Companies & Industries

Your Best Hire: It May Surprise You


It's tempting to hire people with personalities like yours, but the better move may be to find people with the strengths you lack

I had lunch with my friend Bridget, who said: "Wait till you meet my new marketing manager. She's incredible—so bubbly and full of ideas." Oh dear, I thought. That doesn't sound promising. But I met the marketing manager, Elaine, and I thought she was great. She was just as bubbly and idea-filled as Bridget had said. There was only one black cloud to mar the scene: Bridget herself is as bubbly and full of ideas as a CEO could be. Her problem isn't generating ideas. It's implementing them. So Bubbly Bridget and Idea-Faucet Elaine worked together for six months, generating grand schemes, and ultimately missing the company's sales goals by a mile.

Bridget learned during the Elaine Era that a hiring manager's favorite job candidate is not always the right person for the job. Likability is a wonderful thing, and if it comes with the best business skills for the situation, everyone gets lucky. Those suitable skills are a direct function of the leader's own strengths and weaknesses. What Bridget forgot is that while it's emotionally satisfying to hire people who are a lot like we are, it's often professionally dangerous.

Sure, our doppelgängers are fun to talk to; we can relate to them. But they don't bring anything to the party that we ourselves don't already possess—or at least, they don't bring enough of what we lack. In Bridget's case, the company was aflutter with new, unimplemented ideas for six months before she realized she needed someone to execute, not to ideate.

Long ago, a boss told me: "Hire into your weakness." That's a tough pill for managers to swallow. If we hire people who are stronger than we are in certain areas, we run the risk of looking incompetent. We may look foolish, or be in a position to have to ask for advice more often than we like. If we hire people who are better than we are in some realms, they may not respect us.

The Hiring Double Whammy

To make the puzzle even more challenging, there's this: It's not enough to hire into our weaknesses. We also have to hire people who are at least as good as we are in all sorts of arenas, and then we have to empower them to tell us when we're off base. It's a double whammy. I learned this when, as a corporate human resources vice-president, I hired a director of compensation and benefits, a guru at the quantitative side of HR that bores me to tears.

After she was in the job a year, I asked her: "How could I be stronger in my role?" She told me: "You could deliberate more before making big decisions." That threw me. I told her I was someone who collects the data, and then goes right or left. She offered to help me become better at deliberating. I accepted, even though I was skeptical. I thought her feedback was goofy. You get the facts, you make a decision. Time is money. I was astounded when not long after, I found that a week of mulling changed my perspective on a major decision.

I was reminded of all this when my friend Joel invited me to meet with his team, a friendly and verbal group of consultants. A few weeks later, he called me. "Your work mates are charming," I said. "Well, I'm glad to hear it, but our clients are starting to get frustrated with us," Joel said. "Our business has grown, and our processes haven't. It seems that all of us are people-person types, and we've got no one to look after the infrastructure." Since "duh" isn't a polite reply to such an observation, I asked: "What characteristics have you been hiring for?" He admitted he hadn't given a lot of thought to what was missing in the group; he instead focused on what was working and going that route.

The best hire may not be the person you'd like to sit next to on an airplane, the person you'd enjoy having dinner with, or the person you find easiest to talk to. Most managers with some time under their belts know their own strengths and weak spots very well.

Do we have the courage to hire people who are good at what we're bad at, and who'll speak up when the boat is tipping too far to one side? Our companies will be stronger and our clients will be happier if we can find it.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

Later, Baby
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