Highlights of an Exciting Chat with a Topgrader: Chuck Cohen, Managing Director, Benco Dental

Chuck Cohen: Thanks to Brad for not only bringing us Topgrading, but it’s very flattering to be asked to participate in the call like this.

Our company:  We are the third largest distributor of dental products in the United States.

Basically our customers are dentists and everything you see in a dentist’s office is what we sell.  We have about 1,300 employees or associates as we call them, in about 40 states throughout the United States, and we have a small office in the Philippines, as well.

Our revenues are around $650 million.  We are family owned business, independent, founded in 1930 by my grandfather.  My father is still involved in the business, he’s second generation, and my brother and I are the third generation co-owners of the business.  We have been one of the best places to work in Pennsylvania for 10 of the last 11 years.  That’s probably the credential that we’re most proud of and a big piece of our success with people has been Topgrading.

How we got into Topgrading:  Around 2005 or so we hired a VP of Sales who came from a larger corporation and he said, “We’ve been using this system called Topgrading and I think we should give it a try here at Benco.”  We did!

The first pushback we had was, “well this seems like it’s for much bigger companies than ours, General Electric and those kinds of companies”.  But after we got into it and understood the system better, we decided that it really did have very good applications within our organization.  It’s been really key to our success with people and the growth of the business.

Our first breakthrough:  We asked our senior team to read Topgrading and we really started with a couple of specific projects.  The first real breakthrough we had was really getting everyone trained in the organization to have better interviewing skills and to use the Topgrading interview system.   That resulted right away in a huge improvement in the quality of the interviews and the quality of the people that we hired.

A basic question that I usually ask people who talk about Topgrading is do you feel as a hiring manager that the interview is an integral, if not the most important, part of the interview process?  Usually people admit that they’re not great interviewers, they don’t quite know what to ask, and they don’t find that the interviewer is an integral part of the hiring process.  The place where we started was really getting everyone trained on doing tandem Topgrading interviews, the more substantive interviews that are really revealing about the character and the work history of the prospective employee or employees we’re talking too.

And we found that we got a big bump in results just from that alone …

I will speak from my own experience and tell you that before I understood Topgrading I was a lousy interviewer.  I used to lose interest in them and I didn’t quite understand why I did interviews, so that’s my own experience.

When I learned the Topgrading methodology for interviews, I think I became a much better interviewer and I will tell you that the interviews that I conduct now are much more focused and much more revealing than the interviews I did before where you asked stupid questions like if you were a dog what would you be or I don’t know whatever question you’re asking at the time.

But now what I see out of the Topgrading Interview now is it’s much easier to see the patterns in a candidate’s career and how the same issues keep coming out over-and-over again when you do a Topgrading Interview.  The Topgrading interview reveals a candidate’s journey from where they started to where they are now, how did they get there, what went right, what didn’t go right.  I would say that Topgrading has vastly improved the quality of the hires we have at Benco.

The second breakthrough.  The second breakthrough was sort of a more subtle one, but boy-oh-boy I think it’s made a big impact and that was really redoing the job application.  We were very sloppy about our job application at Benco.  We really did not ask enough information to people as they were walking in the door to apply for a job.

At Benco we were very sloppy about that. A lot of times we would commit the cardinal sin of taking the person’s resume in lieu of an application.  We wouldn’t ask about every single job they had.  There was never enough room, I mean the stupid stuff like there’s only room for like two or three jobs there, so if you have six or seven you had an excuse to not write them all down.

We didn’t ask for supervisors’ names and didn’t ask for full compensation history – the important things in the Topgrading Career History Form, intellectual property that Topgrading can insert in an application form.  The quality of the applicants and the quality of the interviews and the hires went up substantially just from overhauling and making better and improving the application that we asked applicants to complete before they even come for a job.

So that’s huge and I really recommend that every company use the Topgrading Career History Form or ask Topgrading to insert it in their application form as a place to start no matter how you decide to implement the Topgrading system.

Brad Smart:  The Topgrading Career History Form includes the Truth Serum, what in the various books we call the TORC Technique, the Threat Of Reference Check.  It’s incredibly powerful and is a simple statement:  A final step in hiring is for candidates to arrange reference calls with former managers and others.  C Players, with fictitious resumes, drop out.  The Career History Form asks for boss ratings.

If the person Chuck, that had four jobs in the past 15 years and says every boss would rate me good on a scale of excellent, very good, good, fair, poor would that be good enough for your company?

