If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from studying the entrepreneur community for 20 years, it’s this: the biggest obstacle facing your business is you.
We are all prisoners of our own assumptions, doubts, biases, fears and ignorance. Business owners who can get outside their own heads and seriously consider perspectives and ideas not their own will outperform stick-in-the-mud competitors, because they will have more data, experience and wisdom (let’s call it DEW) on their side.
The best way to grow your company is to hire strong people who know how to grow it. That’s why you hear so many top performing entrepreneurs credit their success to the fact that “I hire people smarter than I am.” But pulling off this DEW diligence is tougher than it sounds.
Let’s assume “smarter” means people who have more experience (and probably more success) than you in key areas of your business. Maybe you’re running a manufacturing company and you need an engineer who can design and develop better tools. Or your printing business needs a superstar of digital production because your clients are demanding one supplier for both print and the web. Ideally, your new hire’s “smarts” will lie in areas that are your weak points, and pertain to tasks you don’t enjoy. But entrepreneurs often have a hard time embracing a superior underling. Did you start your own business so you could have arguments with people who can trump your best ideas by asking, “Which of us knows this subject best?”
Dissent can be tough to tolerate, but you must encourage it if you want to move your company to that mythical “next level.” The famous bickering between Kirk, Spock and McCoy on the original Star Trek consumed precious time and energy, but it demonstrated how even the smartest leaders can improve their decision-making through feedback and debate. I’ve seen many entrepreneurs fill their ranks with bright young people who can be counted on to work hard—but rarely, if ever, rock the boat. Hiring people smarter than you requires maintaining a culture of open discussion and debate where data, experience, wisdom and passion count as much as rank and tenure. As the boss, you can still overrule your smarter lieutenant— but do it sensitively and offer reasons. Truly smart people let others win once in a while.
So how do you get the smartest people into your company? The process goes like this:
- First, understand what “smart” means to you. The DEW you need will likely be different for each position you’re trying to fill, and it even may change from month to month. As you write up the qualifications for each job, consider what balance of skills and attributes you really need. Does “smart” mean technical knowledge, experience at bigger companies, familiarity with your customer base, innovative thinking or a superior understanding of the business needs of the company? Which are the must-haves, and which nice-to-haves?
- Think of a person who most exemplifies the skills, knowledge and experience you’re seeking in each position. Maybe it’s a former colleague, a competitor or Sigourney Weaver’s capable Ripley character from Alien. Visualizing the perfect candidate helps define the attributes you’re looking for and can keep your quest on track.
- Carefully consider how hiring this person may upset the balance of your current brain trust. Hiring a confident, experienced outsider may irk some members of your leadership team who worked their way up inside the firm. How might you adjust their jobs or titles so they embrace such change?
- Assess what each hire means to your company’s compensation structure. Entrepreneurs often find they have to pay smarter hires more than they pay themselves. You may be okay with that—you have equity, after all—but how will other senior people in your company feel?
- Treat job candidates like customers. The best recruits have lots of options. They will be evaluating you and your company at the same time as you’re interviewing them. You need to sell them on all the benefits of coming to work for you. Should your company lack some of the processes or procedures they take for granted, don’t hide that fact; cite other incentives, such as the chance to build a professional department from scratch.
- Include your team in the interview process. This is a best practice any time, but especially when you’re bringing in people who are different than the kind you normally hire, and whom your senior staff may see as threats. Don’t rush the recruiting; encourage as many members of your management as possible to interview the prospect. Consider including line personnel as well. Then have each participant submit an evaluation of the candidate’s qualifications and personal chemistry.
- Consider more than smarts. Remember that the most successful hires are those who fit smoothly into the existing corporate culture. Will a veteran all-star, familiar with much larger companies, fit into your laid-back, non-hierarchical workplace, no matter how smart he or she is?
In the end, make up your own mind. Other people’s evaluations are important, but you must trust your judgment. Maybe culture fit is the top consideration in your company, or perhaps you need a few A-list hires to shake things up. Make your decisions for the right reasons. It’s the smart thing to do.