High Marks at Hiring

If you saw a job posting that read, “Men wanted for Hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success,” what would you think? Would you be excited about applying for this job? Or, would you think, “these folk sound crazy, no thanks, I’ll find somewhere else to work?” No, this isn’t a posting for a job with Uber in Nunavut this winter. Apparently, this was the text of a job ad in British newspapers placed by legendary explorer Earnest Shackleton as he sought to recruit those that would help him on one of his journeys to Antarctica. It’s a pretty clear description of what Shackleton was looking for. Those reading the posting are likely to either be pulled towards it or know the opportunity isn’t for them. It’s not a generic invitation to anyone looking for work. Shackleton’s clarity as to what characteristics he’s looking for in fellow adventurers comes through and serves as a filter which will sort the wheat from the chaff at the outset of the recruiting process.

Shackleton knew that his expedition, like successful companies, would be capable of achieving success in proportion to the ability of their team to execute well under uncertain and hostile conditions. Any success would be delivered by the initiative and innovation of individuals. Putting the right people in the right places would be a vital component of his expedition. Sir Michael Barber, the chief education advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in a report for McKinsey regarding the world’s best school systems, “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” Sir Barber’s observation can be applied to virtually all efforts involving people. Any system dependent on people in some way for its implementation cannot be better than the people involved. It’s an obvious truism that reflects the importance of people. The best systems depend on the best people. This, too, is a, if not the, differentiator for businesses. People are a priority. People produce performance. Hiring Matters. Steven Sample in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership offers, “Probably the most critical decisions made by leaders relate to the hiring, nurturing and firing of lieutenants.”

Many businesses have more in common with competitors than things that differentiate. This is certainly the case with respect to insurance brokerages. From a consumer’s perspective brokerages look pretty similar. They are selling the same thing, using many of the same suppliers, and marketing in similar forms and places. Competitors are using the same suppliers, products, technology, and processes. As an executive quoted by Gostick and Elton in their book, All In, observed, “When it comes down to it, it is a combination of the execution and culture that makes the difference between us and other firms.” The best employers realize that their way to differentiate their services from competitors is through people. This is even more so the case with insurance brokerages whose single largest investment (expense) are its people. Gostick and Elton note, “The secret of moving a business forward is in getting your working population to differentiate you. It is culture that is driving whatever you are trying to accomplish within a company. Cultures can vary dramatically. The most profitable, productive, enduring cultures are cultures where people believe. Where people lock into a vision with conviction, where they maintain excitement not out of fear but out of passion.” It’s been said elsewhere that “the team you build is the company you build.”

Patty McCord, former director of HR for Netflix, wrote in Powerful, “Great teams are made when things are hard. Great teams are made when you have to dig deep. When I’m hiring, I look for someone who gets really excited about the problems we have to solve. You want them to wake up in the morning thinking, God, this is hard. I want to do this!” McCord, like Shackleton, are looking for those that embrace challenges. They’re not looking for those wanting a job that will take care of them. They’re looking for individuals seeking challenges which will forge them into better people. It’s like finding professional athletes that love to train. They aren’t looking for the easy way forward. They’re looking for constant improvement and finding out of what they’re capable. They want to contribute because they see the connection between their efforts and the importance of the mission being served. McCord writes, “What people want most from work: to be able to come in and work with the right team of people—colleagues they trust and admire—and to focus like crazy on doing a great job together.” This is the value system she was looking for when hiring for Netflix. She believed that the best thing she could do for her best employees was to ensure she only hired other high performers to work alongside them. She was convinced that a performance culture was built by those who want to be there and work hard, not by perks like a foosball table, free weekly sushi, or even signing bonuses. A clear purpose, detailed deliverables, and other committed individuals was McCord’s winning formula for hiring.

The idea is to create conditions for a self selecting group already at the recruiting stage. Don’t wait until they are hired and try to train culture. Cull for your culture as part of recruiting effort. Shackleton knew that individuals matter. Each member of his team would be putting their life in the hands of others. They would become fully dependent on each other. He didn’t want to hire someone that wanted a job. He wanted to attract those that embraced struggle. Those that knew that success, if any, would follow great hardship. Those that were not interested in individual glory but were committed to putting the interests of the group first. He wanted those that recognized the risk of what they were aspiring to accomplish. He wanted to attract those that shared a similar worldview. He only wanted to hire those who believed as he did. Shackleton knew their chances for succeeding were greater where his team was comprised of individuals that saw the world similarly and got along. He knew that they would be devoted to the cause for their own purposes and bring their best efforts day in and day out even in the face of difficulties. Shackleton sought those committed to a clear, shared purpose.

As obvious as much of the above may seem, we often make a mess of hiring. Mark Murphy in his book One Hundred Percenters offers, “One of our studies tracked 20,000 new hires in a comprehensive range of industries over 18 months. Within that first year and a half on the job, the total failure rate of those new hires (including those who got fired, received poor performance reviews, or were written up) was a whopping 46%. And 89% of the time, these newly hired employees failed for attitudinal reasons, namely: coachability, emotional intelligence, motivation, and temperament. Skills barely made the list at 11%.” Almost half of new hires aren’t lasting. 90% of those that don’t make it, struggle not with technical parts of the job, but because of a deficiency in “soft skills.”

A contributor to our struggles getting quality hires may be related to the degree of ownership of the process we take. According to research done by Korn Ferry, around 40% of US companies now outsource hiring. This is a massive change in the past twenty years. Moreover, less than a third of companies “measure” the quality of their hires. If we’ve passed off responsibility for recruiting and we aren’t even measuring whether our hires are working out, we can’t be too shocked by results discovered by Murphy and his team.

