Ask somebody who did hiring through the end of the last millennium what you should look for in young hires and you’d probably hear something like, hire for “ability to stick around” and loyalty.
This may have made sense at the time — people were less transient than today, business moved less quickly (remember when email was spelled “E-Mail” and was only used by fringe-y people?), and outside of a small bubble of high-tech weirdos, the organization reigned supreme. But chances are that following this advice for your company’s hiring policies today is hurting your prospects of attracting the best young talent.
The reality is that the economy today is fundamentally different than the economy of the late 1990s and even of the pre-Great Recession new millennium. The hiring rules and norms of the last millennium grew out of organizations like General Motors and General Electric and for a society that had just a handful of TV channels and in which the average person traveled only a few hundred miles away from home in their lifetime. The world these rules were developed for simply does not exist anymore — and to the extent which it does exist, it sits in massive corporations with tens of thousands of employees and different business divisions, not in the fast-paced startup of today.
Look for the Renegade; Kill the Organization Man
Perhaps the most well-renowned company idea that grew out of the postwar era is the Organization Man — an archetype of the successful 1960s-1980s professional who works his way up through the organization through many years of seniority and whose career revolves around this process of ladder-climbing. This made more sense in a world where most people moved only a handful of times in their lives and a world where the best paying jobs were captured by a small handful of very large companies. It made sense where the primary value that an employee added to a company was knowledge of The Company and not necessarily knowledge of a specific trade or skill set.
The Organization Man is increasingly outdated today. Even large companies like Google and Apple realize this and promote candidates based on skills and on projects they’ve completed — not merely on seniority and time spent in the organization. The best and most innovative companies of Silicon Valley are used to candidates moving from company to company every couple of years if they do not court them well enough. This makes sense and has made sense in this region and sector of the economy — in software engineering, having the skills and know-how to build a product or contribute to a project is more valuable than simply spending some time at a single company.
As software continues to eat the world, this should be moving into other industries as well. Your marketing, sales, and operations people should be hired on the basis of their ability to lead up new projects and create more traction, not on their mere allegiance to a company.
“But we’re going to take time and energy to invest in these people, shouldn’t we want to hire for somebody who will stick around?” Yes, but you shouldn’t purposely undercut your ability to build a product and execute on a world-class team for fear that somebody will leave your company. A culture of promoting the best team with the best skills should be of higher priority than one of hoarding your resources only for those who are devoted to your team.
How do you do this?
Vesting equity over the traditional 4-year period is a great way to keep young talent with your organization for a minimum period of time. In this time, you’ll be able to prove yourself as a company in which somebody can grow their skills and their talent well enough to keep them around for a longer period.
The Organization Man is holding your company back. Get rid of him and hire for somebody who is more interested in building interesting stuff than somebody who is interested in schmoozing their way up the ladder.
Look for Grit, not Pedigree
When hiring that renegade, ignore the advice of old that pedigree exists for a reason. Pedigree’s power is more important in a less-networked world than the one in which we live. If you didn’t have the Internet, high-speed travel, and instant communication to any group of people in the world, it may be advantageous for you to hire that refined graduate from the Ivy League over the gritty and hardworking college opt-out. In today’s world, the advantage is pretty much zero.
Instead, hire for grit. What I mean by this is hire for the person who will be excited about getting their hands dirty and doing hard work. This might sound contradictory to “don’t hire Organization Men,” but it isn’t at all. The Organization Man sticks through for longer periods not because he’s better at getting through hard stuff but because he is better at going through the motions. The gritty employee may not stick around for a decade but they can get through hard projects, get their hands dirty, and are excited at a challenge.
How do you do this?
The way you test for this is by giving a difficult assignment in the interview process — this could even be an assignment that doesn’t have one clear solution and is designed to be failed the first time through — and see how the candidate reacts to it. If they throw up their arms and withdraw their application, great. Now you know this isn’t the candidate with whom you’d like to work. If they put the best together that they can and admit that the assignment was hard given the constraints, move them on to the next stage of the process.
You can do this for sales and marketing just as well as you can for engineering. Have a Sales Development Representative dig up X new leads in a region you haven’t done work before. Have an Account Representative do a call with a belligerent “prospect” who is actually an employee of your company they have yet to meet. Have a marketing candidate run an email campaign with a stock email list that is purposely poorly segmented and lacking information. Give them hard tasks and see how they handle of the pressure.
If a candidate is just getting by on their pedigree and their credentials alone, they’ll have a harder time with this than somebody who possesses the grit necessary to complete projects regardless of pedigree.
You may be tempted to take hiring advice from the more experienced among us — but beware the context. What makes a young candidate successful for a startup today is an entirely different set of characteristics and skills than what makes a young candidate successful at General Motors in 1985. Kill the Organization Man, hire the renegade, throw pedigree out the window, and hire the gritty hard worker.