Hiring and on-boarding new team members is a great way to increase the number of services you can offer and the number of clients you can service, but it can also be a lot of work and a challenging endeavor for those who don’t hire frequently.
This month we interviewed Eric Sontag, COO of Sontag Advisory, who has a team of 45 staff members and over $5 billion in AUM. We chatted with Eric to discuss how he managed hiring what is now almost 22% of the firm’s workforce in just over a year, what he has learned so far, and what he plans to do going forward. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Caleb Brown (CB): Describe what it was like hiring and on-boarding 10 new staff members over the last year?
Eric Sontag (ES): It’s been a very busy and exciting time! Like most RIAs, we do not have dedicated HR staff, so everyone really needs to chip in. Because the hires were staggered, training was especially time consuming and challenging. But ultimately, everyone was excited about the hiring push and really stepped up. I am quite proud of the team effort and what we were able to accomplish.
CB: What is your philosophy on hiring?
ES: We look for passion for the profession, a strong work ethic, and good interpersonal skills above technical competency, as the latter is much easier to train. We also avoid sugar coating the job during the interview process – all jobs have their challenges and frustrations, and candidates need to accept the position with eyes wide open.
Finally, a few thoughts on hiring for cultural fit. We intentionally use a group of interviewers who represent diverse working styles and preferences, so there is no such thing as a “perfect” candidate. As it relates to this recent group of hires, you would be hard pressed to find similarities across the board with respect to background, world views, the rank of their undergraduate college, or how they socialize and spend their free time. So rather than searching for like-minded individuals, we search for a shared belief in what we do and why we do it.
CB: How do you estimate your hiring needs?
ES: This is a continually evolving process. For associate advisors as an example, we estimate the number of clients an associate can handle, and then assume a level of turnover and/or promotion. The position and time of year will then dictate the amount of lead time we build into our estimates.
CB: What do you wish was different about the hiring process?
ES: We need to better organize the interview process, and provide each interviewer with a more focused ‘mission.’ We collectively only get a short amount of time with most candidates before taking that leap of faith with an offer letter, so the more that we can divide and conquer with our questions, and avoid having the candidate repeat the same resume history in each session, the better.
CB: What are some of the biggest candidate mistakes you have seen?
ES: As it relates to the interview: resume embellishment; providing one-word answers; answering questions based on what the candidate thinks I want to hear; and having no questions for me, or saying that all of your questions were already answered by the previous interviewer.
As it relates to the hiring process: being overly aggressive in following up, to the point of leaving multiple voicemails and trying to connect with me via LinkedIn within one week of your interview – perhaps that’s an attractive quality for some other industries or roles, but it’s certainly not how we approach our prospects.
CB: Any words of advice for fellow firm owners out there?
ES: A good recruiting partner is invaluable, unless you are large enough to have dedicated hiring HR staff in house. I get no discounts from Caleb for saying this – the quality of our process and our hires have dramatically improved since we began working with New Planner Recruiting.
Recognize that there are an increasing number of professionally run, high-quality firms out there along with a general shortage of talent, so you need to sell the opportunity to the candidate, as much as the other way around.
Finally, follow up appropriately and in a timely manner with all candidates as the firm’s reputation is at stake. We currently have four employees who got offers on their second try with our firm – I am proud of what that says about the impression we leave on all applicants.