Great Expectations: A Hiring Mistake

If mistakes lead to experience, and experience leads to wisdom, then let me share some wisdom with you, because I’ve certainly made some mistakes.  This is about one of them.

photo credit: Victor1558 via photopin cc

photo credit: Victor1558 via photopin cc

I was a relatively new sales manager at a software company several years ago, and from time to time I would need to hire a new salesperson to sell a complex software product to banks.  As anyone who has to hire other people knows, whether it’s for a small company or a big corporation, hiring people requires a lot of work.

During that particular process, I somehow ended up interviewing two guys – I’ll call them Jim and Rob, and they couldn’t have been more different.  Jim was very polished.  He had great credentials, was poised, articulate, and well dressed.  And since I’m being honest here, I’ll also add this: he reminded me of…well….me.  We had shared career paths and interests, and I thought he’d be a huge asset to the team.

Rob, on the other hand, was different. He had bounced around a bit, and although he had some relevant software experience he seemed like he would be just as happy selling pots and pans as internet software.  He was significantly older than the average 30-something age of most of our employees and our much-younger industry. He was from a small town in Texas and – how shall I put this? –  didn’t dress like the rest of us.  Although I really loved his personality and enthusiasm, Rob was most certainly not “like me”.

So I hired Jim, gave him a set of responsibilities, and put him to work with a huge amount of confidence that he would succeed.

As it turned out, a couple months later, I had an opening for another salesperson selling to community banks, and remembered Rob.  I reached out to him and re-started our conversation, and although Rob was very different from our entire team, I liked him enough to take a risk and bring him on.

After about a year, the results were clear: Jim failed and Rob succeeded.

It turned out that Jim’s “polish” – his suits, pedigree and locution – obscured a lack of initiative and other character weaknesses, and that Rob’s unique flair – his hustle, cowboy boots and big personality – were just what we needed for community bankers from Oklahoma to Nevada.

So here’s what I learned.

  1. Beware hiring people who are “like” you.  You might read that and think “yes, yes, everyone already knows that”, but if you’re honest it is much harder to resist than you might think.  If you’re a hiring manager, then your set of skills and personality traits probably have served you well, and it’s natural to view those same skills and personality traits as critical to success in your line of work.  There are a few problems with this: first, your ability to accurately gauge those skills and traits from a resume and a couple interviews is questionable at best, and second, there are many paths to success – even in your specific industry.
  2. Don’t be afraid to hire people into “step-up” jobs.  A step-up job means that the job is a “step up” from what that person has done up to that point.  I have found that if you hire the right person into a step-up job, their lack of experience is more than counterbalanced by their excitement. In my story, Jim viewed the job I gave him as a nice, but lateral, move, while Rob thought he had struck gold.  The difference was obvious.
  3. References!  Frankly, this happened so long ago that I don’t recall what sort of reference checks I did, but I probably called the three references that Jim gave me and they probably said great things about him.  However, in this era of LinkedIn and other social media, my ability to sniff out someone’s background is much better than it was back then.  If you have a good reputation, this works to your advantage.  If you don’t, it doesn’t.

I’ve made a few other hiring mistakes along the way, but overall I feel like I’m batting better than average, and one reason is because of Jim and Rob.

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