Thursday, March 8, 2012

7 Tips to Help You Hire the Best People

        Einstein's maxim holds true in the hiring process: Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

When I started my current job, I brought along a shortlist of strategic goals to share early and often with the board. Among them: hire the best, hire only the best. We want only the best people available working with us as we move forward.

Full disclosure: We're not Google. We're not on Fortune's radar. We're rural. We're small. And we live and work in Minnesota, a first-class state tempered by notorious geographic and "atmospheric" challenges. That said, we never allow limitations to define us.

In the service sector, everything starts and ends with the people who embody the mission, carry the message and deliver the service. In order to compete effectively for time and attention in a marketplace full of choices, we focus on the sweet spot that unites resources, product and culture: people.

So, with a tip of the hat to kismet, intuition and luck - and with all due respect to Work 3.0 models - here are seven things we do that help us hire the best:

Re-evaluate every position. When someone leaves a position, we reassess the job. Everything. Top to bottom. Your organization - staff, customers, priorities and strategies - have all likely changed since you last filled the position. Re-evaluate and reset.

Hire right and plans come together. (Tiffany Eck photo)
Don't pigeonhole present staff. We see the "inside versus outside" candidate debate as a false choice. It's all about matching talents and skills to roles and responsibilities. If you're hiring right, your next customer relations specialist may be the accounting clerk you hired last year.

Treat people with dignity. We're not necessarily against the "exclusivity" mantra. But our pool is smaller and you never know when you'll meet again. Consider this: With the possible exception of hard-wired recruitment, the relationship with your next hire often begins before you ever meet. Moreover, those eventually turned away may become future colleagues or customers. Consider the implications.

Put the candidate in a position to be successful. Especially during personal contacts such as interviews, we ask revealing, open ended questions; no trick questions. Our questions are tough only if you're not qualified. We want to be warm and engaging but we also want to listen and learn. At the onset, we look to establish a workplace expectation for high support and high expectations. Remember, the orientation process begins during the hiring process.

Seek "secondary" skill sets. Sometimes called "complementary" or "soft" skills, we see them as essential. Be open to latent talent. We want IT specialists with presentation skills, accountants with customer relations skills, sales people with math get the picture. Depth and dimension. You cannot hire stale, then expect magic. 

Benchmark the compensation package.  Although we appreciate the complexities regarding this subject, money matters. As one colleague so elegantly put it: "We may not serve for money...but we need money to serve." We see compensation as a measurable standard to help us compete for quality people in recruitment and retention. Compensation, which goes beyond pay, helps establish the exchange between employee and employer. We look to frame things right from the start. 

Launch well. Day 1 is critical. But a communications bridge from the offer sheet to the start date is equally important. Once on board, develop an acculturation process for the first 100 days. (We fall short here ourselves too often.) Generally speaking, although quality people need very little hand-holding, we all need engagement...on some level.  A structured transition phase is essential and will pay long-term dividends.

Always exercise due diligence including statutory, regulatory and policy standards. Trust but verify. However, above all, remember that compliance forms a foundation. Potential is revealed in architecture and functionality. Look to match well within the spaces you occupy. Because when you hire right, all things are possible.

What works for you?  What inspires you either as a candidate or an employer?


Paul Brinkman has hired people in positions ranging from part-time boiler attendants to CEOs in rural media, education, health care and technology. He enjoys his current work in all its dimensions including executive to the board, recruitment/retention, resident futurist and carrying the brand.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Northeast Middle Mile Fiber Project On Time, On Schedule

Drawing inspiration from the National Broadband Plan, the Northeast Service Cooperative is pleased to be working together with others to help build a stronger Minnesota and create a connected nation.  As we enter the fourth year of our initiative, which my colleague Lyle MacVey calls "Project Destiny," NESC continues to move the Northeast Middle Mile Fiber Project forward with timely, measurable progress on all fronts:

Although it's been almost a year since the groundbreaking, the energy
carried over from that day continues to drive all of us.  (Jeff Frey Photo)

Construction: The Big Build

The mild Minnesota winter has allowed us the luxury of late season construction, including installation of the Optical Transport Network centers. Considering the fact that the scope of this project - with all its moving parts - has tested time, budget and human constraints, the relatively balmy weather has been a blessing.

