Measuring up: Schmidt Associates goes extra mile in hiring, onboarding | Crain's Indianapolis

Measuring up: Schmidt Associates goes extra mile in hiring, onboarding

An architect or engineer may be capable of magnificent designs rivaling India’s Taj Mahal or Spain’s Sagrada Familia.

But Indianapolis-based architectural and engineering firm Schmidt Associates has additional considerations when it comes to prospective hires.

The 80-employee company screens its candidates on a host of prerequisites that might make getting a job at a Fortune 500 company seem easy. There are at least three rounds of job interviews and a requirement that candidates take a Predictive Index test that guages personality characteristics and cognitive abilities.

And it evaluates whether applicants are the right fit for its servant-leadership culture, which is big on teaching leaders to serve others as part of achieving business goals.

“We’re pretty different. We make huge investments in employees,” said CEO Sarah Hempstead.  

Schmidt, one of Indiana’s largest architectural and engineering firms, is among companies taking a more scientific, if not philosophical, approach to hiring and onboarding.

Some studies have shown that one-third of new executive hires don’t last beyond 18 months, which can be costly and disruptive to an employer.

Many employers fail to ask: “What are the specific things that make people successful in a job?” said Whitney Martin, president of Louisville-based ProActive Consulting.

Schmidt’s approach developed years ago when the founder of chairman of the 40-year-old firm, Wayne Schmidt, tried to goad project managers into making marketing calls in their spare time to drum up new business.

He soon discovered it was pointless to expect some personalities to become salesmen.

The company started using the Predictive Index test to get a better handle on personality types and how a person is likely to behave. That information can help an employer match a prospect to the appropriate area or responsibilities.

The test has a long list of personal attributes such as “assertive,” “passive” and “adventurous.” The job candidate checks words he thinks other expect of him, and then checks words that he believes truly describes himself.

“Some people just aren’t good at making phone calls, but have other productive talents,” said Wayne Schmidt, who is also principal-in-charge of Schmidt's Community Studio.

“If we can determine those unique abilities and match them to the job it works so much better. That was after 10 or 15 years of being in business. Now, it’s incredible how close the profiles are to the people.”

Managing talent

Among hires who took the test recently were The Phan (pronounced TAY-fan), an architectural graduate who’d interned at the company while a student at the University of Minnesota.

Phan said the test confirmed a number of personal traits. But he was surprised to find that he wasn’t as detail-oriented as he thought, a skill he’d deemed essential for his career.

“Everybody works differently. It’s not always a negative,” Phan said.

On the other hand, Schmidt discovered Phan had additional talents, in landscape architecture and for producing 3-D graphics.

Hempstead said the company’s efforts often aren’t so much about determining competency as much as suitability. There are some highly competent engineers who don’t like and probably wouldn’t excel at making presentations before city council meetings, for example.

Deeper analytics help Schmidt deploy employees in the right areas and to leverage team dynamics. “It helps in building teams,” Hempstead said. “This way you know how everybody lands” in the abilities spectrum.

Being more intentional

ProActive CEO Martin said she’s encouraged when employers of any size incorporate pre-emptive testing, saying it ultimately benefits the job candidate, as well.

But firms often need to be “a little more strategic and intentional” in the process,” she added.

Martin, the author of “The Death of Guess,” said a predictive, evidence-based and quantitatively valuable selection process starts with vision beyond simply trying to hire “better people.”

Employers must think deeply, and perhaps with help from company stakeholders, on what the ultimate company goal is. Is it, say, to improve sales or patient satisfaction or reducing employee turnover?

“The missing link often is ‘what does hiring better mean for us?'”

After identifying that goal, employers can then chose appropriate measures they need for evaluating candidates. These may include mental ability and integrity tests, for example.

Many employers go only as far as using what she considers to be the least-predictive measures, such as interviews and reference checks.

Once an ideal candidate is hired, the employer needs to maximize its investment through onboarding and coaching, Martin says.

‘Sherpas’ for new employees

That’s a lesson learned at Schmidt, which put in place a 90-day “Sherpa” program, to help newbies become productive more quickly. 

The Sherpa could be a project planner or someone outside the employee’s direct supervisor circle. Megan Scott, marketing manager at Schmidt, said a lot of thought goes into picking a Sherpa for a new hire, with sometimes three or four people brainstorming to find the right person to guide the new employee.

With a Sherpa at one’s side, “you can ask the dumb questions that maybe you wouldn’t ask a supervisor,” said Hempstead.

For Phan, who describes himself as a “shy and quiet person,” having a Sherpa was helpful in introducing him more quickly to other employees.

Phan also learned the importance of proper communication, particularly between those in architectural and engineering disciplines who must collaborate during a project.

“You feel a little bit more comfortable about doing your own work. You’re not getting thrown to the wolves,” to fend for yourself, he said.

Phan later became a Sherpa for a new hire. “I want to make sure that the new employee feels comfortable. Once they feel comfortable they are more willing to ask questions and express themselves.”

Long-term development

Schmidt also developed mentor programs to help employees grow during their stay at the company. It supplemented that with so-called 360 feedback, which takes input from a broader number of stakeholders in the company about a particular employee’s progress and how to improve their performance.

Goal-setting and monthly awards are also used to keep employees engaged and motivated.  

The company also has given thought to generational differences among employees. Hempstead said a number of newly hired Millennials have sought time off to go on mission trips, yet haven’t yet accumulated personal leave time. She’s tried to accommodate them.

“They don’t care about the money, frankly, they care about the time.”

Such service is valued by the firm. Wayne Schmidt grew up in a family that operated a motel for traveling salesmen in Evansville. They were sticklers for making the customer king. He subsequently formalized servant-leadership practices within Schmidt.

“We can only be leaders by serving our clients and our associates. It really is a different way of thinking,” Schmidt said.

“Our new employees have to learn, or they don’t last, that we provide our clients with the best solutions by serving what the client really needs. We then provide them with the best options.”

Managers try to go the extra mile, such as helping clean up construction debris at a building prior to its opening. The company also tries to help promote clients’ community causes.

“A big project is like a marriage. You are going to be together for years,” Hempstead said. “If you don’t have that basis of trust and mutual respect it’s going to be painful.”

The same could be said of the employee-employer relationship.

February 18, 2017 - 10:11am