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Come talk to me

Gary Hirshberg tells WS how he spots talent

by on
in Hiring,Human Resources

There’s one thing that Gary Hirshberg, a self-described cheapskate, will spend good money on: people.

Hirshberg, the president and CEO of Stonyfield Farms, a yogurt maker in Londonderry, N.H., loves to nurture his rising stars and give them opportunities to grow on the job. With only 150 employees generating $50 million in annual sales in 1998, he asks a lot from each of them.

In this interview, Hirshberg discusses his hiring philosophy and how he gets to know his employees.

WS: Do you find it hard to know your employees?

Hirshberg: Yes. There’s this misunderstanding about my role as CEO. Some of the newer employees see me as having this mystique. They keep their distance. I used to have “Lunch With Gary” sessions with a sign-up sheet. After awhile, I found that only the old-timers were taking me up on it. So I have to find new ways to be accessible.

WS: What new ways?

Hirshberg: I just talk to people. I encourage them to open up and share ideas.

WS: But as much as they may want to level with you, they probably fear being judged. Are you judging them?

Hirshberg: I’m looking to see if they have three qualities that I believe the allstars have. First, they need to be flexible and intellectually open to doing new things. They can’t be stuck in a bureaucratic mode. I can discuss changes with them without worrying that they’ll automatically shut down and freeze up. Second, they need to be high-energy. They must exude an upbeat attitude. Finally, the folks who have found their niche are great to have around. They love what they do. They don’t complain about their work or find problems and focus on them. They want to learn and take on new things.

WS: But isn’t it up to you and your managers to help employees find their niche and love their jobs?

Hirshberg: Sure, to a point. Let’s face it: Some jobs here aren’t that lovable. And we have a lot of turnover in some positions because of that. But everyone starts somewhere, and those who stay positive and appreciate their work tend to perform best and move up faster.

WS: How do you hire candidates who have the three qualities?

Hirshberg: My H.R. person will throw up when she reads this, but I don’t believe in interviews. They are a formality, and they don’t really work. They’re a necessary evil.

WS: So you can’t spot a winner in a job interview?

Hirshberg: I mostly listen to my gut. You’ve got to take a lot of flyers.

WS: How do you make sure deserving people move up?

Hirshberg: I find more for them to do. Some people respond well to that—and others don’t. I had to deal with a resignation today for a key position here. I just came from the exit interview lunch. This person works two levels down from me and reports to a VP. I thought things were fine, but I was stunned to find out at lunch all the little things that accrued and led her to burn out.

WS: So whom do you blame?

Hirshberg: It’s not a question of blaming as much as my learning she’s not the kind of person who’ll do well here. What I got out of her was that she could never do enough. She felt too many small things had piled up. Maybe another type of person would’ve handled it differently and managed all the little things. And maybe that person would stay with us and have a great career.

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