Vendors and Partners

For planning, William Barattino of Global Broadband Solutions has helped keep us all on time and on task. (West Point really does turn out America's best and brightest!) For field construction - the 915-mile monster - Rohl Networks has been a great partner. The leadership from David Marinelli and Jeff Lopez, especially their "can do" attitude, has helped us work through the rocky times (pun intended) and, when we needed a miracle, conjured up a clear path for real movement when we needed to "git-r-dun."

Last but not least, we are delighted to have selected Cyan, Incorporated of Petaluma, California and Calient Technologies of Santa Barbara, California to provide the optical solutions for the fiber network. Coupling Cyan's optical packet solutions with Calient's photonic switching will allow us to build a best-of-breed agile optical network connecting the core, the edges and active sites throughout the enterprise. In fact, we see the Cyan 360 multi-layer support system service as a long-term network solution, an essential resource going forward.

Anchors and Services

A mild Minnesota winter's been a boon!  (Tiffany Anderson Photo) 
We continue to work closely with education, health care, critical services, local governments, counties, telecommunications carriers, the State of Minnesota and others. With as many as 500 sites or more scheduled to be connected, we anticipate an aggressive schedule for construction, including termination, testing and optical services. And, as we complete scheduled connectivity, we also continue to develop complementary services for anchors, carriers, partners and other project-based initiatives, including layered services such as unified communications, virtualization, data productivity and e-learning.

People: Committed and Engaged

We're growing! We are pleased to announce the addition of Jonathan Loeffen of Circle, Montana and Bruce Williamson of Perham, Minnesota as our new plant managers. Although their work will overlap, Jon will have an inside facing orientation while Bruce, or "Boots" as I like to call him, will be primarily outfacing or "in the field." Above all, cheers to our current staff: Project Coordinator Tiffany Anderson, CRM Coordinator Melissa Cox, Virtual Architect Greg Peterson, Linda "the Diva" Borchardt and CTO & Project Architect Lyle MacVey. Along with fiscal support from Mike and Jeanette, we have the best crew in Minnesota!

What's Next?

Construction continues. Engineering refinements follow. Sites have been added and priorities clarified. Some things are set, others remain fluid. We anticipate working at a rapid but thorough rate for the remainder of 2012...and, as needed, into 2013. Service provisioning begins this spring.  Essentially, we're at the midpoint of the construction phase with the all new middle mile fiber operation being rolled out in stages over the year ahead.


In 2010, the Northeast Middle Mile Fiber Project received a federal award of $43.5M in broadband funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) through the USDA's Rural Utilities Service. Under the agreement, the NESC Board of Directors assumes secured risk for 50% of project funds. Additionally, NESC has leveraged project investment through operational reserves, a state grant from Positively Minnesota and various in-kind contributions. Project revenue, including debt retirement, will be generated through network service agreements voluntarily entered into by eligible anchors, public initiatives and market-leading public-private partnerships.

For more information on the Northeast Middle Mile Fiber Project, please feel free to contact us.  We welcome the opportunity to talk about our project and how it will help Minnesota stabilize its base, grow its economy and secure its future. We look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Math and Science Majors Reward College Graduates

Northeast Minnesota students compete in NESC's Knowledge Bowl competition.
What course of study, what careers, will these girls choose?   (Photo: Paul Brinkman)

The tweet from global technology guru Vinod Khosla grabbed my attention: "College majors with bleak outlook to be phased out."  I clicked the link immediately as a flood of assumptions washed over me.  Well, the economy is catching up to higher education, I thought.  Belts are tightening everywhere.  Don't forget, colleges are businesses too.  Wait a minute!  What about the arts?

