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The pitfalls of hiring based on conventional wisdom

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A company can only be as good as the people within it. As a founder, it is imperative that you decide what it is you value most in an employee and plan your hiring decisions accordingly. You can establish whatever standards you deem reasonable, just make sure you have standards and make sure those standards reflect the needs of your company rather than conventional wisdom.

Before attending business school I worked for a small family owned company that valued candor and humility. As such, the owner often hired people he met within the service industry, finding servers at restaurants and mechanics at garage shops he frequented whom he felt were honest and good-natured. The owner decided to prioritize personality traits over hard skills or IQ scores, because he felt that the hard skills could be taught, while the soft skills could not. These hiring practice have allowed him to retain 100% of his employees until retirement, which for a small non-hierarchical business is of critical importance. As an entrepreneur it is your responsibility to figure out what it is that you need most from your employees and find a good way to hire for it.

Here are some of the things that a few successful CEO’s value in their workforce and how they hire for it:

  • Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb: Values workers who are passionate about his company’s mission, which revolves around creating a sense of “belonging and bringing people together”. Chesky is so fervent about finding employees that are champions of this mission that he uses the following as a standard interview questions: “Would you take the job if you had a medical diagnosis that says you only have a year left to live?” Chesky later changed amended this question by asking people whether they’d still work for Airbnb if they had 10 years left to live (in case they “hated their families”), but his point still remains. Chesky wants extremely dedicated employees.
  • Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook: Values people who are not just good employees, but also good employers. In an interview with a blogger from kissmetics, Zuckerberg states “What’s the right heuristic for determining if someone is really good? Over time, what I figured out was that the only actual way to let someone analyze whether someone was really good was if they would work for that person…I believe that. If you look at my management team today.. it would be an honor to work for any of these people. I think if you build a company that has those kind of values, rather than just saying ‘oh I want to hire the best person I can find’ or whatever, if you hold yourself to that standard then I think you’ll build a pretty strong company.”

While there may not be one right way to hire, there is certainly one wrong way and that is by hiring based on what conventional wisdom tells you rather than your intuition as a founder and business leader.

2 thoughts on “The pitfalls of hiring based on conventional wisdom

  1. Interesting post Sarah!
    This topic is extremely important as hiring decisions are very critical and directly contribute to the growth and success of any business.
    I think that when looking at candidates to hire, one should try to find the best balance of soft skills and hard skills. The hiring decision first depends on the stage of the company. For example, when starting a new business, founders should find people with the right skills to build and scale the business. At this point, hard skills are critical and are needed right away (i.e. If you need a finance person, you need him to start working on day one and there is no time to learn and develop those skills). In a more established firm, personality and soft skills are extremely valuable and might be the priority. This ensures that a person will thrive in a team environment and will help the company sustain its growth effectively. Soft vs. hard skills also depend on the role that is being considered and the tasks involved. For example, when hiring someone for a back-office, IT role with minimal team collaboration, a recruiter should prioritize hard skills since what is expected from the person is only to deliver on his daily tasks effectively with minimal mistakes. On the other hand, if you’re hiring a salesperson, you want to make sure that the person has the right soft skills and personality required to interact with other people, sell products and build long-lasting relationships.

  2. Great post, Sarah! Having known you for close to two years now, I have often heard you speak very fondly about your former boss. I’m happy you have such a great mentor to look up to.

    I really like the two hiring tests that you talk about here :

    (1) How excited and passionate is the candidate for this opportunity?, and

    (2) Would I want to have this candidate for my boss?

    I think the combination of these two questions really hits the nail on the head when it comes to determine that fluffy thing called “cultural fit” with a startup. This ofcourse needs to be complemented with hiring for the hard skills and for well-defined outcomes or milestones, that Guylaine talks about in her comment.

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