Hire for Human Connection: Lessons from Trader Joe’s

Trader JoesI recently read this post about one woman’s emotional connection to the guys who work at Trader Joe’s.  Yes, the end made me cry, but the piece also reminded me of all the reasons I love Trader Joe’s.  Sure, they have good gluten-free spaghetti for 80% less than Kroger, but it is more than that.  Much more.  As the author of that post highlights, every time I walk into a Trader Joe’s I feel seen.  I feel like I am a human being recognized by other human beings.  I feel like I’m welcomed and appreciated and acknowledged.  All of this simply from eye contact, a smile, and a hello?  Yep, that’s the magic of Trader Joe’s.

I can’t say that I get that same feeling when I walk into most theatre lobbies and offices.  Why is that?  What does Trader Joe’s have that our theatres don’t?  They are just as busy (or more so) as we are but they create a completely different atmosphere.

I went to the source: a friend who works at my customer service Mecca.  I asked, “What is it?  How do they train you?  What materials do they give you?  How do you create this amazing environment in what could just be a crowded grocery store?”

His answer?  “It is really about the hiring process.”

Really?  Just hiring?  No sample scripts?  No role playing?  No complicated brainwashing?

Really.  They put the most energy into what Jim Collins calls “getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.”  Each potential hire is interviewed by 3 or 4 people.  They are looking for innate qualities of kindness and human connection, not lines on a resume.  They don’t do much training at all.  As my friend said, “it is hard to teach someone to be warm and friendly.”  The fit is the thing.

I’ve read that so many times over the years but too often we hire for one of three reasons:

  1. They are our friends
  2. They are the person available and we don’t want a hole in the organization
  3. They have tactical experience, regardless of “soft” skills

Not everyone is the right fit for every organization and it takes discipline to hire for fit and not for “we think they can do the job.”  It takes fortitude (and everyone pitching in) to keep a position open until you find that right person.  And it takes courage to make a change if you make the wrong hire.  But, just as with the good-to-great companies in Jim Collins’ book, that is the essential first step to becoming a great organization.  You can have the clearest vision for the company possible, but if you don’t have the right people in the right seats, you aren’t going to achieve that vision.  Compromising on who you hire is the first step to mediocrity.

We also need to work on the other thing my friend mentioned about Trader Joe’s:  they take care of their people.  Yes, that means good pay, 401(k), vacation time, holidays off.  Even more than those, he says Management is encouraged to care for the “whole employee.”  They treat each other with as much respect and humanity as they treat their customers.

Theatres are (can be) community-building, inside and out.  The relationship that can form betwixt and between audience members and artists is beautiful.  What Trader Joe’s shows us is that this human connection isn’t the sole purview of the theatrical production.  We can build community from the very first contact of someone walking into the box office, the classroom, or the administrative offices.  We can build it among ourselves within our offices, conference rooms, and rehearsal halls.  In order to do that you have to bring your humanity to work and welcome the humanity of those who enter our potentially magical spaces.  Connection is a vital thing to our well-being.  Let’s not wait for the show to make that connection.  It starts with us.

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