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Hiring "Good Enough" or Waiting for "Great"?

August 24, 2016

We all know that hiring the right person to do a specific job or join a particular team can be challenging. There are so many factors to consider and too many unknowns. The question I've been thinking about a lot lately is whether to hire "good enough" or wait for "great". Clearly there are risks with either approach, so I gave some thought to how to mitigate those risks.

 

Hiring "Good Enough"

 

As a hiring manager, you may not have a lot of suitable applicants In a very competitive job market or in locations where candidates are sparse. If the market is competitive, you may not be able to pay top dollar or the work may not be the most leading edge, so you lose the top candidates to competitors. Unless your pay is actually below market for the work, there may not be much you can do to remedy this situation, though there are a few things you can do. For example, is your job description just the generic one from HR that starts with a dry statement of policy, candidates won't read your posting and won't apply. If your posting is a dry run through of the requirements of the job, good candidates may go elsewhere. If your posting is written as an advertisement intended to attract the best talent in the market, spend some time with your HR department to craft a posting that reflects the requirements of the job and helps make it sound compelling. Make it sound like a job YOU would want to apply for.

 

If you're in a market where there just are not enough strong candidates, you have to choose between less qualified alternatives. Do you hire "good enough" or do you leave the position vacant waiting for a perfect candidate? How do you know when the right time is to "settle for good enough" and doesn't all of this sound a bit negative? [Hint: The expression "the perfect is the enemy of the good" comes to mind.]

 

 

Know What You Need

 

If you're faced with hiring from among a less than ideal candidate pool, you really need to think hard about the attributes you're seeking. (Well, you should do this every time you hire, but it's more pronounced if you have few good candidates). I'm assuming that you have defined the requirements of the job and reviewed candidates resumes carefully so that only those that appear qualified enough on paper are interviewed.

 

Team Fit First

 

When I'm faced with this situation of less-than-stellar candidates, I look for several key attributes. First is team fit. If you have a functional team (I'm starting with that assumption), you want to preserve the integrity and function of the team almost above all else. One wrong person on a team can sway the dynamic and wreck and otherwise highly functional team. So, start with fit. Will the candidate fit into the team, the culture of the team, the communication style of the team. If you have a very gregarious team, is the candidate shy and quiet? Maybe not a good fit. The reverse is true. If you have a crew that are quiet introverts and your candidate is somewhat loud and outgoing, you'll also have a problem. Find fit first.

 

Now, let's counter that. Suppose you don't have a functional team. You may want to hire for the attributes you're trying to develop. This can be very tricky because you could hire someone who reflects what you  want the team to look like in the future, but in the meantime, that person may end up being lone man or woman out. You have to gauge this carefully and decide if the candidate will be able to hold their own appropriately or whether you'll just be tossing them into a mess that will cause dissatisfaction all the way around.

 

Find The Drive

 

After fit, you should consider the amount of drive. Some very functional teams have high and low drive individuals. They're sometimes dubbed "super stars" and "steady Eddies" (apologies to everyone named Eddy). You need a mix. The super stars tend to get all the press, but your steady Eddies are usually the ones knocking out the mundane, day-to-day work of the team. You need both, so you need to consider your current mix and what you need at the moment.

 

How can you tell if someone is high or low drive? Usually it's pretty evident in the interview - either through their energy level or body language or through their recount of their achievements. Steady Eddies are often very solid performers and contributors, so don't make the rookie mistake and think you always need to hire super stars. The flip side to that advice is don't put your team's work at risk by hiring a steady Eddy when you really need a super star. That's when "good enough" probably isn't.

 

OK, so fit then drive. Next, capabilities. Here's where you have some opportunities. If you hire the right candidate, you can teach them just about anything. I refer to this as attitude vs. aptitude. If someone has the ability to learn, they can learn anything. So, they need to have an learning attitude and a learning aptitude. Someone who is willing to learn is likely to do so, but someone with both attitude and aptitude of a learner will grow by leaps and bounds.

 

Attitude vs. Aptitude

 

So, how do you spot that person in an interview? Listen carefully to how they describe their career, their aspirations, and their achievements. You'll be able to see a pattern of growth and learning, which is not the same as a pattern of promotions. Promotions can indicate growth, but they can also indicate other things. For example, a company may be growing quickly and tossing warm bodies into jobs. The company may be dysfunctional and promote based on friendships or politics rather than capabilities. So, a pattern of promotion by itself is not a reliable indication of someone who has an attitude and aptitude for growth and learning. Instead, ask them what they do to improve their skills, what new skills they've learned lately and what prompted it (answers like "I like learning new things" vs. "I was required to for my job" are telling). Then watch their energy level and body language. If they're really excited by learning and growing, they'll light up (even an introvert will perk up noticeably).

 

So, you've got three things to look for - fit, drive, and a learning attitude and aptitude (I count those as one). Does that mean your candidate will be successful? No guarantees, but certainly more likely than not.

 

Beware of The Super Stars

 

Now, let's look at a candidate pool of super stars. Can't go wrong, right? Wrong.

 

Super stars are smart, they deliver results, they can make a team of good performers look like bums. When you come across a super star, you have to really think about the things we've discussed. Fit. Drive. Attitude. Aptitude. If you lack these attributes, the super star will more than likely come in, cause disruption and either cause good people to leave or they themselves will be short-timers. So, don't be swayed by a seeming super star to solve all your problems if they don't also have the other attributes.

 

If the stars align and luck is on your side, you may find yourself with a super star who ends up being a great hire because they lead the team intellectually; they deliver innovative results; they find ways around roadblocks; they deliver at a higher level than anyone else.

 

If you are so fortunate as to have a super star or two on your team, beware of hiring a 3rd or a 4th or a 5th (depending on team size, of course). Too many super stars on one team can be is a recipe for disaster. Their egos tend to be a bit bigger and a bit more fragile than your average human being. Their need for accolades, attention and adoration his higher than average. Their need to do their own thing is usually higher than average. Get too many of this type on a team and you may have a lot of ego contention. Teams I've seen where there are too many "super stars" become competitive in odd ways that detract from the mission of the team and drive results down instead of up.

 

So, while super stars may be tempting hires, beware of potential pitfalls.

 

Personally, I'd rather get a good team to great than focus on hiring super stars. And I'll hire "good enough" if they have the needed attributes. After all, coaching good people to become great is one of the greatest accomplishments of a leader.

 

 

 

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