Bench Strength


“The most important decisions you make aren’t what decisions, they are who decisions.”   — Jim Collins

How much is a phenomenal staff member worth? The difference between meeting your goal or exceeding it? Making your budgeted goal or not? Yet if you don’t have an open position on your staff, how much time last week did you spend on finding top notch people? It is easy to be reactive when it comes to the people part of our role, yet it really doesn’t matter how great your institution is or your strategy to market is if you don’t have top notch people to execute it and seal the deal.

One of my recent blogs (DOLLY THE SHEEP) talked about the importance of figuring out the type of people you want on your team. But equally challenging is actually finding those people. After 16 years of running Student Paths and all sorts of hiring mistakes, I’ve concluded that the traditional hiring process is way too inefficient, inauthentic and unpredictable and plainly doesn’t work. When supposed HR professionals succeed with less than half of their hires, there is clearly an issue. Yet oddly, the paradigm of hiring accepts these poor and costly results because very few are willing to break outside of the box and try a different approach. Why do 50 percent or more of hires not work out? Consider the process! A job is posted, a bunch of resumes and cover letters designed to showcase the candidate come in, someone has to sift through them to identify the ones worth an interview, and then the finalists do their best to tell you what you want to hear so you will give them a job. No matter how hard you try and how good your questions are, the process does not allow you a genuine understanding of who the candidate really is and thus, whether he or she is a fit for your organization. As most leaders know, that only happens in the traditional process about 6-9 months into the job after the honeymoon period has worn off.

But why not turn that process around? Think about when you truly get to know someone, when they don’t have their guard up and you see their true self. That only happens over time and in certain environments. And the problem with the traditional hiring process is from the very get-go, a candidate is manipulating how they are viewed.  So we’ve modified our process to always be looking for top notch people, even when we don’t have positions open, and to interact with them without any mention of the hiring process. In fact, if there is any hint of that, the evaluation immediately is polluted because people are not their true selves when the possibility of a job is hanging over the conversation. The idea is to build “bench strength” of folks who we are confident are a fit for our team because we’ve observed them in different situations over time, but without the risk of having to discover who a person really is 6 months (and all the associated costs) into a job. Your mindset on hiring should change to view it as an ongoing process you are always working on, and not a one-time event. And when a position becomes available, there is no need for all the time spent on the traditional hiring process – you’ve already got your person. There is a myth that the bench strength process takes more time. It is a reallocation of time, and certainly it is a savings of time if you consider how much time wrong hires cost! The organizations and institutions that succeed are the ones that have figured out the people component. When all or most things are equal, people are your unduplicitable differentatior. And having that differentiator means a lot more confidence in where your numbers end up this time of year. For some specific actionable items on how we build bench strength, email me at with the secret password BENCH.

Chris Wills About Chris Wills

Father Time, or Chris Wills, is passionate about helping other leaders learn and grow and free up time they didn’t think they had. He is the Founder of Student Paths, an organization that better prepares students for their future in college, career and life readiness. You can reach Chris at:

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