To my surprise, the article came from a web site called China Daily.  Apparently, China's Ministry of Education plans to phase out college majors with a bleak employment outlook amid disappointing prospects for the country's college graduates.  Interesting news but I was searching for a direct U-S connection.

Fortunately for me, gurus like Mr. Khosla earn their status through, among other things, pluck and timing.  A second tweet from his stream came through just minutes after the first: College Students Need to Look at These Charts Before Deciding on a Major.  This new tweet seemed to hold greater promise.  But what charts?  I clicked the new link.

U.S. Employment rates by college major   (Source: Business Insider)
Based upon findings in a report from the Center on Education and the Workforce  at Georgetown University, a web site called Business Insider asks a fundamental question: which college majors yield the highest incomes?  As the web article affirms, we have literally "tons of information out there about majors, employment and earnings."

So, rather than basing conclusions on anecdote and intuition, the web article and its related charts provide a remarkable summary of college majors and their "economic coattails."  Although much of the information is not entirely unexpected, all of it is quantified and some of it is even counter intuitive.  No problem.  The mix of the expected and the unexpected often helps us think...critically.  Clearly, both the web article and the original university research offer much to explore and inform.
In fact, the data on employment prospects relative to college majors raises important issues in the broader marketplace.  China plans to address these issues through public policy and social engineering.  And, at least for now, the U-S will continue to focus on standards, guidelines and grants.  In the meantime, freshly minted college graduates with their majors of choice continue to launch themselves  into the employment market.  Although passion matters, education is more than a job mill, and career choice is complex and multi-faceted, uninformed decisions in college - even earlier - have life-long repercussions.  At minimum, this information offers some perspective to those willing to consider the consequences of college and career.

At the Northeast Service Cooperative, we see math and science education as vitally important.  We offer enrichment activities for students such as the Minnesota Inventors' Congress as well as Knowledge Bowl and professional development initiatives for educators such as the Math & Science Teacher Partnership.  We're interested in what's working for you in your space, your world.  Let us know.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Giving Thanks!

Holidays are personal.  Whatever feelings, hopes, dreams, expectations or pressures wash over us during the holiday season, once the holiday actually arrives, we face that sliver in time when things slow down, even if just for a moment, and we are left with our own personal sense of the season.  For me, "that moment" defines the season.  And it has its own special flavor each and every year.

So, we welcome Thanksgiving!  Less commercialized than Christmas with less spectacle, Thanksgiving's charm may be in its ability to wrap an entire holiday into a singularly precious event: the traditional family meal.
But, Thanksgiving has a soul as well: family, thanks...all things that matter; the personal, right?  With this in mind, allow me a moment to share my deep appreciation - my thanks - for the following things are are personal and precious to me:
  • Family  Does anyone leave family off their list?  Well, there's a reason.  I am especially thankful this year for our blessings, Adam and Rachel, and for my mother, who faces health issues this holiday season.
  • Health  Again, standard fare but, as with our families, the things that matter most can be taken for granted.  I know I have been cavalier about both at times but, thankfully, less so over the past year.
  • Work  The saying that if you love your job you'll never have to work a day in your life resonates with me.  We have an incredible team at NESC: board, staff, members and partners.  They are bright, bold and bounteous.  Are you blessed with a job where you work with wonderful people?  I am...and I'm thankful for each and every one of my colleagues and customers.
  • Social networks  Loneliness is real and people fall through the cracks.  We need to reach out to the neighbors in need among us and at the same time, with humility, be thankful for the family and friends who serve as our safety net.  My wish is that you have a social circle for your next soft landing.  It really matters, it always matters.
  • Other people's shoulders  We, and the people we care about, are helped every day, in small ways and in large.  Sometimes we see the one who opens the door - or the window - to help us or others.  Sometimes these giants move silently like angels.  I am simply amazed at selfless acts of kindness.  They grease the wheels of life.  I am thankful for these people, leaders large and small.
I hope things slow down for you at least for a moment this Thanksgiving holiday.  Embrace the wonder.  Be safe.  Give thanks. 

