halfway through 2019. I thought now would be a great time to check in to see how everyone is tackling my challenges and share some of the things I am seeing right now in the marketplace. I encourage you to take eight minutes and 26 seconds to watch the video, then below it, I have posted some ideas and anecdotes that I believe will help you for the rest of this year.

Five Key Ideas for 2019


The first idea I talk about in the video is that “Culture = Cash,” and that has really come into sharp focus in the last six months. I am coaching two executives, one in the financial industry and the other in the medical industry, and we’ve been working on improving the culture in their organizations. Both of them have identified their organizational culture as one of their only sustainable competitive advantages (along with top talent, customer relationships, strong brand, and proprietary data) and are now focusing on culture as a major strategy for the long-term success of their organizations.


Number two on my list is the idea of servant leadership, which is becoming more and more important as the year progresses. I just did a TEDx talk on The Leader of the Future where I talked about this concept and underscored the importance of having a high emotional quotient (EQ) and creating a genuine connection with the people in your organization. Unfortunately, I don’t see enough leaders who are deeply dedicated to truly serving their employees.


Wow, it’s amazing how much people talk about the importance of great customer service and how few businesses actually deliver it consistently (number three). I see this as a massive opportunity to stand out in a crowded marketplace. In the video, I mentioned the Ritz Carlton as a great example of superior customer service and one of the founders of the company, Horst Schulze, recently wrote a book called Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise that is absolutely fantastic. So many great stories, ideas, and tools for taking customer service to a completely new level, I highly recommend you read the book.


The fourth thing I mention is accountability. This is one of the biggest issues I’ve seen at companies across my entire career (the other big ones are poor communication and dysfunctional senior leadership teams). The only thing I will reiterate here is that it is essential you establish very clear expectations of what you are going to hold someone accountable to, without doing that you have set the person up for failure.


Finally, I touched on disciplined execution, which I view as a subset of accountability – if people are not held accountable, there is no way to execute effectively on your strategy. The point I’d like to make on this one is to make sure you remain focused, you should only have 3 to 5 major strategic objectives and only a handful of leading indicator KPIs that you use to manage your business. Remember, just because you can measure something doesn’t mean you should and just because something is hard to measure doesn’t mean you get to skip it. Pick the major numbers that drive the success of your organization and focus on them intently.

Two Bonus Ideas

In the video, I outlined the five above areas for you to focus on in 2019, and at the halfway mark they are still 100% on point. However, I wanted to add two more that I have seen emerge as areas for the remainder of the year.


Three of the executives I am coaching have asked me to help them become better strategic thinkers and it has been an absolute blast to work with them on this topic. I believe there are two reasons they are struggling.

  1. They do not truly understand what strategy is and how to apply high-level strategic thinking to their businesses.
  2. They are not looking closely enough at the major trends that would impact their industries over the next few years.

Strategic planning and thinking have different approaches, something that not many executives understand. By having these executives make their own “philosophy of strategy,” they create a philosophy that they can see strategy in a completely new light and gives them the unique perspective they needed.


In the TEDx talk I reference above, I talk about how important it is to have a high AQ, which is your adaptability quotient, your ability to be agile and move quickly in a fast-changing business environment. Last week, I delivered a workshop for a large pharmaceutical company when one of the attendees asked me, ” How do you develop your AQ?” Rather than just explaining it, I decided to give her an example and asked everyone in the room to write down the major trends they thought would be impacting their industry over the next five years.

From there, we worked together as a group to agree on the top three. After we had reached consensus, I then turned the audience and said, “Who in here can come to the front of the room and give us at least 15 minutes of data and ideas about specifically what’s going to happen in these three areas and how your company and each of you should be prepared to meet those challenges successfully?” Not a single person could do it. I then told them that someone with a high AQ would be able to get up and speak for an hour.

So my question to you, what are the top three trends that have will impact your business and your career over the next five years and could you easily talk for 30 minutes or more explaining exactly what your plan is to take on those challenges? If not, you have some work to do.

Make 2019 Your Best Year Yet

Here we are heading into the second half of 2019 and again I challenge you to focus on the things I mentioned in the video and these additional ideas to help you make 2019 one of the best years ever for you and your business.

I hope you found this helpful and will share it with your network. Thanks so much – John

What Is Your Definition Of Leadership?

a graphic displaying the word leadershipFor nearly 30 years I’ve had the honor of delivering leadership training and executive coaching to companies around the world. One of the things I get asked a lot is, “What is your definition of leadership?” I think I have a pretty good one, but first, let’s take a little detour.

I also do a lot of training in the area of high-performance teams, and one of the workshops I typically make the group go through is to create a list of the characteristics of an Ideal Team Member. I ask them, “If you were able to bring somebody fantastic onto your team, someone that you would love to work with, what would that person be like? What are the skills, abilities, attitude, and personality of an ideal team member for your company?” Here are the responses I hear the most:

  • Honest
  • Has 100% integrity
  • Positive attitude/fun to work with
  • Proactive/self-starter
  • Competent
  • Innovative/creative
  • Excellent communicator
  • Great listener
  • Highly collaborative/a strong team player
  • Lifelong Learner
  • Loyal
  • Respectful

Wow, what a great list, and after I read the list back to the group, I ask how many of them would love to have someone who has all these characteristics on their team? Every hand in the room shoots up, and then I say to them, “To get someone like this to join your team, you have to be like this first. Because anyone who has all the characteristics on that list will only work for someone else that also exhibits those characteristics.”

