I read an article recently in the Harvard Business Review that talked about how hiring has now entered a new age in which companies need to hire for potential, instead of solely for job history or other more “traditional” factors. At the same time, I also read an older article from Rotman Magazine that talked about how the effective employees in the new millennium can’t be considered (and shouldn’t become) interchangeable. The two articles had fascinating insight into the hiring process for today’s successful companies.
Hiring practices need to modernize
The first article, “21st Century Talent Spotting,” by Claudio Fernandez-Araoz (Harvard Business Review, June 2014, pp 46-56) was written by a top talent-spotter, and discussed the changing environment of today’s workplace. In the article, Fernandez-Araoz talked about the three historical ages of workplace hiring—and about the new, fourth age that he contends that we must start embracing in order to make effective HR decisions.
The four ages are:
- Hiring based on physical attributes. In the past, employees were hired for physical labor or protection. If you wanted someone to “erect a pyramid, dig a canal, fight a war, or harvest a crop,” you needed strong, healthy people. It doesn’t take much strength to sit behind a desk all day and innovate, so this method has been replaced.
- Hiring based on intellectual performance. When jobs became less physically demanding, employers began to hire smart, experienced people who could get the job done without too much direction. This is still a good hiring practice, but the Peter Principle teaches us that even really intelligent people have their limits.
- Hiring based on proven competencies. In the 80s, computers started being able to do the jobs that intelligent people had needed to do before, and now job candidates needed to be able to operate the technology that would do the job “for them.” Many companies began hiring only people who knew how to use DOS, or who could understand the steps to performing regular backups. The downfall of this method was that people who had developed specific skills frequently had a hard time learning new skills, and their trust of the computer systems led them to make frequent human error mistakes.
- Hiring based on learning potential. The newest age of hiring is a blend of everything the past has to offer, and seeks to install the best person in a job… and to ensure that that person stays the best at the job.
- Employees who show an aptitude for learning new skills and tasks, and who enjoy learning to better themselves will not require physical strength to do a task, they’ll learn how to find, motivate, and direct someone else to do it.
- They will not need specific intellectual abilities at hire, they can be trusted to learn what they need to do to get the job done. Of course, you still need to hire intelligent people—you just shouldn’t focus your main hiring criteria on an IQ score.
- They will not need specific proven competencies, they’ll need the ability to build new competencies with ease so that they can not only keep up with your company’s changes, they can lead the change themselves.
To maximize learning potential, hire a “linchpin”
The second article, “Q&A,” by Karen Christensen (Rotman Magazine, Fall 2012, pp 82-84) was an interview with Seth Godin, the Internet entrepreneur and thought leader who founded Squidoo (and a whole bunch of other successful ventures). In the interview, Godin clarified that the only way to be a good employee these days is to have a job that uses your specific skills and talents. In essence, Godin said that successful, long-term employees must become company “linchpins,” acting as the one person in the entire company who can do exactly what they do, exactly the way they do it.
When combining these two philosophies together, the strategy that successful companies must use is clear:
When hiring people, consider their past strengths and past accomplishments. Consider the skills they have built, and ask them about their weaknesses and how they overcome them. An interviewee who readily acknowledges his or her weaknesses, and who has a reasonable way to tackle those, has potential. Ask them what they’re learning about their field now. If they’re actively learning new skills on their own time, they have potential. They may become company linchpins.
Hiring on the basis of “linchpin potential,” as I’ll call it, is trickier than just identifying a willingness to learn and improve. You’ll also need to identify a candidate who has inch-wide, mile-deep skills, as opposed to the opposite (which is what companies are used to looking for). Sure, someone who can do everything well enough can help fill in and can wear many hats, but they won’t be incredible at that one task you really need done.
You’re a business owner and if you’re just hiring for a position now, you’ve probably been doing a “good enough” job yourself this whole time. Why spend the money hiring someone else who’s just “good enough”? Don’t you want to hire someone who’s better than you?
Don’t just hire. Retain that stellar employee, too.
Fernandez-Araoz and Godin also talk about how to keep your linchpin potentials. The key aspect to retaining good employees, according to Fernandez-Araoz, is to offer them autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy, he says, should be multi-pronged: they should determine their tasks, their hours, their team, and their methods of accomplishing goals. Godin agrees with Fernandez-Araoz’ key points, but breaks down the measurement of autonomy into further subareas: “credit, authority, responsibility, and respect.”
Of course, both writers also agree that money is important, too. Each article mentions that unfair pay can drive away a good employee, but they also talk about the fact that the factors in the previous paragraph are even more important than money. Another important point is that you must keep your key employees learning by placing them in stretch assignments regularly. Stretch assignments require your employees to build new problem-solving skills and new competencies under pressure, which helps them learn faster and more effectively.
Hiring in today’s world requires companies to look for candidates who have learning potential, but who are agile enough to keep learning and adapting to changing technologies, trends, and other industry disruptions. To hire and keep your linchpin potentials, you need to give them the opportunity and latitude to do what it is that they do best—and you need to motivate them to learn how to do it better. Remember, you hired them because they love what they do, and you trust that you can get them to apply that passion to what you do. Don’t mess it all up at this point and require them to do exactly what you do, or even worse, what you have always done. Allow them to innovate and make your company better.
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