People are naturally great

I find myself in conversations on the topic of hiring a lot. I’ve sat on both sides of the hiring table, both as a job candidate, and as a hiring manager.

As a candidate, I’ve usually felt the pressure to impress. I know the competition is stiff. There are many (perhaps dozens or hundreds) of people vying for the same position. I need to convince the hiring manager or team that I’m the best!

As a hiring manager or interviewer, the challenge is quite different. I know I have dozens or hundreds of candidates to choose from. But I need the best one! I need the one who’s smartest. With the best attitude. With the greatest team mindset. With loyalty. That won’t abuse his colleagues. That won’t steal company secrets.

This mindset is underscored by pop-biz literature like Jim Collins' best-selling book Good to Great*, which makes the point:

If you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter if you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.

Aside from the impossibly vague terminology in this highly-quotable quote, (“wrong people”, “right direction”, “great vision”, “great people”… what do these things actually mean?), I have come to believe this mindset is actually wrong, and ultimately harmful.

This mindset puts hiring managers in the mindset that they have to find the “right people” (again: What does that even mean?), or their business will fail.

But for the vast majority of roles, this simply isn’t true.

If I hire a Ruby developer who’s only 97% as good as some other Ruby developer I accidentally overlooked, will this jeapordize my company? Of course not.

If I hire a Scrum Master with only 1 year experience instead of 3, will my Scrum team suffer unspeakable loss, incapable of following a vision? Seems unlikely.

Most people, in most positions, join companies because they want to succeed. And most people will do what it takes to succeed in a new company. They’ll learn new skills. They’ll ask questions. They’ll search StackOverflow to learn how to use that new Ruby gem. They’ll watch a YouTube video about improving retrospectives.

In short: most people are great people. The exceptions are usually easy to spot. They’re the types we know we’ll reject in the first 5 minutes of the first interview. They’re clearly lying. They’re full of themselves. They’re out of their depth. They’re arrogant. Whatever.

Once you get past that easy filter, you’re left with great people (and a rare truly skilled liar, but you won’t filter him out with more screening anyway).

Of course there are times when you really need the best in the business. But these are also the times when we do the least vetting. If your Oracle server is constantly crashing, and your infrastructure team can’t solve it, of course you’ll hire an expensive Oracle expert for $20,000 for a 2-hour consultation. But I bet you won’t make that guy go through 6 rounds of interviews, whiteboarding exercises, and an online personality test. You’ll trust his credentials. And you also know that if he lied to you and he can’t fix it, you won’t pay his fee. But if he can fix it, you’ll gladly pay, because that fix is worth more than $20,000 to you!

*I loved reading this book a few years ago. But in the meantime, I’ve come to see it as mostly meaningless fluff designed to sell feel-good books. Feel free to read it if you like a feel-good story that’s not actionable, or if you just want to know what the hype is about. But take the actual advice with a grain of salt.

If you enjoyed this message, subscribe to The Daily Commit to get future messages to your inbox.