CEM Blog: Management Series #1: Five Lessons I Learned About Hiring

CEM Blog: Management Series #1: Five Lessons I Learned About Hiring
Success in today’s economy for businesses is all about having the right people. The better your people fit your culture and the more talented your people are, the better your company can serve the customer, and the more successful your company will be. The problem is that this truth is widely known and accepted, the economy is doing well, and getting these people onto your team is not easy.Over the last five years at CEM, we’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work for great clients and have grown the firm as a result. This growth, of course, has necessitated the addition of great people to our team. Our track record is not perfect when it comes to hiring. We’ve hired people that didn’t work out, we didn’t hire people we should have, and we often acted too quickly.Below I’ve outlined some of the things I’ve learned over the last four years of hiring:

It’s a Numbers Game

Even though hiring is about people, the harsh reality is that its also a numbers game. The more candidates you have to consider, the higher the likelihood of finding the right person. For us at CEM, we have found this to be a real challenge. Our office has always been in Niagara and it has been difficult attracting talented people to either relocate or commute from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Even with all the obvious benefits of the Niagara Region (lower cost of living, recreational opportunities, etc.), many people are not interested in moving. In response to this, we opened a second office in Oakville (near the GTA). As a result (for a recent opening),  we saw three times the applications from an Oakville posting as we did for the same job posted in Niagara. More applications means more interviews, which means a greatly increased chance of adding the right person to your team.

Checking References

If you’ve done any type of hiring, you know that candidates can have a great resume and interview well, but then fail to integrate well into your culture. We have learned the hard way that checking references is crucial to ensuring a candidate will fit into the culture of your organization. At CEM, there are a couple key steps we take with references which have proven successful to determining fit with our organizational culture.Firstly, references must be glowing. It is commonly understood that it is not proper decorum to be overtly negative in a reference check. To this end, references are almost always supportive of a candidate. We have learned to be discerning and listen specifically for references that are over-the-top excited about a candidate. Candidates which come with such an endorsement have proven to be successful at CEM.Secondly, we figure out how to get references in addition to the list provided by the candidate. Candidates will provide a curated list of people who will speak positively for them. When evaluating a candidate, we work hard to connect with other individuals who know the candidate and may speak more candidly.

Big Box Stores

Although this may not be relevant for all organizations, we at CEM have struggled over the years with hiring candidates who had spent significant time at, what we call, the ‘big box stores’ (Hatch, AMEC, SNC-Lavalin, etc). These are very good firms which do big projects and excellent engineering, but as a result of their organizational size and the size of their projects, their processes and culture are very different to CEM.An electrical engineer who has come from one of these firms may have the experience of a senior engineer, but has only worked their whole career on 600 V motor control centre design. At CEM, we need a senior engineer to be able to lead all aspects of a project, not just a subset. Additionally, they may be expecting a heightened level of engineering process, whereas we’re looking for a more entrepreneurial and agile approach.Now, all that being said, we have found some candidates who can fit within our culture and who can also bring with them all the good things that the ‘big box stores’ have to offer. Although rare, adding people like this is a big win for CEM.

Go With Your Gut

As an engineer, I value process, standards, and a good evaluation scorecard! But over the years I’ve learned that another evaluation dimension is required when it comes to hiring people. I’ve learned to rely more on my ‘gut’ and on the instinct of those on my leadership team to make decisions. This doesn’t replace the resumes, interviews, reference checks and other aspects of the hiring process, but it should be layered on top of these aspects. When you rely on your gut, you’re evaluating things like first impressions, non-verbal communication, what’s not being said, and other intangibles. Like any skill, the more you use it, the better it well get.


The best piece of hiring advice I ever received was from a former plant manager of a food plant who was a key client of ours. He told me the only mistakes he ever made in hiring was when he rushed the process. He shared stories of times when he had a key position to fill and, even though he didn’t feel great about any of the candidates, he made a hire and ended up having to deal with the long-term ramifications. His lesson to me was to be patient with hiring, even if the need to fill a role is great.We’ve just recently benefited from this advice at CEM. As we’ve grown, we had to reshuffle our organizational chart, and we eventually identified the need for a Principal Engineer. This individual was to be the top technical member of our team, responsible for quality and efficiency across the organization. Knowing the importance of this role, I was determined to be patient and wait for the right candidate. I searched for 18 months to fill the role, but my patience paid off. In June of this role, we on-boarded our new Principal Engineer and his contributions have already exceeded expectations. Patience is a virtue!


Hiring is hard. Early in my career I was told that hiring is a 50/50 proposition. I have made it my mission in my leadership to beat this average, and I believe we have been successful to-date in doing so. Learning these lessons hasn’t been easy, but we have successfully integrated what we’ve learned into our process and are getting better every day at hiring. We’ve also learned that successful leadership in people-driven organizations doesn’t end with the hiring process. Effective on-boarding, performance management, open dialogue, and judicious ‘off-boarding’ are all essential to an effective organization, but that’s for another day… 
Written By:
Matt Lensink, P. Eng.
Chief Operating Officer
CEM Engineering