How to hire, train and manage a highly distributed workforce
Imagine you're the top-rated and most popular active travel company in the world. You run hiking and cycling trips for clients on six continents that can last a week or more - which means you manage hundreds of highly distributed, nearly-autonomous trip leaders and guides.
To the customer taking the adventure vacation, the trip leader is the company.
Which means your hiring process needs to not only identify but also onboard the perfect candidates.
That's what happens every year at Backroads, the active travel company that hosts thousands of guests on biking, walking, hiking and multi-sport trips on over 180 worldwide itineraries.
To find out how they do it - and get some insight into how last year the over 600 leaders evaluated by more than 25,000 guests achieved an average score of 9.79 out of 10 - I talked with Jo Zulaica, the head of leader development, and Lauran Intinarelli, global leader development manager.
Before we talk about hiring... a tricky part of the job has to be matching leader capacity with demand forecasts.
You're right. That's why the process starts with an availability survey that goes out to current staff: Do you want to come back, at what level, are you available to go anywhere, are you only available for certain locations, is your availability limited... that kicks everything off.
If you're not fully available, you do have to work during our peak times. So if you only want to work a few weeks... you need to be available during a peak period.
That part of the process is fairly easy since our retention rate is approximately 90 percent year over year, and has been for at least five years. If the job fits you, you don't want to leave. Sure, eventually you might leave... but it tends to be more of a fade than an abrupt departure.
But you're right: It can be tricky. Some weeks we need 700 leaders. Some weeks we need 500 leaders. It can be hard to thread the needle. And of course having too many leaders can be almost as big a problem as having too few.
So you're not only doing capacity planning, but you're also managing staff expectations. Lots of companies get the first part right... but fail miserably on the second.
Say you tell us you're fully available between May and October. We'll give you an estimate of how much you will work. And we ask people if they want one trip, then a week off... or two trips and then a week off... or if they want as much work as we can possibly give them. That helps us set expectations. And keep in mind there are other jobs people can do - it doesn't all have to be working as a trip leader.
We're really good at dialing the frequency up and down... and we're really good at making sure our staff knows what to expect. We want the process to work for everyone: Our guests, our employees, and the company.
But the wide variety of trips means you have to match skills with destinations as well.
That's true, but think about it this way. We have three basic field staff positions: Trip leaders that are on the ground with our guests, trip prep specialists that stay in the region and handle logistics, preparation, etc, and and camp crew staff that handle logistics, cooking, camping, etc, mostly on our North American trips.
Ninety-five percent of our field staff are trip leaders. They're all equal. They know how to lead trips.
Placement then comes down to other skills: Can you speak Italian and ride a bike? Are you great with kids and enjoy leading family trips? Or do you have a family and want to stay close to your home base? Every leader has the same role... but since every leader is an individual, there are unique circumstances we need to take into account.
So how do you decide whether you want to invite someone back who says they want to come back?
We conduct a huge review of every employee's performance to determine whether they should be invited back, and at what level. Sometimes we might encourage people to have an easier season and dial things down. Or we might encourage them to stay in one region. Or to stay closer to home. Or to serve in a less guest-facing role.
And then, when we invite them back... well over 90 percent want to come back.
Even with that level of retention, our growth means every year we've needed to hire between 80 and 150 people. This year we will hire 200 - and that's just trip leaders.
Let's talk about hiring. What do you look for in a trip leader?
Based on what we know equals success with our guests and with co-leaders, we look for 6 key characteristics: Leadership, judgement, charisma, depth (mature, life-experienced, grounded, comfortable in their own skin), outward focus (a desire to make others happy), and teamwork.
That's what we look for in a candidate, and we've structured our hiring process to identify those characteristics.
It's a long process - trip leader is an extremely hard job to get. We attract so many candidates that we only hire 8 to 9 percent of applicants.
Attracting too many candidates can be almost as big a problem as too few.
We have a great hiring website that provides a ton of information about what we look for, about the highs and low of the job, about how it's the dream job for some people but not for others, we have videos that help set expectations... we're extremely transparent about the nature of the job.