Another way we get recruiting wrong is that we evaluate on what’s easy to see, not what actually produces results. We pick resume traits over character. We select based on things that are easy to check off. We choose based on aptitude instead of attitude. We can easily check for the number of years experience, a specific educational designation, or other technical skills like typing speed, running speed, etc. It is more difficult to identify desire, integrity, and reliability. We choose awards, degrees, and pedigree instead of work ethic,  general intelligence, and desire to contribute.  We look for purebreds and ignore the mutts. We pick what’s pretty, choosing showy over substance. We’re fooled by surface level traits. We’re impressed by looks, dress, polish. If you’re a casual observer of fights like boxing or the UFC, how do you choose who is going to win a particular battle? Without knowing much about the sport or the individuals, do you choose based on physical appearances? Is the one most likely to win the fight the one that presents as the purest physical specimen? Do we default to cheering for the one that is most chiselled, buff, and that looks physically dominant? We ignore or overlook the underlying heart and attitude that isn’t easy to see. The intangibles like their willingness to sacrifice, suffer, and struggle overcome those that want to self-protect or play it safe. When all we see is what’s on the surface, we’re missing major components of what makes someone a valued contributor.

Consider the world of professional sports. A big part of their success is their recruiting efforts. Talent identification is a core piece of these organizations. They aren’t outsourcing any piece of the recruiting puzzle. The resources that each hire represent is significant. The consequences of each hire’s contribution are also real. They can’t afford to not do this well. The commitment of professional sport organizations to controlling each aspect of recruiting internally is a lesson we can adopt for our own businesses. However, even those deeply committed to getting hiring right can flounder.

Maybe you’ve heard of Tom Brady? He’s been part of a Superbowl winning team more than any other quarterback in the history of the NFL. He’s the only player to be a Superbowl MVP for two separate teams. He’s the only player who’s won a Superbowl in three different decades. In over twenty seasons in the NFL, he’s never had a losing season. His list of legendary accomplishments goes on and on. Yet, when he entered the league, he wasn’t a highly sought after Heisman Trophy winner. He was an obscure, ho-hum, whatever pick, deep down in the draft. He was selected by the New England Patriots well into the sixth round of his draft year. Brady represented the 199th pick. He was on nobody’s radar. His technical and physical skills weren’t standout on any measure. His mental abilities weren’t known because they weren’t measured. The Patriots acknowledge they got lucky with Brady as a draft pick. Even professional sports that have so much at stake when it comes to talent identification and recruitment get things wrong.

We seem to be ok at selecting for technical ability, but not for attitude. Yet, attitude is what matters. Skills are easier to define and detail. Attitude isn’t. Moreover, the attitude that is desired is organizationally specific. We can’t copy others to get what we want on the attitude front. Getting hiring right is one of the hallmark factors of successful businesses. These businesses are clear as to what they want. They know what competence means for the role they are seeking to recruit. They are clear on not just the what but the who as well. Yes, clarity as to what skills are required is needed. However, as much or more care is put into detailing what attitudes are desired. Recruiting and hiring are recognized as core competencies that can’t be outsourced. Management owns this responsibility. Inspired hires are the result of recognizing that no one cares like you should. They don’t outsource any aspect of recruiting and hiring. They relish each part of the process. No A.I. software is being used to screen incoming resumes. A good hire like a good meal can’t be rushed. It takes time to prepare. Those that recognize that hiring matters make time to develop a targeted process. They are doing on their terms, proactively. They are not reacting reflexively trying to fill a position.

The late Bill Walsh led the San Francisco 49rs as Head Coach and GM for a number of seasons creating a legacy of winning. He helped the team go from worst to Superbowl Champions in three seasons. He then led the 49rs to become a dynasty winning five Superbowl championships in fourteen seasons. Bill Walsh knew that an organization could be no better than those that worked for it. He also knew that it was the leader’s responsibility to determine who worked for the organization. Their results depended on his ability to recruit and hire well. Bill Walsh developed a checklist of personal qualities he looked for in every hire. Sure, it started with fundamental knowledge in the area they were to be working. Though, he wasn’t looking just for functional skills. He wanted staff to fit on a deeper level. Walsh had two attitudinal traits he required. First, a high level of positive energy. Walsh recognized that emotions are contagious. He needed his staff to reflect the energy level he wanted to see ripple through his organization. Second, any staff would need to demonstrate that they were devoted to mission first. He didn’t want me-first people. He wanted loyalty to the cause and team. These were his markers for magic. He sought first to identify what characteristics would lead to success within the organization. Then, he ensured that the recruiting and hiring process was built around these. The question driving hiring became, “Are they someone that reflects the values we hold near and dear?”

Successful hiring for us begins as it did for Shackleton, McCord, and Walsh with being clear and intentional about what characteristics the right kind of candidate needs to display. Recruiting begins with a question posed by Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations, “The key question is, ‘What attitudes will lead to success in our company?’” As the story goes, Shackleton’s posting resulted in over 5,000 volunteers presenting themselves to participate in his adventures the next morning suggesting that the ad spoke deeply to answering Scott’s question.  Hiring greats know the answer to this question explicitly for their circumstances. In a future article we’ll offer some concrete steps for both determining what key characteristics predict success in your organization as well as some ideas for preparing job postings. We’ll also offer an additional article with suggestions to consider related to managing the interview process.