Hiring & Recruiting in Times of Instability with Wissam Youssef

2020 has been a testing year, to say the least, for Lebanese businesses and entrepreneurs. Each passing day was more and more challenging with additional hardships coming along the way. I decided to host and facilitate a Q&A session with CME co-founder Wissam Youssef, part of LGA’s open house events, and part of a series of inspirational stories that would do us all some good to hear. 

Wissam co-founded CME in 2003, and with nothing but a small office in Beirut, a few desks, and $100 worth of capital, Wissam and his team’s  hard work and determination made CME flourish, earning a track record among top US Fortune 500 companies.

CME is now present in 5 countries U.S, Argentina, India, China, and Lebanon providing end-to-end engineering solutions from consulting to product design and development, across electronics and software engineering.

Most recently, CME hired 74 new employees in 2020 – one of the most daunting years for businesses. 

Wissam has 16 years of experience in launching startups, scaling operations, strategic planning, talent acquisition, and retention as well as contributing to social responsibility. In addition to hands-on experience in leading software and mechatronics engineering teams to deliver game-changing projects by leveraging cutting-edge technologies that include Product Design, Internet of Things, customer experience, Artificial Intelligence, and Data Science.

The focus of our conversation was about hiring in times of instability. 

“To survive and grow, a business needs its most essential resources: people. At the same time, staffing cost is usually one of the biggest expenses within an operation, on top of that, it is recurring and fixed. How should we think about hiring and recruiting in times of such instability, uncertainty, and very little visibility?” Wissam lets us in on valuable information, and I proceeded to ask him a few questions to get a better understanding of how to navigate these challenging times.

Q: How is hiring in 2020 different? 

A: First, let me remind you that 2003 was not a better time, nor was 2005, 2006, or 2008 – remember? Operating and hiring in Lebanon has always been a challenge, and despite everything, we were able to achieve successful results. 

For 2020, there were two defining differences for CME: to start, the monetary situation, more like a crisis, is a first. We’re dealing with different currencies at the moment, causing confusion, frustration, and most of all, lack of trust. Lack of trust among employees, between employees and their employers, and lack of trust in the market.

Financial security in 2020 has been the main concern for people, especially seniors. Companies with a good reputation will provide stability and financial security as their #1 asset, and that’s a major part of the current hiring process. It creates trust, hope, respect. 

Second of all, the nature of resources we hired changed. For the past 17 years, we have been trying to advertise ourselves as a premium service provider, for good reason too. There had always been a fair balance between quality and price, making our quotes fair. 

In 2020, we turned to a different type of resource, not the usual premium service. We hired profiles for lower-level services (such as IT Support)- areas in which we were not able to be competitive in, in the past. 

Q: Did you go through a hiring freeze in the beginning?

A: The period between the end of February and the end of April 2020 was full of uncertainties for all of us, and especially for the US market. At CME, there are different industries that we serve. However, the pandemic affected all of them, no exception.

Then the world started to adapt. Companies started taking a different shape, most of them going digital and focusing on their e-commerce platforms, and even the F&B industry has turned almost exclusively to delivery…

We had to freeze everything, all activities, not only the hiring process, to make sure to have plans for the extension of the crisis and the future of our company.

Now, you’ll notice how technology companies are witnessing a huge rise in their stock price. It says a lot about the current situation.

Q: How to financially compensate for the devaluation?

A: It’s not just what you promise an employee in terms of salary, you need a financial and professional track record to back all of that up to establish trust. The challenge is not local, it’s governed by the supply and demand rule, not by the local players. Meaning, the challenge is a global one. With companies increasingly hiring for remote positions, employers in Lebanon are competing against employers around the world. You have to pay employees for their qualities and capabilities, they could be directly employed by a foreign company if you don’t hire them yourself. 

Q: Do you hire for different roles? For instance, are you focusing on hiring resources that have a more direct impact on revenues? (ie sales or engineers as opposed to accountants)

A: To start, I should mention that our model is a bit different, it’s B2B (business to business, meaning business that is conducted between companies, rather than between a company and individual consumer.)

We get business through referrals and networking rather than operating on the typical sales model.

The increase in revenue is directly correlated to the number of engineers that we hire. Most of the resources that we hire are engineers and those have a direct impact on our revenue. 

However, the demand is always related to the available pool of resources. During the pandemic, we changed the way we reach our customers, so we invested in digital marketing. We created a supply chain model around our website and social media accounts. That’s something we decided to invest in to survive the crisis.

Q: Are you hiring more freelancers and employees on short-term contracts instead of full-timers with all the benefits? 

A: Easy answer: we only hire full-timers and do not opt for freelancers during this time.

It’s all about providing stability to our team. If you need to build a product, a real startup, you need a team, a full-time team. That’s the real asset of any company. Sadly, you can’t develop a culture with freelancers. If we’re talking about a startup, you can even opt for as low as a 2-people team… but I can’t stress enough the importance of having a full-time team and a culture in place. You’ll never be able to achieve a timeline without a full-time team in place. 

Q: How do you hire without ever physically meeting the person? How do you hire with no face-to-face meetings? How do you onboard remotely? 

A: We’ve always been hiring remotely, we have offices outside Lebanon, in the U.S, Argentina, India, China.

The key element is to have a successful digital process, testing tools, coding exercises, and final interview processes. It is manageable as long as you put in place the right processes for HR.