So, back to my definition of leadership. In my leadership classes, I run a very similar workshop where I ask small groups of attendees to develop a list of what they would look for in an Ideal Leader. I get all of the same things I listed above, plus a few more…

  • Visionary
  • Courageous
  • Inspiring/motivating
  • Fair
  • Compassionate
  • A great coach
  • Leads by example

It’s that last characteristic that shapes my definition of leadership.

To be an effective leader, you must be a living example of what you hope your followers will one day become.

Remember, if you hold a leadership position at any level in an organization, you live under a microscope. People watch everything you do; they listen to everything you say. Whatever you focus on becomes what they focus on and whatever you ignore they will ignore. Your behavior drives their behavior.

So, in my mind, to have great people in your organization, you must first become the kind of person that they want to work with. By the way, this is really hard. It takes a lot of discipline. This means you can’t just do what you feel like doing, or what you can get away with, or mistreat people because you’re in a foul mood, you must keep asking yourself, “What would an ideal leader do?” and follow that as your guide.

What is your definition of leadership?



6 Keys to Effective Strategic Planning

mini-peepsI am currently preparing to facilitate three strategic planning meetings, for an association, a technology company and a Fortune 100 client. Here are a few things that I see as foundational for creating an effective strategic plan.

  1. The key to a successful strategic plan is: FOCUS. Every company, regardless of size, has limited resources and strategy is all about effectively deploying an organization’s resources where they will have the most positive impact in the marketplace.
  2. To mirror my first point, one of the most important things a great strategic thinker does is figure out what to say “NO” to. What markets will we not compete in? What products or services should we not try to sell? What current projects should we abandon?
  3. If you have 10 strategic objectives, you do not have a strategy. All of the successful companies I’ve worked with were able to focus in on 3 to 5 major strategic initiatives. Anything more than that causes a lack of focus and ultimately a lack of success.
  4. When examining business issues, are you trying to solve a puzzle or a mystery? With enough data and information, you can find the right answer to a puzzle, but no matter how hard you try it is impossible to find the exact right solution for mystery. Because of this, as much as I hate to admit it, a large part of strategy is simply an educated guess about what might happen in the future.
  5. Alignment is critical. If the senior team is not 100% committed to strategic direction of the organization, the plan will fail.
  6. It’s an age-old business cliché, because it is correct: What gets measured gets done. A major reason that many strategies are not effectively executed is because there is no way to determine exactly what the expectations are. Ambiguity Breeds Mediocrity.

Those are just a few of the key ideas I try to help my clients keep in mind as we move through a strategic planning retreat. I will also add one more critical point; to make sure you follow through and implement your plan, you should spend just as much time on strategic execution planning as you do on planning the strategy. This is a very important idea that few companies truly embrace.

What are your thoughts?

The Four Most Important Things I Have Ever Learned

I am currently going through all my blogs and looking for the ones to keep, update or remove. I ran across this one and was especially touched by all of the comments – there’s even one there from a very close friend who has since passed away. I hope you find value in these ideas, and add your own comments to the already impressive list.

In a few weeks, I will be facilitating a weekend retreat for an organization in my local community.  The theme of the retreat is “Self-leadership” and I will be delivering a very special class that I don’t often get to teach called “Strategies for Success.” It is basically an advanced life skills class, a superb opportunity to stop and take stock of your life and make sure that things are going in the right direction for what you hope to achieve in your life.  As part of the class, I have assigned some homework for each of the participants. I asked them to write down the four most important things they have ever learned in their lives.  I told them to imagine that if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, what four pieces of wisdom would they want to pass along to their family and friends. I thought that was a great question, so I wanted to share my answer with you. Continue reading “The Four Most Important Things I Have Ever Learned” »

Five Things To Focus On In 2019

2018 marked my 24th year traveling around the world to help people and businesses achieve more success. I went to some amazing places, spent time with old friends and made lots of new friends. It was also a great year for learning, as I worked on all kinds of projects from executive coaching, facilitating strategic planning retreats and doing some consulting to running lots of workshops and delivering dozens of keynotes. In this video I’m going to share with you the five major things I learned in 2018 that I think will be important for you to focus on in the coming year.

I hope you found this helpful, and if you do, please share it with your network. Thanks – John


Change A Life and You May End Up Changing Yours

Here is a link for the better book club, it is free for small companies and insanely affordable for other organizations. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to go take a look at their website, look at all the things it can do for your business, and I hope you join, as I said above it will make a dramatic positive impact on the success of your organization.

