In the agency marketing world, the caliber of everything we produce is based on the caliber of the people who work for us. The only way to knock every project out of the ballpark is to hire 5-star employees. Problem is, recent labor market realities make it seem darn near impossible to find good employees, let alone outstanding ones.

As of early 2022, unfilled job positions were standing at 11.3 million. By the end of summer, unemployment clocked in at 3.5%. Those two figures point to a brutal hiring market, even without considering the Great Resignation momentum that’s still ongoing. Nevertheless, if you want to keep your competitive edge, you need to find 5-star employees to round out your team. So how do you do that?

Identifying a 5-Star Employee

In general, 5-star employees aren’t hard to spot because every single one of them stands out in a few key ways. First, they consistently meet or exceed expectations. As a result, they tend to meet most success measurements that you’ve put in place. For instance, a 5-star seller hits conversion numbers without fail every time.

Another characteristic of a 5-star employee is that they share the values of both their bosses and the company. Your 5-star employees are champions of everything from your processes to your culture; they’re perfectly aligned with every North Star you set. This alignment of values makes them exceedingly good at producing serious returns for you because they don’t waste time, they follow the rules, and they think like owners.

A final way to quantifiably identify 5-star performers is by running them through tests to objectively gauge their proactivity, empathy, flexibility, goal achievement, and listening skills. Candidates who score well above average in each test tend to be 5-star material. Plus, because you used scientific testing to prove their penchant for rock-star quality, you can avoid problems that come with using gut instinct (such as unconscious bias) to determine who to hire or fire.

Attracting and Retaining 5-Star Talent

You won’t be surprised to learn that the majority of 5-star employees are aware that they’re the cream of the crop. They know they’re exceptional contributors, and they don’t want to work where they’re going to be mistreated, underutilized, or undervalued. This means you have to take steps to not only keep any 5-star employees you might already have but also make your company appealing to 5-star applicants.

1. Hone your interview process with 5-star candidates in mind.

What does your recruitment process look like? Do you end up struggling to find qualified professionals to interview? Do you keep hiring people you thought were great only to have them not show up, leave too soon, or disappoint you with lackluster performance? Is your interview process: “Oh! I’ve got an interview in 10 minutes. Better Google some questions and get ready to sell this person on my company!” These are all signs that your candidate-filtering process is in need of a facelift.

Automated assessments can help you test the capabilities of applicants at the beginning of the hiring journey. The right filters move only 5-star players deeper into the recruitment funnel. Then, by the time they get to their interviews, you can leverage customized questions developed to recognize 5-star players for that role. If you’re not able to confidently develop those questions in-house, consider working with a vendor that can help personalize them.

2. Set your sights on moving to an “all 5s” team.

As leaders, we become accustomed to having a couple of superstars and a lot of utility players. The utility players are good; every once in a while, they come out and have a great game. But for the most part, these utility players are just steady. They’re never going to be leadership material, but they get the job done. We accept this because we can’t envision having a team of all 5-star employees, and that lack of vision is what limits you.

Your organization might not be filled with 5-star performers today, but there’s no reason you can’t aim for that possibility. Even if you just end up with a combination of 4-star and 5-star employees, you’ll avoid the problem of having mostly 1-star, 2-star, and 3-star employees. Sure, you might have to pay your 5-star talent more money. However, one 5-star worker can frequently do the work of at least one other 1-star or 2-star colleague. In the end, you spend more upfront to get a constant positive ROI.

3. Be clear with your expectations when wooing 5-star talent.

There’s no need to hold back on your expectations with 5-star employees because they appreciate details. They want to be held accountable. They’re ready to work hard so everyone can succeed. From the wording of your job postings to what you say during onboarding training, be open about what you expect your 5-star talent to do. Make sure you’re not nebulous; you need to be able to back up your expectations with performance metrics.

A 5-star candidate won’t be deterred by high expectations, while an average employee will be turned off — which is what you want. Five-star employees want to work with other superstars who are accustomed to pulling their own weight and being accountable. The more 5-star employees you bring into your mix, the more attractive your mix will be to others like them.

4. Avoid making knee-jerk hiring decisions.

It’s a brutal market out there. Everyone’s in panic mode to hire as quickly as they can. Still, you can’t rush the process. Your anxiety might tell you: “Oh my gosh! This person in front of me isn’t a star at all, but they’re my only choice!” Don’t listen. It’s not true.

Five-star candidates are out there looking for employers that do more than meet their basic needs. You don’t need to offer millions of dollars in salary if you’re willing to treat a high performer like an adult by offering scheduling flexibility and the chance to fold into a compelling, communicative, and collaborative culture where people are managed well, trained, and supported. Add the possibility of being brought into decision-making — and maybe working toward a higher position someday — and you’ll attract more 5-star applicants in no time.

If you’re the only 5-star employee in your business at the moment, it’s OK. You have room to grow. Start by creating your ideal 5-star employee avatar and then reworking your hiring process and culture. Focus on making your organization a 5-star workplace, and by this time next year, you could have an all-star team.

Drew McLellan

For over 30 years, Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry. For 26 of those years, he has owned and run an agency. Additionally, Drew leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small- to medium-sized advertising agencies on how to grow and build their profitability through agency owner peer networks, consulting, workshops, and more.

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