The Competitive Edge

By Peter Beireis

Many people in the industry who have been around the pool more than a few laps have developed strategies that are counter to many of their peers. The ideas are not necessarily revolutionary but challenge the status quo in order to better operational parameters. In looking at other industries, there are similar examples: in business books such as The One Minute Manager, Raving Fans, and High Five, Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles addressed a shift in working with and developing employees for a more productive workplace. The movie Moneyball showcased the Oakland A’s and a recruitment strategy based upon statistical data. The club signed players at a fraction of the cost of that of other professional teams by utilizing data on how players performed in various situations. The team was successful using this method, and other high-profile organizations have utilized a similar data approach with success. In aquatics, the concept I employ is a modified combination of the two. In order to have a stellar mid-level management team, I use a system that takes a numeric formulation to secure key employees; they must submit to this “Promoting by the Numbers” process every year.

“Promoting by the Numbers” forces applicants to compete each year for their position for 5 years in order to maintain or attain a senior guard position. This approach uses benchmarks (expectations) for staff members to remain with the department but doesn’t allow them to rest on their laurels.

First, it is important to understand the department operation. There is a fairly simple organizational staffing structure: one full-time senior supervisor, one full-time aquatic coordinator, six senior guards, and multiple lifeguards/swim instructors. For the swim instructors, there are two personnel divisions: those who receive internal training to teach, and those who receive internal training and formal American Red Cross (ARC)/Water Safety Instructor (WSI) certification (the latter instructors are paid more). Senior guard is a general classification, basically in charge of program areas: opening the facility and lap swim and/or recreation swim and/or lesson program. Senior guards may wear one or more program hats, but are expected to develop their skills to be proficient in all programs.

“Promoting by the Numbers” was designed for senior guard positions. There is already a competitive hiring process for lifeguards/swim instructors and a developmental path for swim instructors, but a competitive and developmental path for the main part-time program facilitators (senior guards) was needed. The overall process, although seemingly complex, is quite simple to facilitate. There are three functional rounds in the process:

Round 1: Recruitment and application
Round 2: Soft skills
Round 3: Technical skills.

Each round is objectively driven and scored, building to a cumulative effect.

Round 1: Recruitment And Application
The process begins at the end of summer for the following spring/summer season. Anyone desiring the coveted senior guard position must apply—even current senior guards. The candidates fill out an application and a questionnaire. They are rated based upon the following factors:

  • Attention to detail
  • A completed application with all areas filled out correctly
  • A legible and clear application
  • Meeting the minimum requirements for the position
  • Meeting the deadline
  • The experience factor
  • His or her length of experience in aquatics
  • The certification factor
  • Currently held certification.

Please note that the answers given by the candidate to the questions in the questionnaire have no real bearing on round 1. They are currently used to evaluate writing skills and perspective. In the past, we used outside raters and included it in round 1. We have fluctuated over the years whether to include this or not.

Each of the three factors is given a score, those scores are weighted, and then the candidate pool is narrowed. In round 1, all qualified candidates who submit an application are accepted. The pool is narrowed to the top 10 scores. The candidates are notified of their score and rank in the process. All of the scoring is based on objective principles so there is no bias. All candidates are walked through the scoring so they understand it.

The spreadsheet looks like this for Round 1:


Round 2: Soft Skills
This second round has four factors:

  • Interviewing
  • Verbal ability
  • Customer service
  • Written test.

For this round and the third round, we rely on other agencies to score and interview candidates; we simply take the weighed data for the final score.

1. The Interview
The candidate is interviewed by a panel comprised of professionals from other agencies. Similar to a full-time job, we look for different components: communication, judgment, professionalism, basic job skills, problem-solving, and leadership. Each category is given a score with candidates being rated from 1-8 (1 being the best), and these are added for an overall score. This final score is given a rating factor for the round.

2. Verbal Ability
A candidate has to verbally instruct someone on how to perform CPR in a general scenario. Two outside raters score the candidate on communication skills. The person instructed is a staff member from another area, who may or may not know CPR and is simply following the directions. The same scoring system is used and compared with that of the other candidates; a rating factor is given for the round.

3.  Customer Service
Candidates go through two challenging customer-service scenarios. The “customer” is a senior administrative professional, who is adept at playing that role. We have two raters who independently rate the candidates from a score sheet: we are looking fore interaction (i.e., greet and smile, use the customer’s name, listen completely, etc.). The scores are consolidated, ranked 1-8, and submitted to us for a rating factor.

4. Availability
Candidates must note their availability for the summer. A score is given, and a percentage factor is put in place.

All of the scores for each area are factored out, and a ranking of all the candidates is added to the first round rankings. The top eight candidates move onto the third and final round, which is the technical component.        

