Hiring the right people

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Hiring the right people is more important than having the right strategy.

When I took my first job in the corporate world, I was eager to learn the secrets of success of large corporations. I learned one ‘secret’ that stuck with me throughout my career and that I never questioned.

It said that every organization needed to begin by defining its purpose. Once it knew its purpose, it needed to design an organizational structure that would enable it to achieve its purpose. Once the organizational structure was in place, the enterprise would hire to the chart. In no case was it acceptable to hire someone just because she was a prima donna if you didn’t know where she would fit into the organization.

Once the enterprise had designed its organizational structure, Human Resources would go to great lengths to draft job descriptions, develop selection criteria, and then filter candidates against those criteria.

I just finished reading the remarkable book, Good to Great by Jim Collins. Unlike other scholars, Jim did not start his study of corporations that had made the transition from being good companies to being great companies by forming an hypothesis. Instead, he let the research data speak for itself. He learned from the data even when it ran contrary to his preconceived notions. This is the source of counterintuitive wisdom.

One of his findings is startling. He found that great companies hire the right people first and then figure out where to slot them into the organization later. This is the very antithesis of the truths we hear from Human Resources! As a consequence, it is vital for companies to treat their organization charts as suggestions only. They should not be worshipped.

I’m sure everyone has HR horror stories to tell, so I hope you will indulge me if I tell you a couple of my own.

The first occurred while the ink was still wet on my Master’s degree in Computer Science from one of the world’s 25 leading universities. Eager to start my career, I applied for a position in the IT department at Air Canada. I made the mistake of applying through Human Resources. The HR officer told me that if I wanted to proceed with my application, I would need to take a test to assess my aptitude for programming. I quickly pointed that I had eight years successful experience in the discipline and an advanced degree as well, just to drive the point home. Nonplussed, she would not budge. It was a requirement and there was no way to escape it. It didn’t take me long to realize that a company that was this rigid would be no place for me to ply my craft.

The second story deals with staffing a project management position with the City of Vancouver when it was implementing its first library IT system. My hiring manager and I agreed on a starting salary. He told me he would advise HR or our agreement. I was to contact HR on Monday, make the necessary arrangements, and start the following Monday. I was stunned when HR refused to honour our agreement and offered me a couple thousand less – take it or leave it. I left it. The City hired another manager, the project failed, and the City lost $2 million and thousands of hours of management time. That is not to say that the project would not have failed had I been at the helm. One will never now. But at least I felt the need to ask the question.

My real point here is that we need to seriously question the guidelines HR offers. HR practices often jeopardize the success of their host organizations. Whenever there is a conflict between HR and real-world experience or common sense, go with the latter.

Real-world data shows that great organizations hire the best talent they can find and restructure the organization to leverage their strengths. Good organizations hire to their charts.