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Hiring Secrets from the World's Best Boss

In Hiring Strategy — by Erin Engstrom

Cole Lindbergh

For four years, Cole Lindbergh had one of the most fun jobs you can imagine. But it was also pretty tough. In overseeing the games department at the Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City, Mo., Cole managed between 125 and 145 teenagers each summer. Teenagers aren’t known for being the easiest age group, and Cole’s employees were no exception. He definitely dealt with his share of hormones, drama and flakiness. But he also created an amazing, familial work environment in which his employees seemingly had as much fun as the park-goers. If you need evidence, just check out his YouTube channel or listen to the story the radio program This American Life did about him.

If anyone knows about assembling great teams in challenging conditions, it’s Cole. During his time at the park, he retained 75 to 85 percent of his staff every year, the highest retention rate of any department. On any given year, he would interview some 300 candidates for 30 or so openings. Candidates literally lined up to work for him. He shared with us some of the hiring secrets that helped him build an environment in which employees – and business – soared.

Know Your Ideal Candidate and Proactively Recruit Them

Cole had a clear picture of the type of candidate he was looking for: extroverted, gregarious and uninhibited. And he didn’t just passively let these candidates come to him; he figured out where he could source them and recruited accordingly. “I was trying to hire very involved individuals, who were very outgoing and had strong personalities,” he says. “I did a lot of recruiting locally in Kansas City, for kids who were on their high school debate teams or individuals who were involved in musicals and theater. People who weren’t afraid to get up and talk and be loud.”

He didn’t find applications hugely helpful; he mostly used them to see if candidates could spell. But a typo or two wasn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. “Of course I was looking for misspellings and bad punctuation on applications,” he says. “But if a candidate indicated they were involved in theater or debate or a lot of activities at school, and that games was their first choice, I’d always call them and ask them to come in to talk.”

Ask Unique Questions

Cole sometimes threw some off-the-wall questions at candidates, like “What’s your opinion on rock climbing?” or “Who’s your favorite Muppet?” These questions weren’t just quirky throw-aways, though. A candidate’s response gave him a lot of information.

“I was in the business of selling fun,” he says. “I had to hire people who could convince someone to spend their last remaining dollars to try to throw a ball in a can and win a giant bear. So you have to some silliness already. You have to be pretty light-hearted. You have to want to laugh. Because you’re selling fun. You know, putting on your carney voice: ‘Come on over, step on up.’ And getting excited when the customer wins a prize.

“Those questions told me not only if someone could be silly, but if they could also work in our environment. It’s going to be 100 degrees in the summer and it’s going to feel even hotter at the park. You’re going to be surrounded by people and your job is to talk to them and try to convince them to win a prize. These questions let me know if someone didn’t take themselves too seriously. Can I see them having fun?”

Build a Referral Network

Referrals were invaluable to Cole. It saved him the trouble of sourcing candidates from square one, and also served as a prescreen. “I’d already set in place the standards of what we were looking for when we were hiring,” he says. “If my employees could live up to those standards, or go above and beyond them, and then they say ‘I’ve got a friend who wants to work here,’ that’s huge. It’s huge because it saves me the time and the effort of trying to go find somebody who fits that mold. I’ve already got somebody of that mold who’s a quick call away.”

Referrals also served the work environment Cole aspired to create. “I think there’s something to be said for the fact that friends like working together,” he says. “When you’re trying to create an atmosphere of friends and where people are going to become friends with each other, hiring existing friends can go a long way.”

Speak to Your Audience

When Cole first began making videos, he simply viewed it as a fun thing to do with his staff. He didn’t expect anything to come of it. But his teenage candidates absolutely loved them. The videos ended up being a way not just to publicize the park but to distinguish Cole’s work environment from others. After all, how many bosses are going to rewrite lyrics to a hit song and enlist their employees to help perform it for all the world to see?

“The effect of my YouTube videos on my candidate pool was huge,” he says. “The videos became not only a recruiting tool but also one of those things we did to differentiate ourselves. Because every kid wants to be on YouTube. During interviews, people would be like, ‘I want to be in one of your videos!'”

Focus on Retention

While Cole’s company-high retention rate of 75 to 85 percent was something he was proud of, he’s also quick to point out that his department was a third the size of some others. Still, his knack for talent management and for creating a work environment that employees wanted to return to year after year reaped serious rewards.

“When I hired candidates I’d already worked with, it helped keep everyone on the same page,” he says. “It helped with training, because then I already had a bunch of trained, seasoned employees who could really help the new kids get started. While I’m busy setting up for the season and unloading trucks full of prizes, I could entrust other people to come in and set up a game and get things moving. With so many people coming back, it could only improve the department each year. It was a giant stress-reliever. It made everything much easier across the board.”

Training is an Extension of Hiring

Getting candidates to commit to your organization doesn’t stop after they’ve accepted your offer. The real work begins during their first day on the job. If they report to work on the first day and they have a lousy experience, there’s little hope of recovering.

“Training is the most important aspect of any job,” says Cole. “It sets the precedent for your entire tenure. If I can’t get you hooked on day one, then I’ve already failed. I wanted to make it fun and interactive. I don’t want anyone to leave training and say, ‘Oh god, this job’s gonna suck.’ I don’t want that all, because it puts me one step behind. Now I’ve gotta convince them that it is a good job.”

Cole left Worlds of Fun in 2013, after working there for 12 years. In his present role as a sales rep for one of his former suppliers, U.S. Toy Company, he still has the opportunity to work with amusement parks on a regular basis. During the summer, he works at the Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, which allows him to connect with audiences and spend time outside the way he used to at Worlds of Fun. Though he’s no longer hiring and managing people, he has the chance to share his expertise and inspire others through his growing public speaking and consulting business.

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