Finding and hiring an executive is one of the hard things addressed in Ben Horowitz’s book – The Hard Thing about Hard Things. As an intro to the topic, Horowitz calls out many of the complexities and challenges associated with executive hiring, but by far the greatest piece of advice that he gives is to hire for strength, rather than lack of weakness.
It took me a moment to really appreciate what this means.
Horowitz is saying that it’s far better to hire someone who is extremely talented in one area (presumably the area of their future responsibility) than it is to hire someone who is adequate or very good in many different areas.
I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot over the past week and I think this lesson applies beyond executive hiring to all levels of an organization – whether it be new hires or internal promotions.
To further explain this point, consider this:
At times in the past, when faced with potential promotion or hiring decisions, I’ve seen managers turn to a “skill rubric” to evaluate candidates. The skill rubric is usually a grid, with all applicable job skills listed down the Y-axis, each hierarchical job title listed across the X-axis, and promotion criteria, matched with each skill and job title, populating the grid. They’re typically created in an excel spreadsheet-type document that’s shared with all employees. The goal is to let everyone know what skills are needed to achieve a promotion to the next level in the organization. It can also be used in the hiring process to cull candidates that don’t meet all of the criteria.
At first, I was a huge fan of these skill rubrics. The analyst in me that loves order and quantifiable metrics found this approach to evaluating people very appealing. That is, until I tried to apply it to actual people.
The problem with people is that we are not machines that can simply be programed with different skills in different areas. We’re all unique. We have different passions, desires, capabilities, and motivations. Trying to match everyone to a universal rubric of skills, where someone absolutely must attain every single skill on the sheet to be promoted to the next level, can be deeply misguided.
The stated purpose of evaluating candidates against a skill rubric is usually to ensure people meet the “bar for performance” at each level – however, it actually tends to reward those who are average across the board, rather than those who are exceptional or world class in specific areas. Further, it encourages people to hide or downplay any weaknesses that might hold them back from promotion. Rather than embracing and addressing our weaknesses – we are all encouraged to pretend like they don’t exist.
This can be very problematic because those with world-class talents in one area often possess profound weaknesses somewhere else. This should be totally ok, but using a strict skill rubric – we would hold these world-class employees back until they reached average skills in their weak areas.
This might be the right decision sometimes, but it’s often better to pair two people together who have complimentary skills and can cover for each other’s weaknesses. Two people who are each world class in two different areas – and are able to cover for each other’s weaknesses will always outperform two people who are average across the board.
Knowing this, we should always treat skill rubrics as a rough guide rather than a hard rule and we should celebrate our weaknesses just as much as our strengths. For it is our weaknesses that provide the greatest opportunity to partner with others and together be stronger then the sum of the union.