In many instances in my career, when people talk about getting the right people on the team, it seems that they are referring to their current company and indicating shortfalls with their personnel. It’s almost as if these individuals are defective. In many instances, I feel that it is not so much the person that is defective, as it is the individual is not the correct fit in that specific environment. That being said, sometimes there are people who are bad, no matter what.
To express this point a little further, I’m going to use sports analogies, as it is illustrative. If you need a team designed for endurance, loading it up with Olympic-caliber power lifters and discus throwers is not going to be the optimal configuration. While there is good talent, it’s not the right talent, and the team will not be able to compete effectively.
On the flipside if you’re trying to put together a group where you need muscle or power, getting gold-medal distance runners and world champion ping-pong players might not provide the best results.
How jobs are usually filled
In filling a position, especially at smaller, less-sophisticated businesses, much of the time and focus is spent on matching up a set of criteria against a resume, such as job titles, certifications and industry background. However, it is entirely possible for someone to appear to have a lot of that sought after experience, but they may have been doing it wrong for a long time, or operating under a different system with different resources. Some firms spend time trying to focus on culture and to get a gut feel if the person will fit into the company, but usually this is just another version of the beer test. Ultimately, if the search is not specific enough on what is needed, then it is entirely reasonable the position will not be filled with the best candidate. One of the reasons a search may not defined well enough is that the job description is written for what the company thinks the job consists of instead of what it really is. We’ll dive deeper into this down below.
Fit is a very subjective thing, but it can be assessed properly if the time and effort is made to do so. What is necessary for a correct fit is a harmony between the candidate and the actual position, not the perceived position. This is not to say that a company is intentionally misleading in the job description, but that they miss or do not focus enough on important details, which we will outline below with the following example for a staff accounting role at a small company.
The firm will post on job sites looking for someone with X years accounting experience, strong written and oral communication skills, ability to work independently, and skilled at multi-tasking, among other criteria. Essentially, the job description has been sanitized from an HR mindset to be generic and sound very dry.
In reality, here is what the job really entails. The company’s books and records are a hot mess, you need to be able to identify the good and bad systems in place. The good (or perhaps, less bad) will be maintained and the bad needs to be fixed. There is a lack of good documentation on how to do the job, so if you need constant hand-holding or a detailed roadmap, you are out of luck. You will need to ask questions to figure things out, but you have to be able and willing to try new things, do research, and then offer solutions. Due to things being out of sync, you need to be able to handle lots of requests coming at you from all sides and determining which ones are most critical and pushing back on less important demands.
Knowing what we know from the more colorful example above, it will be much easier to find the right candidate. While many years of accounting experience would be nice, it’s not as relevant if someone has to have a good system already in place to follow. A successful person in this role will be one who is very flexible, can think creatively and is not rigid or tainted from other experiences.
Another view on this is asking the following question: Is it better to have someone who theoretically knows what to do, but will be uncomfortable or unable to do it, or go with someone who doesn’t know everything but they have passion, desire, and will work like hell trying to figure things out. In my experience, at the end of the day, it comes down to weighing aptitude vs. attitude. All that being said, the other elephant in the room is the capability of the manager (a subject for another day).
In the early days of a very large turnaround (a global mfg with sales in excess of $300 million), the company needed to start taking drastic actions to trim costs. Three top executives were let go, they had combined salaries of $1.0 million. The interesting thing about this was that if there had been no announcement the next day, most of the company would not have noticed. These weren’t bad people, they were just not effective in their roles because the trajectory of the company changed and they were used to operating in different environments. These managers were brought in to grow the business and provide strategy, but now the company was faced with having to shrink its operations. Their services were no longer critical.
On a completely different level, during a summer internship at SC Johnson, a friend and I decided to put together a team for the tug-of-war contest at the company’s summer picnic. Naturally, we recruited the biggest and strongest guys we could find. The two people who probably didn’t belong on that team were the organizers, but we were the ringleaders pooling the right talent. We knew we were the weak links, but sometimes that is the role of a founder, they surround themselves with better talent to achieve things that otherwise wouldn’t seem possible.