Thank you for following my web log.  Feel free to share your thoughts on holidays, Thanksgiving and the things that matter most to you. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Northeast Minnesota Fiber Project Focuses on Social Media at the 2011 Broadband Conference in Duluth

Students from the College of St. Scholastica present their take on Social Media during general
session at the this year's Broadband Conference   (Photo: Melissa Cox)

We enjoyed leading one of the "Learning Stations" during the annual Blandin Broadband Conference held recently in Duluth, Minnesota.  We want to thank the Blandin Foundation, Connect Minnesota and all of those who stopped by to join in the conversation.

As we discussed at the conference, although the Northeast Middle Mile Fiber Project is a truly landmark initiative, we see it as an emerging regional asset that has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts.  By the middle of next year, we will begin deploying about 400 miles of the 915 mile optical fiber backbone, which will serve as a regional platform for innovation and growth in education, technology, health care and economic development.  This promise, however, is dependent upon engagement among all parties and at all levels: the Northeast Service Cooperative, our anchor tentants, telecommunications carriers, and others such as USDA, the State of Minnesota, Lake County, Arrowhead Electric and Blandin.

Yes, engagement is the key.  At minimum, engagement requires people and dialaog.  But our "exchange map" has grown.  Engagement also requires channels, media...and new environments.  Although personal contact still matters and legacy media may have a place, social media fits the bill as the new, critical engagement platform.  Social media is at the nexus of ideas, technology, innovation and dialog.  It is a fundamental part of the New Normal, including emerging business models and government 2.0.

Although we've anchored this discussion to our work in Minnesota, we'll admit to casting a rather wide net.  That's precisely why we used our conference Learning Station to share our view that Social Media is a rich engagement platform for all matters of interest including broadband investment, economic development and related initiatives.  It's not so much that Social Media is singularly important.  Rather, it's that we appreciate its characteristics: ubiquitous, regenerative...and expanding.  If not the Next Big Thing, Social Media will be part of the road map.

We enjoyed the dialog with those who joined us at the conference.  Jean from Kandiyohi County talked about how they're using social media to drive traffic to their web site.  Cassie from Connect Minnesota observed that for rural Minnesota, the online communities still lack healthy participation rates.  And Connie from the State of Minnesota shared the challenges of connecting well with diverse populations and unaligned interests.  It was fascinating to watch a traditional conversation unfold against the backdrop of emerging media.

I want to thank my colleagues Tiffany Anderson, Melissa Cox and Lyle MacVey for helping NESC engage at this year's conference.  Despite the fundamental importance of people and place in the traditional view, we see social media as a critical, complementary exchange for ideas, relationships and enterprise.  Getting started is simple with an endless stream of resources and an ocean of content literally at your fingertips.  Focus and discernment may be your biggest challenges.  Remember, the process may be more curative than exploratory. 

Thank you for joining us here on this forum.  Please feel free to share your experiences, insights or cautionary tales with regards to Social Media.  Create your world!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

10 Reasons Why Rural Leaders Need Social Media

Facebook is just one of many Social Media venues available to those eager to engage
If you haven't yet taken the plunge, now is the time for you and your rural enterprise to embrace Social Media.  Facebook?  You bet.  Twitter?  Of course.  LinkedIn?  Definitely.  Google+?  Yes.  Quora, Klout, Wordpress, etc.?  Why not?  All have merits, niches and flavors...and, yes, more will come.

Forgive me if I sound a bit flippant.  But we've grown so accustomed to "planning our work and working our plan" that we sometimes forget to "not let the perfect be the enemy of the good."  With social media, you rarely get an invitation.  You get a portal...and the rest is up to you.  You learn as you go.

Admittedly, there's more to Social Media than simply suggesting that you jump in...head an 18 foot cliff...without checking the water below.  Ideally, you want to identify your goals and develop an integration strategy.  Checking some helpful "How to get started..." web sites is also a good idea.  No sense in stumbling at the starting line!

