I was at a team Christmas party this past year at a brewery in northern Virginia when I noticed a fan on the ceiling that looked like it belonged atop a helicopter. I pointed it out to a colleague who said, “That’s a big-ass fan.”
I didn’t realize how accurate that statement was; it turned out that the enormous contraption was a sophisticated industrial cooling system manufactured by none other than Big Ass Fans, the brainchild of founder and CEO Carey Smith. If his name sounds familiar, you might have come across his regular column On the Contrary that he writes for Inc., or any of the numerous interviews he has given to outlets such as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. As the company’s name suggests, Carey has a sense of humor, but he’s also dead serious about pushing boundaries at the nearly $300 million-a-year business he built from scratch.
Carey’s head of corporate communications invited me to interview him after reading one of my articles, and I jumped at the chance to pick his brain on hiring good people, what it takes to earn his trust, and preparing people for leadership. What followed was an unfiltered look into how this CEO (or “Chief Big Ass” as he goes by) sees the world.
You’ve said that when you interview people, you like to push them out of their comfort zone and “make them uncomfortable.” What is it that you’re trying to learn about someone by doing that?
Putting people in a stressful situation is a good thing, because it’s not what they expect at an interview. Some people get frustrated, which tells you something about how the individual will be as an employee under pressure. So we try to be a little bit aggressive and see what people are made of.
I had somebody come in the other day with a product idea he thought we might be interested in that he had proved out a bit. To see how he’d react, after he finished his presentation I said, “Thanks, I think we’ve got what we need here. We’re going to begin work right away, and thanks for coming in today.” I just wanted to see how he’d respond. Obviously, I’d never do that to someone, but he reacted quite calmly, which I liked.
The reality is that it’s still a crap shoot even when you run a great interview process and think you’ve found a good one. I mean honestly, what the hell can you expect to glean from a 30-minute conversation with somebody who’s been alive for 30 years? You really have to work at it over time to see through the person.
Does the emphasis you place on personality and culture fit mean you place less value on a person’s resumé?
In the main, I think resumés are crap–especially for young people. They tell me very little about a person’s potential. We give paid student internships, and it amazes me some of the resumés these kids send to us. Eighteen pages (I’m not kidding) of French club and chess club and playing soccer and god knows what else. Really, who gives a s— about that? I don’t.
I learn by asking a person what the one thing they want me to remember about them is. If all the person can come up with is something they did in school or under someone else’s direction that’s a red flag to me. For a business like ours that is growing rapidly, we need people who show creativity and can take the initiative. I hired somebody one time who bought a distressed ice cream shop in high school and turned it around over several summers, eventually selling it and paying for college with the money he made. That he was able to do that–and he didn’t come from money by the way–told me he had a good chance of solving the big problems here.
The programs we have in place put a lot on new hires’ plates quickly, so if it’s not going to work out we tend to know fast. I’m a peripatetic manager. I have an office but I’m very seldom there, and I talk to people constantly about what they’re doing or why they did something a certain way. The interview doesn’t really stop once you’re hired; it just changes shape.
With an employee base composed significantly of people in their 20s and early 30s, do you find that they have different expectations of their jobs than the more experienced cohorts?
Not really. In fact, a lot of the best people we have are the youngest employees. A lot of the “millennials” stuff you read and hear about just shows you how lazy people can be in forming their opinions. People fresh out of school have so much to offer. I started my business when I was in my late 20s, and the advantage of being at that age is that you’re so damn naïve you’ll do anything–at least I was. You can do a hell of a lot when you don’t know what you can’t do. If I told one of the younger folks that work for me to call the president of the United States, they’d probably go get on the phone and try to reach him. That lack of fear and willingness to work without boundaries is valuable whether you’re starting a business or starting a career.
The other big thing about the younger folks is that they’re very collaborative as a group. As I see it, when you’re surrounded by people from so many different disciplines with so many backgrounds, it’s foolish to make a decision without drawing on that collective talent for input. For the younger folks, most of them see things this way too and that aligns really well with our culture overall.
Let’s ditch the term “millennials” and the baggage it comes with then. Is there anything about younger employees that you just wish they understood but don’t seem to?
Only that work isn’t at all like school and that learning comes through failure. Sometimes the people who did really well in school turn out to be your worst employees because they’re way too worried about failure. I tell kids at every career fair that they are going to fail, and they need to learn how to learn from that if they want to succeed in whatever they do.
The other thing I see lacking sometimes is self-direction. When you get out in the world it’s like being dropped in the middle of the ocean. Your college exams, however hard they were, had answers. In real life, nobody’s asking any questions, and nobody’s got any answers for you. You’ve got to figure that out on your own.
I want our employees to have a great experience working here, and allowing people to move quickly through the ranks or into a role that best suits them is maybe the most important aspect of that. Being in growth mode like we have been gives us a lot of flexibility to find the best fit for someone even if it’s totally different from what they were hired for initially. Our first employee was an absolute killer salesman, but one day he came into my office and said, “Carey, I hate this. I’ve gotta do something else.” Today he runs a division of the company on the production side. People see that, and they like it, and it lets them envision a happy future for themselves here. I don’t know any other way to keep people engaged and happy.