By Harvey Mackay

Standards. We may not think about them much. But we all have them. Individuals. Families. Companies.

From time to time, we’re forced to measure our conduct against our standards. We may find when we do that we’re not living up to what we profess to believe. I’m talking about what happens when a business cuts corners, makes compromises, takes “the path of least resistance,” contrary to an established policy.

The classic case is the company that purposely lowers quality in order to save money or grab market share, hoping not too many customers will notice or be turned off. The Cadillac nameplate has never quite had the same panache since the Cimmarron debacle, an attempt to pass off a jazzed up Chevy as a kind of junior Caddy.

But as bad as “Quality downsizing” is, there is a worse kind of compromise: lowering your hiring standards. From the day I put my name on the door of Mackay Envelope Corporation, I knew there was only one way I was ever going to survive in an industry in which the products and the machinery that made them were all essentially the same. That was by putting together a team of quality people.

Identical products plus identical people equals identical results. If I was lucky, it would translate into marginal success, and if I wasn’t, total failure.

So my standard was: identical products plus exceptional people equals exceptional success.

To tell you how serious I was about that standard, it was made clear to every new employee that the decision to add them to the payroll was more important to us than buying a million-dollar envelope machine.

Okay, now that you’ve got the setup, let’s turn back the calendar six years. Mackay Envelope is in search of a new president. I start by identifying the best firm to search the world. I decide on Korn Ferry International, and call the managing partner, Al Raymond.

“Here’s the specs, Al. We need someone to run our business on a day-to-day basis. On a 1-10 scale, I need a 10.”

Al says, “Give me six months. I’ll run seven to 10 candidates by you.”

It’s a deal.

Al does his thing, and turns up the prospects.

I do my thing which has worked for me over a lifetime of hiring, and consists of: Lunches. Dinners. Plays. Industrial psychologists. Friends interviewing the candidates. Meet and interview spouses and kids in the candidates’ homes.

Why all the socializing? Why no testing of envelope lore? Why no “Do you prefer the Glockenspeil 5600 with its dazzling speed or the Schnicklefritz Thunderbolt with its incomparable reliability?” Because Al already has screened these guys for their technical competence. Every one of them could take a Schnicklefritz and make it dance like a ballerina. Running a business is about leadership, not machinery. How will our people respond to the candidate?

Finally, D-Day comes. Al and I sit down together and evaluate the players. Our goal is to get down to two finalists for a last round of interviews. It’s a hung jury, so we wind up with three candidates.

After another final, final round, I grade them one last time.

Results: I come up with all three being a “9.”

I meet with Al.

“This is it, crunch time,” I say. “We spend six months and it comes down to three ’9s.’ As I said, it’s got to be a ’10.’ Start the search again from scratch.”

After picking Al up off the floor, we went over why we were starting over.

“Look, I’m making a 10-year commitment here, and I’ve got to do it right. Out of 250 million living Americans, my ’10′ is out there somewhere. Al, it only takes one. But it’s got to be a 10.”

We start over.

Six weeks later, Al’s first candidate meets me at my home on Saturday afternoon, and we have a four-hour meeting. I call Al, and tell him, assuming all the rest of my due diligence checks out, this is the one.

It does. He’s not a ’10.’ He’s a ’15.’

I hire Scott Mitchell and incidentally, he lives within two minutes of my house, and I had never heard of him until the day Al introduced us.

Six years later, our business marriage not only thrives but we are joined at the hip.

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