On talent and hiring

Before you make an offer to someone, think about whether you would like to have 10 times as many people like them in your company.” I read this advice from Patrick Collinson of Stripe a few days ago.

It made me reflect on the lessons I have learnt about talent in the last twenty five years of working with client organisations, rapidly growing startups, and more recently, serving on boards.

Most hiring is happenstance. When we think about the steps from a company advertising a role (or enlisting the help of a recruiter/ headhunter), the information being seen by people suited to the role, their being interested in applying or being considered, their actually applying or following through on the conversations with the recruiter/ headhunter, all the way to finding a shortlist, conducting interviews, making one or more offers, the offer being accepted and the successful candidate actually joining, it becomes clear that successful hiring is a game of multiplicative fractional probabilities.

The final candidate has a minuscule probability of having finally taken up a role.

And yet leaders operate from an assumption of perfection of their hiring decisions as well as of the people they hire.

Accepting the fortuitous nature of hiring is humbling and it also helps us see the challenges of a person’s success in a role more realistically.

Hiring is an optimisation challenge. Advance notice/ time and money are not always available. At any rate, none is in infinite supply.

I have been involved in hiring decisions where a senior leadership role was vacated unexpectedly with little notice as well as where a senior leadership role was opened with ample notice. The focus in each kind of case was very different and the hiring decision was optimised in both cases given the time and resources we had, and the urgency of filling the role to keep the organisation functioning.

In some cases, we got lucky and found a gem of a fit for the role. In other cases, we had to make do with middling fixes which were known to be temporary. In all cases, we did the best considering our limitations.

Fixating on the perfect hire while letting organisational priorities slide is a sign of poor leadership in most cases.

Hiring “the first X” is a start, not the end of the journey to building a team that reflects the world we live in. Many leaders subscribe to the idea of one-and-done but do not realise it consciously till it is pointed out to them.

Being “the only” or “the first” hire in any organisation puts an incredible burden on “the only”/ “the first”. They may be expected — wrongheadedly — to be the model minority, the spokesperson for their entire ilk, the major doer of emotional labour for educating the others on issues related to their type of minority.

Leaders, who are too busy patting themselves on the back for making such a hire, need to do more. They need to learn to see and call out these poor expectations, and they need to do better as allies. Starting with educating themselves instead of piling on to the minority to educate them.

People are not cacti. The best talent can not thrive without the right conditions. Usually this means the right balance of control and management on the one hand, and freedom and creative room on the other.

The manager needs to balance their need to manage a new team member with the team member’s need to review critically their own job and improve on how it may have been done in the past.

Leaders often set up the best talent to fail if they do not provide the resources, the support, the cultural grounding, and the freedom for the talent to thrive. These are leadership issues that need fixing before more and more new hires are brought in.

A wrong hiring decision is not a calamity unless indecision in fixing it makes it into one. Wrong people get hired into roles all the time. Sometimes people are the legacy occupants of a role following an acquisition. Sometimes people get hired because someone powerful referred them or because they inherited a role by being a member of the owners’ family or similar.

A wrong fit is only as bad as the indecision in fixing that.

The longer leaders or managers persist in keeping a wrong person in a role, the worse they make it for that person and for everyone else in the organisation. The person discovers all the ways they are unsuited to the role, the colleagues notice the deficiencies and bear the brunt of the consequential damage wrought, and everyone suffers a dip in their morale.

Sometimes letting people go quickly is the right thing to do for all concerned. That needs decisive leadership.

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