Aim higher when hiring

Finding the best employee is no accident, says Roger Trapp
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Given its reputation for introducing one groundbreaking product after another, one would have thought that the US-based company 3M would have little trouble finding people to carry on in the tradition of the inventors of Scotch tape, Post It Notes and the rest.

Yet, such is its determination to leave little to chance, it has produced a booklet, Hiring Innovators, that is designed to help its recruiters to spot the right talents. Based on the work of a task force that included Geoffrey Nicholson, the company's British-born vice-president responsible for international technical operations, it identifies six key traits and characteristics of successful staff.

Innovators working at the Minnesota-based company, it says, are creative, have broad interests, are problem solvers, are self-motivated, have a strong work ethic and are resourceful. As well as developing each of these categories, the guide contains advice for interviewers on what to look for and points out that the person a particular manager is searching for may already be known to the company via one of the student programmes or similar schemes that it operates.

"Getting a first-class honours degree doesn't necessarily make you an innovator," says Dr Nicholson, pointing out that people with practical as well as intellectual skills are especially in demand at the company, which has 84,000 employees spread over 42 countries, including much of Europe. "We were concerned to increase the odds of hiring this kind of person into the company. In the past, it happened more by accident."

But hiring the right people is only part of the battle. Innovation is a word on the lips of just about every company these days. And as with most things, the vast majority are a lot better at talking about it than actually doing it.

Dr Nicholson and his colleague William Coyne, senior vice-president for research and development, who have themselves worked their way up the company from the laboratory benches, are keen to stress the importance of creating the appropriate culture.

Dr Coyne told a business audience gathered in London earlier this week for the 1996 UK Innovation Lecture: "Hire good people and then trust them. You need to be tolerant of initiative, and tolerant of the mistakes that occur because of that initiative, if you are to succeed in the competitive global market."

Indeed, 3M is famous for fostering "a bit of rebellion in our laboratories". Company legend relates how the originators of both the Post It Note and masking tape succeeded in defiance of their managers. And to this day, there endures the "15 per cent rule", under which researchers are entitled to devote that amount of their time to projects that they do not have to clear with their supervisors.

Dr Coyne is convinced that a good proportion of the company's successful innovations stem from this policy. Equally, the company acknowledges that it fails in 50 per cent of its new product programmes. "I say that's OK because you have to stretch the goals," says Dr Nicholson.

In other words, the aim of making every new product one that "changes the basis of the competition" is so tough that you cannot expect to succeed with each attempt. And this is where the tough side of a seemingly idyllic situation comes in.

The company's scientists - whether they are working in Britain, Germany, Japan or Minnesota - all know that their task is to come up with products that will enable 3M to meet its target of achieving 30 per cent of revenues from developments introduced in the last four years and 10 per cent from those coming to market in the last year.

"The researcher knows what's expected. The financial goal is a 27 per cent return on capital," says Dr Coyne, adding that is only achievable from true innovation rather than incremental steps.

And just to show how serous it is about this, the company is this summer spinning off the data storage business in which it has its roots because the products have become commodities and it can only achieve half of that rate of return. But make no mistake. Dr Coyne insists that the as-yet- unnamed company will still be among the most profitable in its sector.

Comments