October 10, 2017

How I found, kept and nurtured the best talent over 14 years (and grew my business in the process)


In business, taking a step back is often key to making great leaps forward.

After overcoming considerable challenges in other businesses, Vistage member Claire Edmunds saw the need for a new approach when founding her own company, specialist business development consultancy Clarify.

By making talent central to her growth strategy, and developing a recruitment process around character-type testing and deep psychological insight, Claire has built a team geared for peak performance. Here, she lifts the lid on her findings and successes in talent management.

Time for change

Since Claire founded Clarify in a back bedroom in 2003, the sales industry has changed almost beyond recognition.

Globalisation, shifting demographics and the rise of digital technology have reshaped buyer behaviour. Sales teams have had to adapt. Today, large corporations require greater levels of agility and flexibility to compete in disrupted markets. But transforming the culture of global sales organisations – often driven by short-termism – is hard to do. Two-thirds of sales transformations fail for this reason.

Clarify helps sales leaders in Tier 1 technology and professional services firms to accelerate their sales transformations by changing the way they work, instead of changing people themselves. Through consulting and services, Claire and her team advise businesses on how to align their sales approach to different types of proposition, and how to allocate resources to different parts of the sales process. In doing so, Clarify helps create sales cultures in which all team members are invested in the next horizon of business growth.

Early learning

A service company sells the time and expertise of its people, and Clairfy’s growing client base demanded new hires in its client teams. “There’s always a tension,” says Claire; “Sometimes there is a real pressure to get started and find someone who can deliver really quickly rather than finding the right person. Meeting short-term pressures and start dates can end up compromising on the quality of person you’re bringing in.”

This is alien to Claire’s style of management. A self-proclaimed perfectionist from a family of teachers, Claire takes “a strong ethical viewpoint. When you’re running a business and you employ people, you’re making a commitment to deliver for them. Creating opportunity and careers and building people’s confidence in the workplace is a serious responsibility.”

As Clarify grew, Claire found herself taking on new approaches to perfect her organisational processes. Her established team were very familiar with each other’s strengths, weaknesses and personas – almost like an extended family – but this made it hard to employ new senior-level team members.

In response, Claire brought in clean language coaching, a process which breaks down the metaphors and references we use in everyday communication, to make individuals’ real meaning accessible to those who don’t share their vocabulary. This broke down shared assumptions and identified how her senior leadership team communicated and reacted.

The coaching meant that Clarify’s brand vocabulary and values, and the business’ day-to-day character, could be communicated more directly to new hires.

This was only the first change of many.

Building profiles for recruitment

Today, psychometric testing and behavioural interviewing are embedded in Clarify’s recruitment processes, as well as assessments of competency and experiential learning. “When I started out, I was cynical about psychometrics,” says Claire, “but now I’ve seen how valuable it is in making recruitment more thorough.”

The ‘aha’ moment came when Claire realised she could design her workplace culture around psychometric analysis.

Historically, psychometric testing has been used to enhance recruiting, by helping managers further understand candidates after interview. Claire’s team approach hiring the other way around, devising a profile for the person who’s going to succeed in a role, and screening against that profile.

“We’re looking for people with high critical-thinking capabilities so we use a verbal reasoning test to assess intellect, then combine this with further tests to look at values and motivations. These are probed further in a series of behavioural interviews. We hire people who are in work, and we have a number of interviews and a cooling-off period to make sure everyone is confident they’re making the right decision.”

“We know our clients value integrity and communication. These values are therefore most important to our business, and we hire people who also value those qualities and are motivated by them.”

As organisations grow and hands-on management becomes harder, workplace fit becomes more important. When profiling roles, Claire looks at the kind of personality that will be effective in a position, in the context of how the team works together. “It’s not just about their experience or how they show up on the day of their interview; it’s really about trying to get under their skin at a deeper level.”

This emphasis on fit and profiling helps Clarify get the best from people and ensures they can learn, grow and thrive with Clairfy. “Each one of our team feels personally accountable for working at their best. We want individuals to be empowered and to empower themselves.

