Christmas Chemistry Lessons.

Christmas Morning...Santa has been.

Christmas Morning…Santa has been.

We are lucky enough to have just returned from our Christmas break; Four magical days at the venue of our wedding reception, the incomparable and opulent Prestonfield in Edinburgh.

The setting could not have been better for an enchanted festive family break to reward for a busy year. A country estate built for the Lord Provost in 1687, now a unique, luxurious Boutique Hotel owned by renowned restaurateur, James Thomson MBE of The Witchery fame, still filled with 17th Century accouterments. Sat by the roaring fire, Christmas presents under the tree, the scene was more reminiscent of the mystical land of Narnia than a Scottish hotel.

Gary Chaplin. PrestonfieldDespite becoming a Bi, Tri or even Quad-Annual pilgrimage, our visits to Prestonfield are always a highlight – never moreso than this latest visit, our first Christmas at Prestonfield. But it wasn’t the surroundings that made our (and makes every) visit so special….it is the people.

We sat with 3 other couples after being over-fed (and almost over-faced) by award-winning chef, John McMahon’s multi-course Christmas dinner, with tongues loosened via contents of The Whiskey Room and discussed what made Prestonfield, and it’s staff so special.

Our fellow residents were all business owners and/or mass-employers. One was a successful carpet-maker who had built, then sold a multi-£million business; another a Cairo-based property and leisure Entrepreneur and last but not least, a global medical devices market leader.  All of us had stayed in a selection of other 5-star hotels around the world, but all agreed that Prestonfield was in a class of its own in ambience, setting….and people.

Many businesses significantly overlook the importance of fit and style of their people, yet it is one of the first things external parties, customers especially, will notice. The utilisation of automatic screening processes, faceless job boards and interviews conducted by minimally trained personnel, all in the name of efficiency, have seen staff retention ratios plummet….often with the reason of ‘not fitting in’. And yet businesses, and even recruiters, frequently place minimal importance on personal fit.

I have long maintained that the biggest impact I have on a recruitment process (and the biggest failing many in my sector have) is not the finding of people, nor it is the skills assessment, but the ability to match ‘Chemistry Fit’.

The best employees any business had/has are usually not the ones who started with the business with a perfect skill-match; They are the ones who fit with the business, it’s culture, it’s values….and it’s people.

It is for that reason that I never interview in an office. Doing so creates an overly formal setting where all interviewees immediately adopt ‘interview mode’, a state of over-caution, over-defensiveness and a lack of exposing to their true personality. Instead I create a disarming, open, friendly and discursive environment to get to the know the person, rather than solely getting them to read through, and corroborate their own CV.

Many of my contemporaries insist on farcically formal interviews, wanting to portray a reputation for conducting the toughest interview with the hardest questions in a destructively serious, power-struggle, control-vying format and style. When these headhunters are faced with the client question of ‘What’s he/she like?’….all they can answer is that ‘they interview well’ and that their CV is accurate.

Back to Prestonfield. I’ve spoken at length to James Thomson about his means of recruitment – he still meets every single person that his business employs in any of his Gary Chaplin. PrestonfieldRestaurants/Hotels/Businesses. As a long-standing patron and knowing my profession, the newly promoted Hotel Manager sought my opinion on the culture of the hotel and specifically the people working within. He likened their training to that of passing a driving test. You pass, can technically drive, but it takes 100s of hours of practical exposure to really become a competent driver.

The note, sent up the chimney, written by our 4 yr old to let Santa know where she was.

The note, sent up the chimney, written by our 4 yr old to let Santa know where she was.

Likewise his, and all of James’ staff. They pass their training, but it takes several weeks until they become fully ‘Prestonfield-ed’, but a more critical aspect is the diligence of those allowed in in the first place. Prestonfield headcount include former military personnel; others handpicked from other 5-star hotels; former childcare workers, PAs and even former Disney stars. And it shows. It’s not necessarily a standard that needs to be taught/learnt, it is a chemistry fit that is either present, or not. If it is present, it becomes apparent without necessarily looking or testing for it. The challenge is often then understand where to best use and utilise that person/talent/personality.

Many businesses have fantastic means of assessing cultural fit. For many it is simply taking the chosen candidate out for lunch/beers with his/her future colleagues to ‘make sure they all get on’. Others use more scientific means. UK Fast famously uses their Snowdonia Training Centre to observe (and help) new recruits outside of their comfort zone, in a disarming setting, and being ‘assessed’ by all manner of people to understand their cultural fit…and where in the organisation they would/will fit. I think it is great and works well for them.

But Chemistry Fit becomes important from the very beginning of the process, not just as a final check for the chosen candidate or lead contender. The first part of any retainer search process I undertake is to spend half a day, or a full day working in a client’s office. Partly meeting stakeholders and reporting lines to and from the position, but mostly to understand the culture (with 360 vision), the expectations for the person and above all, the Chemistry Fit required. Once that is done, I can spot the right fit with the people I headhunt, speak to and meet.

For many businesses, my assessment of their culture/chemistry is enlightening, as many external assessments can be. But if a business doesn’t really understand its own culture and chemistry fit, it will struggle to find those that do fit with it.

Such is my assertion of the importance of Chemistry Fit, that I Guarantee all of my placements for 12 months, rather than the usual industry 12 weeks. I’ve never had to call upon it.

Get it right, and whilst you may not gain the 5-Star rosette or Michelin Star, you will gain a more collegial working environment and greatly increased output. Kilt-wearing optional….

Gary Chaplin. Prestonfield

Prestonfield. Gary Chaplin

4 Comments on “Christmas Chemistry Lessons.”

  1. Great Blog Gary. Chemistry fit is so important that i’m still staggered that more businesses don’t lay more importance on it. The prevalence of Internet Job Boards and poor Employment Agencies has driven out the skill turning recruitment into a check list task and nothing more. Our businesses suffer.

  2. Good read. We’ve always used out of box thinking for our personality assessment but are guilty of only assessing the final choice. Great approach you have.

  3. Great read and a lovely place to spend Christmas!
    Has selection on personality been pushed out by ticking diversity boxes? Especially with language barriers?

  4. Pingback: Interviewing. 20 Questions That Could Make All The Difference | Gary Chaplin


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