I’m not ever looking to hire the best talent in the world.
I know, it’s a shocker.
But let’s be honest about a couple things right away
No matter who you assemble as a team – they’re not the absolute best in the world. Know why? Because there’s always someone out there who’s amazing and you don’t know about them.
Or there’s someone out there who is amazing, but with their head down, quietly working. They’re hoping their work speaks for itself, but maybe they’re horrible about making sure their work gets out to the channels where you’re looking.
You’ll say to yourself that you’re good at finding the best talent.
You’ll tell yourself, and your team, that you actually do have the very best.
But you know, and they know too, that it’s highly unlikely that every single person you’ve hired is actually that amazing and impressive.
Deep in their hearts, and deep in yours, you’ll know that they all have rough edges here and there.
But hear me – I don’t really care. Because that’s not the real reason I don’t look to hire or assemble the very best people on the planet on to my teams.
I no longer believe Bill Gates
The real reason is because I don’t believe the lie that says if you hire brilliantly smart people, you’ll be fine. With enough smart people, so it goes, you can conquer anything.
Bill Gates was the loudest proponent of this model and for years I bought into it.
Looking back, however, after twenty years of managing software developers – truly gifted ones – I can tell you that what I’ve found is a different truth.
A more helpful truth.
What my clients need and want
My customers aren’t counting on me to assemble the smartest team of software developers the planet has ever seen. Nope.
That’s the main reason why I stopped trying to assemble the very best and brightest. Because in the end, it wasn’t what my clients wanted or needed.
Ask yourself this question – of the 100 decisions that your customers need you to solve – how many of them require the very best and smartest brains?
I mean seriously, what percent of those decisions can’t be solved by rubric, best practice, or experience? Which require an IQ of over 150?
Not many, huh? Sure – maybe a few. But it’s not the majority, is it?
Now ask yourself a different question.
Of the 100 interactions that your customers have with your staff, what percentage of them require excellent communication and empathy? Is it as small as the brainiac puzzles? I doubt it.
My clients, over twenty years, in startups, in corporate America, in the public sector, and in the private sector – from million to billion dollar customers – have never said to me,
“I love dealing with that jerk because his IQ will come in handy when we hit that super complicated puzzle in a few months.”
I’m not suggesting that all brilliant people are jerks.
I’m not even suggesting that many of them are. But I know a few – and I bet you to do – that have virtually no social skills but can code like a beast!
But my point isn’t to suggest a straw man to argue with
I’m not suggesting that the alternative to the teams I assemble are all brilliant jerks.
I’m simply saying I don’t solve the equation for “smarts” or “brilliance.”
In other words, I don’t look for the very best talent in the world.
I’m solving the equation for something different.
Before I tell you what I look and care about, let me further explain another reason (I said there were a few) why I don’t look for the smartest or absolute best people to hire.
The Reggie Jackson Effect
The reality of looking for superstars is that I can make three assumptions about the dynamic:
- You must know who they are.
- That means they must have had super success already.
- That means they’ll have reached a point where they’re expensive.
This is what I call the Reggie Jackson effect.
If you look at Reggie Jackson, “Mr. October,” you find that his years on the A’s and Yankees were so amazing that everyone knew his name and his reputation.
That reputation is what the Angels bought when they brought him over. And that’s what they were counting on.
“Do here what you did there.”
It’s the request we all make when we hire high flyers
We not only hope they’ll bring all their own skills and talents; we also want them to bring the same success.
But success is a result, not something you bring. Success is a by-product – and often one that isn’t delivered by a single person.
When you look, as one Harvard professor did, at investment portfolios of the top folks, and then watch larger firms cherry pick the best talent from the small companies, you see one thing over and over.
In almost 50% of the cases, the Merrill Lynch-like companies of the world end up paying a premium for trading analysts whose portfolios then under-perform by an average of 20% for the next five years.
Talent and skill may transfer, but it doesn’t mean results do. And paying a premium for that talent doesn’t always pay off.
The other consequence of importing talent
In fact, there’s another consequence of importing talent.
When you go out and look for the very best in the world, and bring them into a company, and give them great opportunities within your company, you’re also telling your existing staff that you had to go outside to get the talent you needed.
The result can often be a disengagement from your existing staff. You can watch as they worry that the next great assignment won’t be given to them, but to a new high flyer.
At that point, you’ll experience the two challenges at the very same time:
- Overpaying for non-transferable results
- Paying for people who have already quit (and didn’t tell you)
That’s seriously a crying shame.
So if importing the best available talent isn’t the right approach, what is?
Let’s go back to the bigger question
What do my customers need? What do my clients want?
I’m sure we all have different kinds of clients and they all have different kinds of needs. So yours may not look like mine. But I can tell you a bit about mine.
Almost every single one can best be described as wanting someone to act, within my team, as their proxy.
Let me unpack that for a second.
They want someone who understands their business context. Not just a body that types code. They want someone who will look and evaluate the context and ask the right questions, or suggest the right approaches – based on their own experience and knowledge.
They want someone who understands the risks of failing within this business context. That means someone who not only understand what’s required to get paid, but to understand the full consequence of what happens if someone fails to deliver.
They want someone they can trust so that they can walk out of the room and go back to the 52 other things on their plates. That means that they shouldn’t need to micromanage anything – from people to tasks.
They want someone who can communicate, both verbally and in written form. Someone who can take notes and ensure that the entire team understands things – even if not everyone was present at a meeting. But also someone who is succinct and doesn’t need to hear themselves talk forever.
Notice what I didn’t say?
I didn’t ever say that they needed an entire team of brainiacs.
It’s never come up. And I’ve worked on projects with and for some of the biggest names in technology. And still, there’s never been a request for rocket science (though I did once hire a rocket scientist, just to say we had one on staff).