However, our need to have "the answer" can stifle "the question" and get in the way of our potential.  Social Media, at least at this point, is a grand experiment.  And, despite the sharks and an occasional shipwreck, there's plenty of warm lagoons and freshwater streams with schools and schools of interesting...well, you get the idea.  To cut to the chase, here's a list of 10 Reasons Why Rural Leaders Need to Explore - if not Embrace - Social Media:
  1. Fulfill new expectations
  2. Claim your "digital citizenship"
  3. Build relationships with colleagues and customers
  4. Curate your brand, your bliss, your passion
  5. Expand your continuing education
  6. Transform advocacy into action
  7. Connect with Generation Next
  8. Understand the space, develop context for "What's next?"
  9. Inform your strategies
  10. Integrate with "the human network" (Thank you, Cisco!)
The opportunity awaits.  If you're so inclined, all you need to do is engage.  The web is a rich resource with Social Media sites that walk you through the process of getting started and helpful folks along the way that can get you the tools you need.

My colleagues Tiffany Anderson, Melissa Cox and I will be sharing our "going social" experience at the 2011 Blandin Broadband Conference in Duluth November 16th and 17th.  We look forward to getting feedback on the Top 10 list above and in learning from others on their experiences with digital media.

We will share what we learn in our next post.  In the meantime, we welcome your comments and feedback regarding this stream and the promise of social media.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Demographic Trends and Northern Minnesota's Future

MREA's Sam Walseth hosts legislative panel at the fall conference   (MREA Photo)
The Minnesota Rural Education Association held its annual conference earlier this month in Brainerd.  This content-rich, practitioner-led event takes full advantage of MREA's broad membership with presentations from teachers, administrators, board members, parents, consultants, researchers and students.  Despite notable differences, MREA's fall forum is a smaller, more intimate version of the TIES annual conference, a "must do" event for education leaders, technologists, teachers and integrationists.
More 65+ than School-age by 2020
Census counts & State Demographer projection, 2007

During the conference, State Demographer Tom Gillaspy delivered a data-driven overview of trends impacting the future of Minnesota.  We sometimes forget about the power of demographics and how data shapes destiny.  Fortunately, Gillaspy does a great job of demystifying his work, often connecting his material to a clear call to action.

State trends promise both challenges and opportunities for Minnesota, the Arrowhead region and the City of Duluth.  Drawing from the rich data base at the State Demographic Center, Gillaspy focused his remarks on a handful of key issues, especially the relationship between an educated workforce and a robust economy.  More on that in a moment.  Here's a snapshot of some of the insights from his presentation:
  • the economy will continue to stall with slow growth and a flat labor market
  • "talent" not "people" will be the scarce resource (Math anyone?)
  • productivity is not just for the private sector anymore (Government 2.0 take note)
  • the aging of society, particularly in the U-S and Minnesota, is a tidal wave
  • unprecedented disruptions and, in response, innovations will continue
The full presentation may be found at the Minnesota Rural Education Association web site.  (Click the link marked "Conference Follow-up" then "Tom Gillaspy.")

In helping to make sense of the data, Gillaspy focuses on two primary themes: educational investment and the New Normal.  Although the New Normal gets a lot of attention these days, Gillaspy defines it simply as the Old Normal + the Great Recession + long-term Demographic Changes.  Simple, elegant...makes sense.  Gillaspy's second theme revolves around the relationship between education and the economy.  As have others, the State Demographer makes a strong case for educational investment as a critical pathway for economic sustainability, innovation and productivity. 

In fact, the relationship between education and the economy resonates across a significant thread of society, including leaders in science, technology, business and education.  This notion, however, is often advanced in the context of preparation, quality and rigor across the board...all aspects of the New Normal.  While these challenges may be significant, rural Minnesota, especially Northern Minnesota, is well-positioned to leverage community resources and scale nimble assets in order to turn challenges into opportunities.