Chuck Cohen:  For our organization?  No, I hope not.  The good news and the bad news about our organization is we are one of the larger employers in a small town.  So we can afford to be very choosy about our employees.  So at Benco good is not good enough.

We definitely use the TORC method, the Threat Of Reference Check, and that’s embedded into the application and we check all references before we do any hiring.  I agree with Brad that, that has really improved the quality and the honesty of the application process and the applicants themselves.  So that’s the second breakthrough, the second was application and revising our application, getting more accurate data before anybody even comes into our office for the first interview.

The third breakthrough.  The third breakthrough that we had, thanks to Topgrading, been improving our rating system. We are very focused on the performance appraisal system at Benco.  Every employee has two evaluations a year, one annually and one semi-annually as a checkup.  We make sure that everyone has an evaluation.  We are very focused on making sure that evaluations aren’t too glowing.  As a general rule our company like many, at least that I know of, many companies out there our evaluation process is viewed as sort of sloppy and why do we do this.

In fact, I see stuff on the Internet these days we should just, you know, American business should just get rid of the evaluation process.   We are absolutely anti that, we feel evaluations are key piece of our performance management system.  The job scorecard for hiring becomes the basis for performance evaluations.

Topgrading the future at Benco.  The fourth breakthrough is a focus on succession planning.

We have 1,300 employees so we’re larger than some but smaller than a lot of the corporate companies and we’re a family owned business.  So succession planning has not been something that we’ve done very well.  Integrating Topgrading into our succession plan is where everybody has to identify who is the person who might succeed you in your job?  What do we do to develop those people?  Who are the A players in the organization and what are we doing to nurture them?  Who are the C players in the organization, what are we doing to exit them?  How can we get the B players to be better?  All those things are integrals of Topgrading and succession planning is really where we want to go next with the system.

Brad Smart:  Question: what sort of impediments did you face and how might you have overcome them?

Chuck Cohen:  We had no obstacles in our organization, everybody just bought right in and they went out and they bought the book and they read it and I mean yeah I can give you chapter and verse about the obstacles.  In our organization, I can only speak for us, is that most of the managers in organization already thought they Topgraded. But when you ask well why do you have turnover in your department, then they give you an answer like oh well we don’t have that much turnover or I don’t know what you’re talking about.  So the basic impediment was changing, you know, getting everyone to admit that this is something that we could do better.  In fact in our organization I’ll admit there was something that we did not do well before.  It was definitely, not only not a strength, it was a weakness.  So getting everyone sort of level to the fact that yeah this is a process that we can improve.  There is no magic bullet.

This is a process that can be improved, that we as an organization need to improve.  Once we got past that, it broke down a lot walls.  I don’t know how everyone else’s organization is, it was not immediate.  In our organization, the first year everyone sort of looks at you and they sort of laugh and they sort of say yeah this is flavor of the month, this is going to go away, then the next year they get a little more skeptical and think well maybe this doesn’t seem to be going away, maybe I should start to learn about this.

Then by year three the rank and files start to buy in because they figure out this is not going away.  So part of the way we got it executed in the organization was basically the HR department getting very direct with people and saying we’re not signing off on this hire because you did not use the Topgrading process to do the hire.

Importance of Human Resources.  One of the great ah-ha moments for me as a leader in our organization was, and George Rable (VP HR) as well and maybe some people get this, maybe not, is in our organization prior to the Topgrading implementation and other implementations we’ve done, the HR department really viewed themselves as servants to the rest of the organization.   One of the learning’s that George, our HR expert and I had over the years was we turned that around and we said no, no, no you, the HR department, have the ultimate power in our organization.

Number one, no one gets hired until someone in the HR presses the button, right?  So we would have people in the field make offers to their brother-in-law and just these hires that didn’t make any sense and the HR department would go well okay I guess the offer is made and they type it in the system and they press enter and the person became an employee.

So now the HR department has power over the hire and power over raises.  No one gets a raise until someone in HR at Benco Dental presses the button and as soon as the HR department recognized that they had that ultimate choke hold on those two very important issues, they got a lot more respect because they just start turning things away.  We’re not putting this person on the payroll no matter what you say Mr. Hiring Manager, because you didn’t use Topgrading systems, you didn’t check the references, you didn’t have them fill out the right application so we don’t care really what you said the answer is go do it again, because we’re not pressing enter on the keyboard.

Once we started having those kind of conversations, everybody started to figure out that we were serious and that was part of our success.

