As architecture students at the University of Kansas, David Ohlemeyer and two of his classmates dreamed of starting their own firm. While still in their 20s, they did exactly that. The firm, the Lawrence Group, founded in St. Louis in 1983, grew to 30 people in the 1990s, and then to 215 by 2006.

Using recruiters and running ads shouldn't be ruled out, but there are better ways to find talented employees, says David Ohlemeyer, a principal of the Lawrence Group.
Dilip Vishwanat Using recruiters and running ads shouldn't be ruled out, but there are better ways to find talented employees, says David Ohlemeyer, a principal of the Lawrence Group.

To add as many as 40 employees a year in half a dozen offices (including one in Beijing), Ohlemeyer and his partners have had to spend a lot of time recruiting. The firm's website even asks potential employees to call Ohlemeyer directly—evidence of how seriously he takes that aspect of his job. But if Ohlemeyer is an expert on hiring, he's far from an expert on getting hired: He hasn't had to look for a job in more than 25 years. Back then, he said, he took the job he was offered. "Things are very different now. Candidates have a lot of choices." And that means that hiring requires selling yourself to potential employees, not the other way around.

Know yourself.

If your firm doesn't have a written mission statement, you ought to write one, says Ohlemeyer. "Before you can recruit successfully, you need to know your company, its culture, and its values, and be able to articulate them."

Think about how you interview for projects.

Though he hasn't had a job interview in 25 years, Ohlemeyer says, "I have been interviewed for lots of projects. So I look at how I present the firm to prospective clients, and I apply those lessons to recruiting."

Have answers ready.

"Prospective employees will want to know things like: How do your benefits compare with those at other firms? Can a candidate build a career with your organization? Are you hiring just for a specific project? If so, what happens when that project is finished? Be prepared to answer."

"Hire" one of your employees.

"To fill an upper-level job, the first thing we do is look inward," Ohlemeyer says. "Nobody understands our company better than the people who already work here."

Ask inside the firm—and outside.

"When there's a position to fill, we always ask our employees, 'Do you know anyone?' We have had the most success recruiting people who have some prior connection to the firm." Ohlemeyer says he'll also get advice from consulting engineers and general contractors. "We ask them whom they really enjoy working with, who seem to be the best performers." (But the Lawrence Group doesn't raid other firms—"That's not what we're about," Ohlemeyer says.)

Use professional recruiters sparingly.

"All a recruiter can really do is give you a field of candidates. And we find that, at least in St. Louis, we can come up with the field ourselves. We have used recruiters more successfully when we were looking for people in markets we don't know as well, or people in departments like marketing or IT."

Think about taking the search public.

"We've run newspaper ads, but you get literally hundreds of responses, and trying to weed through that many can be excruciating," Ohlemeyer says. "But as a desperation measure, if we've spread the word and we're still not getting anybody, we'll place an ad."

Bring people in on a trial basis ...

Ohlemeyer sometimes makes a deal with recruiters to bring on the person temporarily. "If things work out, we'll make the employee permanent and pay the recruiter's fee at that time," he explains. "That gives us a chance to check people out before making a long-term commitment."

... including summer interns.

"Even this year, when we haven't done a lot of hiring, we did have summer interns. It's a very short-term obligation, and it gives us a chance to try each other out. Over the years, about half our interns have become permanent employees. And having interns around helps keep the company fresh."