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Recruitment Guide. Good candidates aren’t glamorous - unlike in typical startup myths

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Essential Highlights
  • The "Hollywood approach" to hiring, which focuses on finding "superstar" employees with traits like passion and enthusiasm, is flawed and not aligned with what modern companies need for success.

  • Employees with high passion and enthusiasm often had unrealistic expectations and tended to focus more on appearances than results, leading to various workplace problems.

  • Realize the importance of systems over individuals, emphasizing that the strength of a company lies in its systems and processes rather than the ingenuity of its employees.

  • Advises against prioritizing traits like admirability, loyalty, and passion in recruitment, suggesting instead to focus on measurable qualities like competence, intelligence, and work ethic.

There are two ways to approach recruitment for your company, and one of them is wrong.

The wrong approach is the kind you’ve probably encountered in bestselling management books, SEO-optimized recruitment blogs, and motivational seminars. In this approach, companies are encouraged to look for "superstars", i.e. brilliant, slightly eccentric individuals who, through a combination of ingenuity and charm, will completely transform your organization for the better.

At Redrob, we call this “the Hollywood approach” to hiring — because, just like the movies, it tends to focus way too much on individuals: their traits, their talents, their stories. It assigns lots of value to qualities like passion and enthusiasm, which don’t matter nearly as much as you think, while downplaying the qualities that really matter. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to those soon).

The Hollywood approach to hiring is certainly appealing. After all, everybody likes stories about passionate people who single-handedly achieve great things; by contrast, the market for stories about respectful, punctual, and reliable workers is probably a little smaller. The main problem, though, is that these stories are based on a fantasy about what modern companies actually require to succeed.

Early on in our growth, we - senior management at Redrob - adopted the Hollywood approach to recruitment, and we ended up regretting it. We took the prevailing wisdom about recruitment for granted, initially seeking out employees who were “passionate”, “enthusiastic”, and “loyal.” We assumed these traits would be important for people working at a growing IT startup. Why wouldn’t we? Every single one of the generic recruitment blogs we read told us so.

The exact opposite proved to be the case. Employees who ranked highly for passion and enthusiasm tended to have unrealistic expectations about the company and their roles within it. They brought a little too much ego to the table. They were often more interested in appearances than results. Convinced they were superstars-in-waiting, they tended to promote their own ideas, even the bad ones, while dismissing those of their peers. Naturally, this led to all kinds of problems down the line: inconsistent work output, impatience with results, and even disputes with colleagues and management. Unfortunately, there weren’t too many Hollywood movies available to help us make sense of where we had gone wrong.

What we decided to do was to rethink the entire recruitment process from the ground up. If this meant side-stepping conventional wisdom, then so be it.

The first step in this journey involved an insight that many people might find counterintuitive, maybe even blasphemous. Individual people, we realized, don’t matter all that much. What truly matters are the systems you put in place.

This was revelatory for us. We looked around at other successful companies and found a similar principle at work. The most valuable companies in the world are no doubt full of talented people, but their real strength lies in the durability of their systems, not the ingenuity of their employees.

To put it another way: systems are robust, individuals are fragile.

WHAT NOT TO LOOK FOR IN CANDIDATES

ADMIRABILITY

“Will I admire this person?”

This was the number one question Jeff Bezos used to ask about prospective Amazon employees. In a very broad sense, it’s a perfectly reasonable question, and who would dare disagree with one of the most successful businessmen in history? But it demonstrates a form of thinking that many recruiters should be wary of.

The main problem with Bezos’s emphasis on "admirability" is that (a) it’s very hard to determine a person’s core traits based on a relatively short recruitment process, and (b) it relies too much on subjective assessment -- we all have our own ideas about what is and is not "admirable". Bezos’s personal definition of the word is probably a lot more specific and rigorous than it might first appear.

A better version of Bezos’s question — or at least a more concrete version — might be, “Has this person already exhibited the intellectual, professional, and interpersonal competence necessary to help my business succeed?”

This is a more useful question to ask than Bezos’s one because it appeals to the past rather than the future, it relies on objective, measurable results rather than the subjective "vibes" a person gives off, and it forces you to imagine, in detail, what the person’s contribution might actually look like.

And if you happen to admire them, too, then you can consider it something like icing on the cake.

LOYALTY

A favourite with the Redrob’s team, NBC’s The Office is a great sitcom that balances goofy, slapstick humour with surprisingly profound observations about the world of work. One of the most memorable of these observations comes from the show’s quirkiest character, Dwight Schrute, after he is asked about his loyalty to Dunder Mifflin, the paper company he has worked at for years.

“Look,” Dwight says, “I'm all about loyalty. In fact, I feel like part of what I'm being paid for here is my loyalty. But if there were somewhere else that valued loyalty more highly, I'm going wherever they value loyalty the most.”

Dwight’s statement is a revealing one. It reminds us that the concept of loyalty is basically meaningless in this context. Employees will talk about the importance of loyalty in one breath, while revealing how little it matters to them in the next.

At Redrob, we never select candidates based on loyalty. Why? As with admirability, there’s the obvious fact that it’s basically impossible to predict whether a candidate will actually be loyal or not over the long term. But that’s not the main reason.

Even if there were a surefire method for measuring loyalty, we probably wouldn’t bother anyway. Professional relationships, almost by definition, are transactional: they are based on the exchange of valuable commodities (good, honest work from employees versus regular pay from employers). A strong-willed boss will not tolerate a poorly performing employee for very long, no matter how much he enjoys having beers with them. Likewise, an ambitious employee will happily leave a company at short notice if a better opportunity comes along. So loyalty is simply not an important consideration in an employer-employee relationship.