On top of that, my number 1 piece of advice would be to make sure that you’re hiring someone who has a proper attitude over someone who has all the skills. You need to make sure you’re hiring someone that fits your culture, someone that is eager to grow and learn.

I would also strongly suggest not to conduct “interviews”, and instead establish a conversation between two people. That way, you’ll discover more characteristics, behaviors, and personality traits, and see if that individual is a good fit for your culture.

In a nutshell:

  • Rely on digital tools
  • Have an application tracking system in place
  • Give proper feedback to the candidates, get back to them. Keep the candidate in the loop. Without proper follow-up, you can lose great potential candidates.
  • Use online test tools to accelerate the processes
  • Have a centralized location, all in one place to assess & evaluate (ie either your website, LinkedIn, or other sources)
  • Have a conversation rather than an interview

Q: How to hire someone in a field you don’t have expertise in?

A: Honestly, I had to do it when I started CME. We were 4 partners. One of us has a background in political science, the rest of us, all engineers with zero experience. I had to hire someone older than me, and I insist, I had no experience whatsoever. 

I have been practicing what I preach since day 1. I hired people based on attitude, not skills… people who are eager to learn, who are accountable, who show responsibility, who aren’t necessarily experts in their domain. It has paid off so far.

Q: The landscape after the pandemic is already starting to look very different from what it was before. Some players have already disappeared, and the ones that will survive will look very different from what they did before. Is this the time to hire ‘young’ at the expense of ‘maturity and experience’ – so that your workforce can adapt quickly to this new context?

A: What’s the main goal for all companies today? Innovation, accelerating their digital platform.

There are two profiles we need to keep in mind, the T-shape and the I-shape. 

The T-shape has a multidisciplinary profile. The I-shape is someone who has depth in a specific area.

How to get that innovation you need? Create a team of Ts and Is. I’m not talking about ages, I’m talking about profiles. You can have Ts and Is from any age range, not just millennials, and Gen Zs. My recommendation is to focus on the profile itself, not the age group.

Q: How to deal with remote work atmosphere during the pandemic?

A: Trust. Trust is the biggest factor nowadays. 

As a manager, you might be worried about people not doing their job, as you can’t watch over them or verify that they’re fully utilizing their time working remotely.

People shouldn’t let trust be a challenge, businesses should be driven by the productivity of their team and not just individuals.

Questioning productivity and being skeptical and distrusting is a waste of time. Attitude is key, and if you hired based on that, you shouldn’t have much to worry about.

Q: How to establish a conversation with technical co-founders if we are not technicians?

A:

The technical team will always seek to develop new systems, rewrite codes, focus on new architectures and new technologies, while founders want to get on the market and generate revenue.

There is a gap between how both think, that’s why there are existing frameworks: The Star Model. That is to make sure that everyone is aligned and priorities are defined with the right approach, adopt the existing model to align culture and goals across the company.

Q: From what we are hearing from the companies we work with, is that speed is becoming as important as pricing and costing. Clients/customers seem to require their goods and services delivered instantly (instant gratification, the trend was already there but the pandemic has accelerated this trend). How does this impact hiring? 

A:

This is the main challenge today in hiring: the time to fill a job.

Once you hire, you need to retain talents. Otherwise, it ends up being even more expensive.

To speed up the hiring process, there’s digitization that I previously mentioned, paired with something we call The Bench Lineup

In sports, a team’s success is linked to its bench strength – the players on the bench who can seamlessly jump in and replace a player who is pulled due to injury or some other reason. Professional football teams don’t go into games with only one quarterback and baseball teams have players on the bench in case someone goes on the disabled list. It should be the same in business, where bench strength refers to the capabilities and readiness of potential successors to move into key professional and leadership positions. It is critically important because organizations continuously go through turnover, restructuring, and changes in business strategy.

It’s about hiring people without having an existing job to fill, a type of overstaffing. That way, you’ll already have the right people in place to mobilize resources.

Q: How did you get to where you are today? What are your big milestones?

A: A

As you know, I established CME with 3 other partners, all fresh with no experience except for one of us. We started developing software and then we started hiring more people to serve more and different types of customers. Slowly but surely, we got a lot of customers through referrals, as they were all satisfied with our services.

We worked in unattractive disciplines like quality assurance, test procedures, and that’s when we started showing the company’s talents, demonstrating that quality assurance is indeed an engineering task. One thing led to another and we started getting more assigned tasks and adding more layers to our the services we offered. In 2011, we started offering hardware services in addition to the software services we offered. Then, we started developing our own products and IP-ing them. 

Our systems serve 80 million users today in 17 different languages, with 7 registered US patents (hardware & software solutions). We even won the Best Technology Award by Subway for 3 years in a row! 

Q: Can you tell us about the best hiring decision you ever made? And the worst? 

A: The best decision was the way we automated our hiring processes and the bench lineup. It has a direct impact on our revenue and ability to acquire additional customers.

The worst one is for sure the mistake I made in China, trying to manage a Chinese team with Lebanese leadership. The way you need to operate when you want to globalize is to localize! If you’re operating in China, you need a Chinese leadership layer in China. 

At the end of the day, I learned from Wissam that all you need is an idea, the audacity to dream big, and the discipline to execute even in the most trying of circumstances. Interested in learning more and joining our LGA open house events? Register here for updates and information, and follow us on Instagram to stay in the loop!

Sara from the Bloom Team

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