They are looking for gifted, articulate, focused, empathetic high performers who don’t need to be micro-managed.
People who can learn from the past, so they won’t repeat mistakes. People who can learn from each other, so that they grow faster. And people who won’t stop simply because a task is challenging.
Do I need the very best and most seriously amazing and talented people in the world for that?
My answer is no.
Hiring the best talent works, if you’re lucky
Sure, there are some people who will tell you that if you build a company of 100% distributed staff, you can find the very best talent and hire them into a great company. You can have yearly or bi-annual retreats and build them into an amazing team.
If you’re lucky you won’t hire anyone that you end up over-paying because of the Reggie Jackson effect. If you’re lucky you won’t hire any brilliant folks that have personalities that have to be “managed.”
If you’re lucky. And some people are.
Learning from the NBA
But not everyone’s lucky, right? Take the Lakers.
Yes, the team once known for “Showtime.” They developed Showtime from the team they had. But in recent years you’ve seen them take a page from the Angels – recruiting “known” players (and overpaying) with the hope that they could see a championship ring again.
But it didn’t work out.
Because sometimes you bring talent together and it doesn’t magically turn into a team. Nothing about having the best people on a roster means you’ll have the best team in a league or competition.
Sure, you see teams like the Miami Heat bring the best talent together and pull together two championships. But it’s important to remember that those two wins are book-ended by the Mavericks and Spurs – who approached team development differently.
And maybe the most important lesson to learn from the NBA is that when you import high flyers, you also stand the chance of losing them quickly when more money is on the line elsewhere.
So I come back to my initial statement
I’m never looking to hire or import the very best talent that’s available on the planet.
Instead, I’m looking to do something very different – I’m looking to develop the best team on the planet.
Instead of importing talent, I coach and develop it. I create a culture that’s as committed to development as I am.
I don’t hire perfect superstars. I hire mentors.
I don’t hire brilliance. I hire commitment.
I can teach skills. I can develop talent.
But I can’t teach or develop heart, or empathy, or selflessness.
And because of that, I look for a different kind of person to hire and I assemble a different kind of team, and create a different dynamic in our offices.
The magic happens inside
There’s nothing magical about where our offices are located. The magic is what happens inside the office. Because it’s where we gather experienced and young staff and pair them to help people skip past mediocrity.
We skip the bad habits of mid-level achievers and jump straight to high performance because of a commitment to training and development as a core part of our DNA.
I hire for this.
If you want to see how far you can go, if you care only for your own career path or growth potential, I likely don’t want you.
If you care about the careers and growth of your entire team, we should talk.
It’s not about Skype or a retreat
And once you experience this culture, inside of the walls of our non-special offices where coaching and mentorship are a key part of our DNA, it’s hard to go back to simply wanting to be on a Skype call with a brilliant person who’s focused on their own tasks.
No amount of FaceTime, Skype, or GoToMeeting will solve a lack of mentoring or coaching. No company retreat will resolve the lack of consistent and on-going daily coaching and mentoring.
You don’t build a team with expensive and amazing retreats. Team cohesion comes from the daily grind. When you put on your armor and go to battle together.
Learning from the Romans
In the early days of Roman rule, when soldiers went to battle simply with sword and shield, the sides of each shield had a hook and a loop.
The soldiers would hook each shield up to the person next to them. And they knew, as they did this, that the only protection they would have would exist if they
- moved at the same pace of their team
- moved forward with their team
There was no protection if they ran away scared. And there was no point in trying to move faster than anyone else.
Today we see a lot of teams develop under the notion that the best swordsmen, pulled together, make up a great team. I disagree.
The best team is developed by teaching people how to be a team.
And that means teaching them how to move with each other, in rhythm, linked together, with the same single agenda.
The magic is the people
There’s nothing magical about the offices that I have ever set up, or will set up in the future. The lease contracts look like anything anyone else signs.
There’s nothing magical about my hiring process. It’s not filled with magical questions or fancy tests that evaluate candidates when they’re not aware we’re testing them.
There’s nothing magical about multiple distributed satellite locations that give us a presence in the region, where they often develop specialties. No special tax breaks or beautiful vistas.
What’s magical is the people.
Learning from SNL
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched, or still watch, Saturday Night Live. What’s most impressive about the show is that it continues to be awesome after decades of being on the air.
After all, how does it move through those “seasons” of brilliance when they constantly lose the best talent to the movies or other shows? And why don’t we see more competition that can overtake them?
Some say it’s because they hire the very best. But we’ve lived through some of those years where we’re sure that’s not the case (until they find the right sketch for the right talent).
Some say it’s because they are in New York. After all, it’s a magical city with so much going on. But we’ve been there and not turned into superstars.
Maybe it’s Lorn – the producer. Maybe he has an inside track to hire. But again, we’ve seen the years where we question those selections.
The brilliance of the show is the commitment they have to bringing people together, in a specific space, constrained by time, sharped by a culture of production (and competition), to watch as each sharpens another.
When you see that, you immediately notice the benefit of pulling raw talent together in the same place.
When you see that, you immediately notice the benefit of a culture that reinforces team collaboration (many of their skit ideas are collaborations).
Exceptional teams of ordinary people
Maybe it’s because I saw Hoosiers too often.
Maybe it’s because I saw Remember the Titans too often.
Maybe it’s because I saw Miracle too often.
Maybe it’s because they keep showing Rudy on my TV.
I don’t know.
But I can tell you this. I believe in the power of exceptional teams of ordinary people.
People who work hard and don’t stop working.
People who mentor and don’t stop mentoring.
People who listen and don’t stop listening.
People who learn and don’t stop learning.
In the end, that means I don’t have to go looking to hire the very best individual anywhere they might be in the world.
All because I believe in the power of exceptional teams of ordinary people.