Loyalty is further undermined by the realities of the modern economy, with its ever-changing norms and high rates of turnover. In such an environment, employees must think in terms of their careers as a whole, not just their current jobs. In the US, for example, employees only stay with any one given company for 4.6 years on average. For younger employees (aged 25-34), who are disproportionately represented in tech and IT, the figure is even less than that - a mere 3.2 years.

It would be crazy to rate loyalty as a core value when entering into such a short relationship; instead, we try to select candidates according to more durable and quantifiable metrics like competence and intelligence, as well as more abstract ones like honesty and respectfulness.

The truth is that everyone will leave eventually - and that’s okay. We’re not a cult, thankfully. We’re a technology startup looking to grow, to innovate, to build great things, and to serve our clients. Employees are important to the extent that they help us achieve these things. We save loyalty for our clients.

PASSION

Passion is not only overrated; in most aspects of business, it’s completely irrelevant.

If we were to look at the highest performing engineers at Redrob, we might find a handful who are truly "passionate" about their work. The only way we’d figure this out is by asking them, and taking them at their word, which is hardly scientific. By contrast, the quality and consistency of an engineer’s output would be infinitely more revealing about the kind of work they do.

In other words, passion doesn’t show up on your company’s bottom line.

This is not to say that an employee shouldn’t care about their company’s mission; of course they should. But there’s a big difference between being able to convince others about your passionate identification with a company, and having the wisdom to truly understand what the company is trying to do, and how you are going to help achieve it.

In his insightful book Zero To One, PayPal founder Peter Thiel makes the following point: “At PayPal,” Thiel writes, “if you were excited by the idea of creating a new digital currency to replace the U.S. dollar, we wanted to talk to you; if not, you weren’t the right fit.”

Take note: Thiel is not talking about making actual hires here, only about figuring out who is and isn’t worth talking to in the first place. The above quotation seems at first glance to be arguing in favour of passion. In fact, Thiel is really talking about the minimum level of interest an employee needs if they are going to be considered.

To summarize so far -- the accepted theory of recruitment massively over-emphasizes the importance of personality traits like passion and loyalty, as well as vague indicators of goodness like "admirability". Not only does this personality-based approach rely too heavily on a sentimental, Hollywoodized vision of hiring and employment, it also leaves out the most important part of the recruitment process: building effective filters. We’ll talk about that in a moment.

Before we do, let’s end this section with another counterintuitive bit of advice: hire boring workers. A lot of the tasks that need to be completed in order to keep a business functioning are, quite simply, boring. Work isn’t a way to express yourself -- that’s what slam poetry is for. Work necessarily involves tasks that must be done, whether they’re fun or not. These tasks are often dull, repetitive, and tiresome. They don’t call for passion or enthusiasm. What they call for is competence, intelligence, and a strong work ethic. And people with these qualities don’t often get invited to too many parties.

The truth is that we would be nowhere at all without the dependable, unspectacular people who value consistency over brilliance, usefulness over passion, and hard, measurable work over office politics and status games. These are the people who keep the servers running and the lights on.

But let’s get back to filters.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: INVEST IN FILTERS

Individual employees, as a rule of thumb, are far more capable of damaging your organization than improving it. From the moment you give a newcomer access to your company passwords, action plans, and sensitive data, you are taking a risk. You might find yourself, as you send yet another confidential document to their inbox, asking whether you really know this person. The answer to this question, of course, is no.

To protect the integrity of your organization, and ensure that new hires meet your standards, you need to put filters in place.

Unlike personality-based approaches, which focus on unearthing professional "superstars" who have the potential to take a company to the next level, a filter-based approach is essentially about reducing harm. As a founder or recruiter, you never really know who the people working for you are, especially in their early days.

Here’s our last bit of status quo-busting wisdom. If you have high-quality filters in place, then it basically doesn’t matter who you hire. Pre-hiring filters, like intelligence and logic tests, will remove incompetent candidates. Post-hiring filters, like a comprehensive training programme, will bring newcomers up to date on your company’s mission, methods, and culture. If these filters are strong enough, then you can safely onboard new employees without having to worry about the likes of passion and loyalty.

If this article has a theme, then it’s probably this: companies should focus on things that scale. Filters, automated tests, and other screening methods -- these things scale. Personality doesn’t scale quite so easily.

We could go a step further and say that people don’t scale. People have in-built limits to productivity and efficiency: hunger, tiredness, dissatisfaction, illness, injury, age, and so on. They are inherently unstable. So you should think about people as fundamentally replaceable. With the exception of the founders themselves, and maybe one or two crucial early employees, most companies could replace close to 100% of their employees overnight and still avoid catastrophe. If Apple or Coca-Cola fired all of their respective workforces, and replaced them with different people, it’s very likely that you’d still be able to get your MacBook or your soda without much interruption.

Why? In business, good people are interchangeable. Good systems are unique. But don’t expect Hollywood to figure this one out.

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© 2023 McKinley Rice, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

All-in-one sales and recruitment platform for startups

All-in-one sales and recruitment platform for startups

24/7 Support

+1 (610) 516-6218

515 Madison Avenue 9th Floor New York City, NY 10022

Explore more opportunities within our network. Use the dropdown menu to seamlessly navigate between our company websites and discover your requirement.

USA

© 2023 McKinley Rice, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

All-in-one sales and recruitment platform for startups

All-in-one sales and recruitment platform for startups

24/7 Support

+1 (610) 516-6218

515 Madison Avenue 9th Floor New York City, NY 10022

Explore more opportunities within our network. Use the dropdown menu to seamlessly navigate between our company websites and discover your requirement.

USA

© 2023 McKinley Rice, Inc. All Rights Reserved.