Why You Want to Hire SWANs

The Secret to Making Great Hires: Hiring SWANs

Before working at GEICO, I was employed by a Bethesda, Maryland-based association that served the finance profession. While there, I wore several hats: compensation analyst, employee relations, HR training and recruiter. Of all the aspects that I was responsible for, I loved recruiting best!

The association was made up of a lean team of 60 professionals and at any given time there were about 10 open positions. It was a very unique culture; we put in a lot of hours, worked extremely hard, wanted everyone to be a high achiever, and expected employees to read, study and continuously self-develop.

People burned out rather quickly which meant we were usually — always — hiring. We had a simple, yet effective recruitment strategy that came directly from the CEO. The goal was to hire SWANs.

How to Spot a SWAN

Whether we were hiring a member services representative, a marketing specialist or an IT pro, we always looked for candidates who were Smart, Worked hard, Ambitious and Nice. This philosophy still resonates with me today.


Obviously, companies need to hire people who have the skills and expertise to do specific jobs. Skills assessment is key to making good hires. But, at this association, it was much more than that. Candidates who did well as employees also had intellectual curiosity and actively sought out learning opportunities.


Herb Brooks, 1980 coach of the U.S. ice hockey team said, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” It’s great to have a team of smart people, but you’re not going to get things done if they don’t apply themselves. If hard work is part of your corporate culture, then assessing work ethic will be important during the hiring process.


Goals, business objectives, action plans … whatever you call them, all companies are trying to accomplish something. At this job, it was about increasing membership numbers. We hired people who were highly-motivated, goal-oriented and had proven track records. This helped us achieve significant milestones and crank out a lot of work.

One “issue” that I recall was career advancement. We hired ambitious people, but were a relatively small employer. Therefore, when an ambitious employee perceived that there was no “next step,” we’d often lose great people.


If someone is smart, hard working, ambitious and an arrogant jerk … are you likely to hire them? Probably not. Nice brings it all together: the ideal candidate … a SWAN.

Well, there you have it everyone … the secret to making great hires is to hire SWANs! (Whew! I feel like I just let out a huge secret.) In all seriousness, I hope this mnemonic device will assist you in developing or redefining your interviews and making solid hires. A big part of recruiting is knowing who it is that you are looking for and then putting together a plan to find them. This little trick has guided me for more than a decade.

What’s your secret sauce?

Do you have any secrets to making good hires? What’s your simplified hiring philosophy? Share your insights below.

Posted in

Shannon Smedstad

Shannon Smedstad has nearly 20 years of recruitment, employer branding, and communications experience. Currently, she serves as the Principal Employer Brand Strategist at exaqueo. Previously, she held employer branding and recruiting leadership roles at CEB and GEICO. She’s a work at home mom raising two awesome girls who also enjoys reading, running, leading a Girl Scout troop, and her morning coffee. You can connect with Shannon on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Reader Interactions


  1. Razwana says

    Hi Shannon – I find hiring is a balance between filling an immediate need and aligning long-term development, both for the business and the individual hired.

    You mention in the article that people burned out quickly at Bethesa and that meant you were constantly hiring. How did that turnover of staff impact the business. Was it part of the job, or do you think things could have been done differently to avoid the cost and time of constantly hiring people?

    – Razwana

    • shannonsmedstad says

      Hi Razwana – It’s been nearly 10 years since I was at this particular organization, so some of those details are a little fuzzy. However, I think we painted a realistic overview of the culture and expectations up front, and it was woven into all aspects of the business. People just worked really hard (which was part of the org culture). Don’t get me wrong, we had a lot of long-term employees, too … but for some people who wanted more work/life balance, it was difficult to achieve. And, I think work/life balance is something that many organizations can still work to improve. I hope this answers your question. — Shannon



Pin It on Pinterest