Click HERE to learn more about the Better Book Club


And now, a fantastic guest blog from Frank Sonnenberg…

 Think about a person who’s had a tremendous impact on your life. It may be your Mom or Dad who believed in you, the coach who inspired you, the teacher who guided you in the right direction, the boss who gave you your first big opportunity, or the friend who’s always been by your side. I’m sure when you think of that person, it brings a huge smile to your face — as it should.

You may say that some of these folks were just doing their job. True. But even though you’ve had several good teachers, coaches, and bosses over the years, I’m sure a few of them really stand out from the crowd. You remember their passion, dedication, kindness, and, of course, their generosity. After all, they changed your life!

That obviously begs the question…are you leaving a lasting impact on others? It only takes one person to change a life — and that one person may as well be you.

Make a Difference

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re touching the lives of people every day. What can you do to step up your game?

Be an exemplary role model. Lead by example. Demonstrate that character is the DNA of success and happiness.

Be an awesome parent. Having kids is not the same as being a parent. Raise your kids to be kind, productive, and self-reliant; to make good choices and to be personally responsible for their actions; to pursue their purpose with gusto; and to live their life with honor and dignity.

Be a humble leader. Share your success. As you climb the ladder of success, reach down and pull others up with you.

Be a dedicated mentor. Take someone under your wing and show them the ropes. Give the kind of advice that they won’t hear anywhere else.

Be a compassionate boss. Show your employees that work isn’t all business. Build trusting relationships. Make yourself available and supportive in times of need.

Be a shrewd businessperson. Develop win-win rather than winner-take-all relationships. Prove that there’s more to go around when you grow a large pie, together, than when you squabble to divide a smaller one.

Be a real friend. Demonstrate loyalty when someone’s chips are down and no one else has their back.

Be an inspiration. Set high expectations and push people beyond their capabilities. Show confidence in them when they’re having a weak moment.

Be perceptive. Give someone the big break they need in life. See someone’s potential even when others are blind to their promise.

Be tough, but fair. Make people accountable for their actions. They’ll thank you one day.

Be available. Give the gift of time. Lend a shoulder to cry on when someone needs a friendly ear or support during tough times.

Be the better person. Be the first to give, the first to forgive, the first to compromise, and the first to say “I’m sorry.”

Be even-handed. Stand up for injustice, speak up for the less fortunate, and don’t give up on fairness and tolerance.

Be a loving spouse. Put your heart into your marriage. Share your hopes and your fears, your laughter and your tears, your joy and your sorrow.

Change a Life Forever

Think of your greatest accomplishments. Where would changing someone’s life rank on your list? Consider: If they hadn’t crossed paths with you, they wouldn’t be the person they are, they wouldn’t have the opportunities they have, and they wouldn’t be positioned to achieve their hopes and dreams. Bravo! You made a difference! As an added bonus, change someone’s life and you may end up changing yours.

Why complain about the ills of the world when you could be a world of difference to someone you know? You may not be able to change the world, but you can change the world around you. Change a life and create a ripple that cascades forever.


This post is an excerpt from Soul Food: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life by Frank Sonnenberg

Frank Sonnenberg is an award-winning author. He has written seven books and over 300 articles. Frank was recently named one of “America’s Top 100 Thought Leaders” and one of “America’s Most Influential Small Business Experts.” Frank has served on several boards and has consulted to some of the largest and most respected companies in the world.

Additionally, FrankSonnenbergOnline was named among the “Best 21st Century Leadership Blogs”; among the “Top 100 Socially-Shared Leadership Blogs”; and one of the “Best Inspirational Blogs On the Planet.”

Frank’s newest book, Soul Food: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life, was released inNovember 2018 (© 2018 Frank Sonnenberg. All rights reserved.)






What Are Your Leadership Values?

This past week I was asked to give a talk at my alma mater, Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida.  I was speaking with a select group of their senior management team from across the entire organization and they sent me a list of questions they wanted me to answer and discuss.  One of the questions was, “What are the three values you rely on that underpin your leadership?”  I’ve never been asked a question quite like that and was pleasantly surprised after I gave it some thought.  Here are my top three…


To me this is the absolute foundation of leadership, if you don’t tell the truth you can’t build trust and without trust, there is no loyalty, commitment or belief in the “leader.”  The rule here is simple, tell the truth all the time, period.


I believe if you treat your team, your customers, even your competitors with love and respect you are following the path of a servant leader who understands that their job is to help and support others to be successful leaders.


As one of my personal leadership values, I see the pursuit of excellence as the driver to creating an exceptional organization that has a positive impact on the lives of its employees, customers, community and the world.  Using “excellence” as a benchmark pushes each individual to be uncompromising in the quality of their work and always striving to deliver their very best.

Those are my top three, what are yours?

I Have Changed My Mind About Strategy

I have been studying and teaching strategy for nearly 20 years and I thought I had a pretty good handle on it, but in the last year, I have changed my thinking around one of my most important ideas on strategy.

I hope you find this video helpful, I look forward to your comments and please share this with your network if you think they would find it valuable.

Thank you very much – John