Maybe You Can Hire the A-Team

Eagle Hill Consulting has consistently garnered accolades as a fantastic place to work, in no small part due to Melissa Jezior’s vision for the company

There are two standout examples of job interview feedback that tell the story of Eagle Hill Consulting effortlessly. In one case, an interviewee was amazed at the spontaneous smiles and joy she was greeted with upon arrival at the headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and felt compelled to ask later if the happiness had been staged in anticipation of her arrival. (It hadn’t.)

In another instance, a would-be employee commented via e-mail that Eagle Hill’s detail-oriented hiring process “works against ‘C’ players,” recalls president and chief executive officer Melissa Jezior. “We had to take that for what it was worth,” she adds with a laugh.

MELISSA JEZIOR’S TIPS FOR BUILDING COMPANY CULTURE

  • The company’s tone is set by those at the top. The rest of the organization watches the senior leadership very closely. How you act is how they will act. Lead by example.
  • Set a common goal, and encourage all levels of your organization to get involved in reaching that goal.
  • Measure progress. Twice a year, we conduct a satisfaction survey. We look at the areas that we’re not doing very well in, and we attack them.
  • Pay special attention to recruiting and onboarding. Take the time and energy necessary to get people up to speed in being a functioning member of your team.

Both examples underscore similar truths about Eagle Hill. It has, in fact, been cited as a “Best Place to Work” multiple times in DC-area magazines—which gives credence to the company’s cheerful, upbeat demeanor. And Jezior is well aware of the type of employees she needs to make this happen; “C” types, she admits, aren’t quite what they’re looking for.

“Our goal is to flood the field with ‘A’ players,” she says. “The more we have on staff, the better opportunities we’re creating for our staff.”

Great opportunities are definitely something Jezior has a knack for finding. After several years at a large consulting firm, Jezior and her husband departed for the West Coast in the late nineties—settling in Seattle, where she says she was “bitten by the Internet bug,” and she found a small entrepreneurial firm requiring her services. “I worked with a lot of members of a former rock band that realized they weren’t going to be the next Pearl Jam, so they started this business,” she explains. “I got the benefit of watching them have wonderful successes and make mistakes, too. That was my little lab in terms of figuring out what I wanted to do next.”

When the bubble burst for Internet businesses a few years later, Jezior joined a more traditional consulting firm and found herself bitten by the sales bug. So, by the time she and her family returned to the East Coast, she was all about bringing the best of her three experiences together: the methodologies of a large firm, the employee focus of a small firm, and the sales strengths of a mid-size firm. The resulting company is Eagle Hill, which has provided management consulting services to private, public, and nonprofit clients since Jezior cofounded it with her father, Jack Kelley, in 2003.

“I really wanted to show that in a small business setting, we could bring the demonstrated results, demonstrated methodology, and processes to deliver every time,” Jezior says. “I wanted to show that while we were small, we could be very nimble and customer-oriented—but I also wanted the more disciplined approach that larger businesses are known for.”

By way of strategic planning, analysis of a company’s organization and structure, and guiding the company’s people through any necessary changes—“because no one likes change,” Jezior adds—Eagle Hill grew from a five-person, flat-management operation to more than eighty employees occupying four different career levels. Those employees are selected through a process known as topgrading, which Jezior says is one of the biggest and best decisions she’s ever made for Eagle Hill. The topgrading interview process has prospective hires follow a standardized application and screening process with a rigorous interview, during which Jezior and her staff trace candidates’ entire work histories (from high school onward), ask numerous questions about said histories, and collect their own preferred list of references rather than have one provided for them. It can take up to four hours total.

“We’re looking to get to know you,” Jezior explains. “With each job, we’re looking at what bosses you had, what you thought of those bosses, and what they thought of you. We’re trying to understand trends in your career, what motivates you . . . what you view as success, and if you’ve achieved that success.”

Then, once hired at Eagle Hill, considerable efforts are made to helping each employee progress in his or her career vision. One such effort is a competency model, which outlines the key competencies Eagle Hill consultants possess, and what to expect in terms of behaviors at each career level, Jezior explains.

Each employee is also assigned a career adviser who meets with the employee regularly. “We encourage our employees to give and receive feedback on a frequent basis—at all levels, even clients,” Jezior says. “So that definitely serves as a motivator for growth and development.”

Much effort goes into the selection and maintenance of Eagle Hill staff, but an equal amount goes toward the maintenance of the company’s highly lauded culture. Jezior and her father started the company with the intent of making it a fun place where people looked forward to working; they back this idea up with an employee council—a select group of workers meeting off site once a month to discuss keeping it a great place to work, Jezior says. They also plan regular social outings, everything from cocktail hours to baseball games to a pancake breakfast courtesy of Jezior’s mother, Barbara Kelley. “It used to be weekly, and for the entire company,” she says. “But by the time the ‘entire company’ had grown to forty people, Mom needed a change. So we do it monthly now, eight employees at a time.”

The pancakes-at-Mom’s opportunity is likely to become even more exclusive in the coming decade. Jezior cites the Good to Great book series in coming up with a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for Eagle Hill: ten times the growth in the next ten years, while still being a best place to work. “All initiatives from here stem from trying to achieve that goal,” she says.

And in Jezior’s case, that includes a regular practice of e-mailing new hires and asking them to go get a cup of coffee with her. “It probably scares them at first,” she concedes, laughing. “But I just want to get to know everyone—and their ideas and perspectives—a little better.”