“This requires curiosity and collaboration on the part of the individual, and not just the organisation. If the organisation takes on too much responsibility it can end up disempowering teams, because it doesn’t create the space and motivation for people to develop themselves.”

Claire adds that internal development isn’t a catch-all solution. “You can’t build a business at speed in that way. You have to combine internal talent development programmes with bringing talented people into the organisation.”

“The ability to bring in talent and personality represents a significant step upwards for the whole organisation. When growing a small business there isn’t time to nurture every quality: you need people who are able to do the job today, not next year or the year after.”

Keeping talent engaged

“When we’re bringing somebody into the team at any level, we look at their profile and how they might interact with the rest of the organisation. The same is even true for consultants doing a short piece of work for us. If we understand how they work within our group, we’ll know how to get the best out of them. We’ve become quite religious about this approach.”

As new recruits sometimes find this uncomfortable, feedback is key to making psychometrics palatable. “Our team appreciate the effort that is made in helping them become part of the team, especially as they talk through behaviours and continue to use their profiles in ongoing development reviews. This means they understand and value the benefits of the approach.”

Data-driven methods like Claire’s should be tailored. If a recruit’s profile indicates they are poorly motivated by results, their goals should to be tied to other things that matter to them.

Some employees resist feedback. Claire’s solution is to emphasise the behaviour rather than the person. “Sometimes people want to be the most knowledgeable person in the room, and become defensive if they’re challenged. By getting curious about the behaviour and their reaction to a situation the conversation naturally focuses on their behaviour and is not about an attack on them as a person.”

The bottom line: Cost and ROI?

Putting a cost on these changes isn’t easy. Hiring a dedicated recruitment professional to implement new processes was an investment for Claire over a two-year period. But this cost would have otherwise landed elsewhere, says Claire. “If we didn’t do this right at the front, we would probably see a higher churn of people, people would take longer to ramp up and we wouldn’t be able to deliver such a good job to our customers.” Savings are possible, too. Scrapping external recruitment partially outweighs the cost of new processes and personnel.

Psychometrics themselves have a huge impact on retention. Verbal reasoning cannot be tested at interview, for one – and so hosting a verbal reasoning test as a first gateway to recruitment makes it more accurate and reliable.

“We were in a situation where people would come in for induction, go through their first week, and the people who were training them would say ‘They don’t get it, they’re not connecting the dots fast enough.’ We needed to hire for critical thinking capability. Our hit rate for this had a huge impact in the organisation from day one. We were even able to identify people midway through the recruitment process, on the verge of an offer, who weren’t at the right level.”

Workplace culture has also shifted at Clarify. By being aware of how comfortable employees are with authority, fellowship and emotion, the business can ensure people succeed as individual contributors, members of virtual teams and as members of the organisation as a whole.

This change is felt at all levels. “We looked at our senior leadership team,” says Claire, “and at how we interact with each other and the characteristics we share as a group. We found that we were all high-change people, which was reflected in the organisation. We were always interested in the next new thing, as opposed to the thing we’ve just launched. It’s helped us, as a team, to hold ourselves more accountable and not to jump onto the next thing; to reduce the number of things we think about and bring others into the team who were different and who would challenge our approach.”

Motivation for the future

Today, Claire has motivators on her mind. Commission plans, employment packages and compensation need to align with the values sought in recruitment, she says. Rather than hitting targets, employees need incentives to do the right thing. The specifics are at the research stage: “Daniel Pink’s Drive offers some interesting insight and along with academic research written around professional services, selling and compensation psychology.”

Whatever structure Claire settles on, it’ll be rolled out by her line managers. “You shouldn’t have a talent function who are responsible for talent; the fact is, every line manager needs to take responsibility for their team, and an organisation needs to invest in helping every line manager do that well.

“Recruiting isn’t a particular department’s problem - it’s about what you do on the front line. That’s what really matters.”


For quality insights from Vistage speaker Dan Pink, explore the Vistage archives or watch his 2013  presentation.

Our gift to you...

Apply now for your personal leadership consultation with a Vistage Chair. They'll help you assess areas of strength of your business and identify areas of potential growth.

Apply Now

Subscribe to Vistage Insights