And we're extremely intentional about how we recruit. Sixty percent comes from internal referrals and word of mouth. Then we do some targeted recruiting through Facebook and social media. We stay away from job sites like Monster or ZipRecruiter because that could fill the pipeline with people who may not understand the nature of the job and whether it's right for them.
Again, this is a dream job for many people. But not for everyone.
Walk me through the selection process.
We start with a fairly short written application: Education, employment history, and we ask a few questions about what the candidates think the skills required might be. And we ask a few questions about bike repair experience, the candidate's activity level... but those are not nearly as important as the soft skills we look for.
I could be great with bikes... but terrible with people. In fact, I probably am.
(Laughs.) The next step is answering 5 questions via video. Those questions are catered towards the criteria we talked about earlier. Those videos are extremely insightful; it's a great way to read between the lines of what a candidate is like.
Then, if they're selected for the next stage, we conduct an in-person interview with a member of our hiring team.
Since we're talking about stages in the process, I should highlight something important. We work really hard to set a kind and caring tone from the moment a candidate clicks "Apply now." We prioritise the candidate experience. We provide weekly updates, we tell people where they are in the process... everyone knows what stage they are in during the process.
So: After the in-person interview stage we bring you to a hub for a day-long interviewing/hiring event: Role playing, problem-solving scenarios, public speaking, bike mechanics... and then we decide who we will hire.
And we bring those people to a two-week training event.
Do many people select-out at that stage?
Very few. Maybe 5 people we've hired decided the job wasn't right for them after the training event. That's because we work really hard to set expectations early on.
So yes, a few people do decide the job isn't right for them after they get deeper into it... but most people are very, very invested.
Remember, for them it's a dream job. You can feel their passion - they really want to have this life.
And since we're so intentional about how we choose people... no jerks work here. (Laughs.) Our people are warm, they care about others, they have great social skills... a lot of people come into the job wanting to travel and work outside, but they stay because of the community and the type of people we attract.
That's why our tenure stats are ridiculous: The average length of service for our planning team is 17 years.
I can see why people would love the job, but still: What's the toughest thing about being a trip leader?
The best part of the job can also be the hardest: Always being on the road and never quite feeling rooted. That is great... but also can take a toll after a while.
That's why our executive team is made up of leaders that wanted to settle down but didn't want to leave Backroads.
The trip leader role is physically and emotionally demanding, which is why we hire people that thrive in that kind of environment. Once you're in the field, you have total autonomy. No one checks up on you. No one follows behind. You can call us for help or guidance... but you don't have to.
Our trip leaders have to own the outcome: They go out there as if the company is their own, with no one looking over their shoulders, and they have to find a way to connect with every guest.
We do a lot of training around making sure we're cognizant of the motivation of everyone on the trip and checking in with everyone. Regardless of what the trip is designed for, is every guest getting what they want?
Sum it all up, and you're accountable for making people happy.
But also for everything else involved.
Absolutely. On a 6-day, 5-night event you own all the logistics, all the hosting, getting luggage to and from rooms, dinners, hiking and biking... everything.
What we're really proud of is that our leader performance has improved every year for the last 6 or 7 years. Last year was our biggest hiring year ever... and it was better than ever in terms of guest evaluation scores.
The destinations are incredible, but getting that kind of feedback is our secret sauce.
Describe what your highest-performing trip leaders have in common.
Someone who is extremely comfortable in their own skin. Someone who doesn't take themselves too seriously... but takes the job very seriously.
And someone who can read people. Having the emotional intelligence to be proactive is what separates good from great.
Some of our greatest trip leaders are just the warmest people you've ever met. You want to spend time with them, you feel lucky they're leading your trip... they're just wonderful.
The human aspect of the job is the most important. The trip leader is the host. They set the social framework for the whole group.
You know how you meet someone and you think, "That was fun, but I wouldn't want to spend a whole week with that person?" (Laughs.)
Our trip leaders are the kind of people you definitely want to spend a whole week with.
Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry from forklift driver to manager of a 250-employee book plant. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list.