Sustaining Topgrading.  We do training on a regular basis with new managers, especially around interviewing.  So we have new manager orientation and we have ongoing training through the year.  But that’s really hard because our organization is in 40 states, so really getting everyone at the same level of training on interviewing skills and other things, I’d be lying if I said that we really do that very well.  I think we’ve had some mixed success with online training.  We just did hire a new trainer in the HR department to really make sure that everybody’s up to speed.  But like everybody else we struggle with that.

As soon as you think you’ve got everybody trained, somebody leaves, you hire somebody new, and all of a sudden not everybody’s trained.  So it’s hard and so we’ve seen some success just from keeping track of it and making sure that people get the training and really executing on the control end of it, because part of the training is here’s what you can do and here’s what you’re not empowered to do, so don’t do it because we’re not going to say yes to this request.

The HR department is involved in every interview and that’s, by the way, new in the last few years.  The HR department gets to weigh in on every single final candidate and even a few candidates before.  So, that’s an important part of it and the HR people are definitely trained on Topgrading.  If the hiring manager is not at least we’ve got one person in the process who understands it from start to finish.

Tandem interviews are harder to coordinate, but the benefits are hugely important and as I said before getting someone from the HR department who really is fully trained on Topgrading, as part of the interview process, just makes everything go much better because they know what to ask, what not to ask and they can guide the hiring manager through the process, certainly better than the hiring manager would do on their own.  Our HR department is very good.

We keep track, when the HR department person says we shouldn’t hire this person and here’s why, if the hiring manager makes the case and goes over that and hires the person anyway, almost invariably nearly 90% of time the HR department person is right.  We try to train the hiring managers not to hire over the objection of the HR department person.  They’re usually right on the negative side.

Job Scorecards are crucial.  We’re very rigorous about it.  If you don’t have a clear idea of what the accountabilities are for the job, then you may as well not start the hiring process.   So I would say yes, we’re probably B+, A- on that.  It definitely has improved the results.

Alignment is crucial.  The key in our organization in making progress and traction was integrating our systems together, so, as I already mentioned, job descriptions have to align with performance appraisals which have to align with Topgrading, which has to align with the interview system.  When it works it’s because it works as a holistic system, when it doesn’t work is when there’s different processes that are sort of conflicting with other processes.

Who does reference checks?  Brad and I are on the same page, believing the hiring manager in a perfect world should do the reference checks.  There’s no question because if nothing else even if the question is would you hire this person and the answer is yes, I could still learn a lot of as the hiring manager by how can I help this person succeed in this new role?

I like to ask – where is the person going to struggle, what were the struggles you had with this person, and I find it to be very, very helpful.  The one thing that I wanted to add, which didn’t come up before, but I think should is we oftentimes have people who say well, because in our world we’re hiring from competing companies all the time, so they say well I can’t give you the name of my boss because they don’t know I’m looking or it’s a competitor situation and therefore they may not give a truthful appraisal.  So, we always get a reference to check even if it’s not the person’s direct supervisor, it could be somebody they worked with and I have found almost as much success doing reference checks with peer employees as I have with supervisors.

Social Media:  Every HR department, ours included, has to get really good at social media.  And it seems like it’s a simple thing but it’s been very important in our organization to get some younger blood in the HR department.  They’re very familiar with social media systems like LinkedIn and Facebook and stuff like that.  We struggle with the same thing you asked about which is how do we make sure we have a pipeline of talent.

The first thing we’ve done is we’ve really focused our HR department around social media and getting as good as we can get at social media in-house; not outsourcing, in-house.

A “virtual bench is very useful!  We take applications of people even when we don’t have jobs open and we start building a pipeline now so that later we can go back and access that pipeline to hire in the jobs.  It’s called a virtual bench.  So that’s a whole new thing for us.  We used to be very traditional, even very recently where if someone would say we’re looking for a person for this job then we would just post the job, take applications, and go through the process of finding the right person.

Today we’re taking applications 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, online.  There does not need to be a job open for a person to put their application.  We’re actively soliciting candidates to enter our pipeline even when there’s not a specific open job that fits their profile.  Those two things have been a big help to us.  So when we go to hire somebody we’ve already got a built-in list of candidates that have already applied or given some indication that they’d be interested in a role in the organization.

Thank you Chuck!!  I’ll close with thank you so much Chuck; wonderful, very articulate, very clear in what you’ve communicated today and I’m sure it’s going to be very helpful to our listeners.

Chuck Cohen:  Thank you for inviting me.  I’m glad to participate, very flattering.

Published July 8, 2014

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