As in round 1, these dynamics are put in a spreadsheet and factored out. They are then combined with round 1 for a “weeding out” process to move to the next round. We have found that segmenting items into rounds allows staff members to prepare and remain focused. It is also easier to manage with fewer candidates and eliminate some along the way to get to the end result. The goal is to prepare candidates for the future. When you think about your current job, you probably had to go through multiple rounds, evaluations, or tests to get the position. You started with an application and a review of skills on paper. You were narrowed into a pool for an interview or second round. Many were then eliminated, and only a few candidates were invited back for a second interview or skills evaluation.

The Round 2 spreadsheet looks like this:    


Round 3: Technical Skills
The third round finalizes the process as we go through the performance factors:

1. Peer ranking/reasoning
Each candidate rates and ranks each other and gives comments to explain why they were ranked in a particular way. We consolidate the ranking and give it a factor to score.

2. CPR/first-aid scenario
Each candidate goes through a CPR scenario in which two outside raters score the performance, and this score is put in an overall factor.

3. Ten-minute swim for time
Each candidate swims for 10 minutes with the distance noted. Each candidate is ranked 1-8 with a factor put in for an overall score.

4.  Oxygen set-up factor
Each candidate, handed components of an oxygen tank, regulator, BVM, and feed tubes, is given a cue, at which point they must set up the system and the flow rate to an appropriate level for a given patient. They are then cued to completely disassemble the items. The independent rater observes, selects a score, and notes the time for the overall score. The rating factor is combined with the overall score.

5. Written exam
Each candidate is given a written test taken from standardized certification exams.  The same scoring process follows.

All of the scores are put in a spreadsheet for each candidate for a composite score for round 3, which is then combined with scores from the previous rounds for an overall ranking. The top six candidates are offered a senior guard position. The candidate who ranks seventh is offered a junior guard camp program to facilitate and run. The eighth-ranked candidate is offered training opportunities and mentoring possibilities to develop skills.

There are a lot of moving parts to each round, which makes it highly competitive at all levels; this is a learning tool for the entire staff, including the full-time staff. We continue to change the process a little each year so current senior guards see something new and are challenged. Each current senior has a benchmark element that must be achieved within the year so that he or she is developing the necessary skills. Some individuals try to meet these early on to gain additional points in the scoring, but some will garner negative points if they don’t meet the benchmarks.

The current benchmarks are:

1st time: Obtain lifeguard certification and review the ARC lifeguard management online course

2nd year: Obtain WSI certification and maintain lifeguard certification

3rd year: Obtain Lifeguard Instructor LGI certification through ARC and maintain all prior certifications

4th year: Obtain Aquatic Facility Operator or Certified Pool Operator; maintain all prior certification and utilize those by teaching

5th year: Attend an aquatic professional training workshop or conference and maintain all prior certifications

6th year and beyond: Lifeguards no longer are required to compete but must maintain all benchmarks.  Failure to do so requires them to go through the entire process.

Round 3 looks like this:


No process is perfect; awareness is the key in order to move forward.

  • Design parameters based on what you value and what is important for the operation. We have many parameters that we test. For some of the staff, making it to the second round is an accomplishment. They may not even apply the next year, which suggests they are not the ones wanted for those positions anyway. Candidates who do come back are better prepared and perform better in the process.
  • Be prepared for staff failure. In almost every year someone who was a senior guard will lose the spot due to the competition and must wait for another spot to open. This will be a challenge. In order to be true to the objective-based selection process, let the numbers fairly dictate the results. Those people who had a position and lose it usually admit it was their responsibility and begrudgingly accept it.
  • Make the process objective-based in order to eliminate any personal bias. The only bias we may have is in the weighting factor we give to each dimension.
  • Be flexible. Plan the process in advance, and have all the dates scheduled for staff so they can plan around it. It is a challenge to schedule outside raters and candidates (especially for those away at college). We have taken some extreme measures and altered elements in a particular round to deal with this; we have moved the interview to round 1 and have even done a Skype interview; we have even paid half of the airfare with the use of personal mileage credit, etc. We try to make the opportunity available and not a burden in order to get the best candidates.
  • Evaluate the process every year. We look at the raw scores as well as the weighted score and constantly review to see if we are on point in what we are seeking to achieve. We want a staff that is challenged and growing in knowledge and skills. We do not want staff becoming complacent and resting on past achievements. We want to give everyone a chance because there may be some raw talent that had not previously been considered.

The “Promoting by the Numbers” competitive-edge strategy I have presented has many nuances that are not possible to include in a limited magazine article. I hope this article generates some thought in how you approach future advancement opportunities, especially from an objective-based position. I suspect there may be some dissenters from this approach, and I accept that, knowing the approach is a challenge and labor-intensive. However, as I am reminded many times, a store-bought cookie is never as good as the homemade one your mom made. It takes energy and time and love, even for something as simple as a cookie. I hope this is also true for the approach I am taking in creating future leaders. Just as you remember that good cookie from years ago, our staff members remember when they move on and are successful in their own right.

Peter Beireis is the senior recreation supervisor for the city of Newark, Calif., and President of Beireis Aquatic Safety Services Consulting Company. Reach him at