Hiring is the Most Important Thing We Do

The Humanist Methodology is a holistic leadership philosophy that aims to maximize the output of innovation teams by combining proven best practices with a dedication to work-life balance.

For more information on this project, please refer to The Humanist Manifesto or the links at the bottom of this post.

I do a lot of planning and thinking linearly. It's the most straightforward way to start to unpack a problem and it helps you build a foundation that is easy to consider and build upon.

Fortunately, the most important element of The Humanist Methodology just happens to start at the beginning of the creative development process. How you hire, fire, and build your team will define your success as a leader, so you better be good at it...or you won't be a leader for long.

Simply put, hiring is the most important thing we do

If there's one thing you take away from The Humanist Methodology, it's this. All other tasks we do are secondary. There are myriad reasons why, but before we dive into them, let's just repeat and restate for emphasis:

The most important thing we do - the single most important thing we do - is hiring.

This is not an original thought. Many successful companies and thought leaders have figured this out. Let's take a look at a few of my favorites. If you have other suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section!

Valve  

The wonderful Valve Corporation famously detailed their hiring practices in section 5.1 of their appropriately wonderful Handbook for New Employees:

The entire handbook is a great read, but this section is one I come back to again and again. They hit the nail on the head for why hiring is so important, in great detail:

"If we start adding people to the company who aren’t as capable as we are at operating as high-powered, self directed, senior decision makers, then lots of the stuff discussed in this book will stop working."

It may sound slightly self-assured but it makes a ton of sense and is critically applicable to The Humanist Methodology. That being said, even if you only adopt part of this methodology, it remains true. If you do not hire people who fit into your way of doing things, your system will quickly fall apart.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs also nicely enumerated the importance of hiring during interviews with Rama Dev Jager and Rafael Ortiz for In the Company of Giants: Candid Conversations with the Visionaries of the Digital World (a few very good excerpts available in this article in Business Week)  

"The key observation is that, in most things in life, the dynamic range between average quality and the best quality is, at most, two-to-one. For example, if you were in New York and compared the best taxi to an average taxi, you might get there 20 percent faster. In terms of computers, the best PC is perhaps 30 percent better than the average PC. There is not that much difference in magnitude. Rarely you find a difference of two-to-one. Pick anything.
But, in the field that I was interested in -- originally, hardware design -- I noticed that the dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could accomplish was 50 or 100 to 1. Given that, you're well advised to go after the cream of the cream. That's what we've done. You can then build a team that pursues the A+ players. A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players. That's what I've tried to do."

This trend very much extends to software development. A world class senior engineer or artist can easily generate 5x the value of a mediocre collaborator, not only in terms of raw output, but in terms of the quality of said output. If you’re working in a business where quality is not a major concern, the return on a best of breed collaborator may be closer to that 2:1 margin. If you’re operating in a high revenue margin business or a market driven by quality, you may see close to 50:1 return. 

Given that a world class collaborator might cost 1.5-3x what an average talent does, the bottom-line finances makes sense too.

Ed Catmull

Ed Catmull is another great resource on the topic. He lays out his thoughts in Creativity, Inc. in a way that’s always stuck with me: 

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

It’s the truth. This is why so many successful startups focus on building a small team full of world class talent, then iterate and pivot as they find the business model, product, or service that works for them. It’s why great people surround themselves with exceptional individuals and then encourage them to rip their ideas apart. 

There will come a time when you will be challenged by your manager, funding partners, or shareholders to defend why you are spending so many hours, dollars, and brain cycles on hiring instead of your core business. Hopefully, the above examples (and many more out there on the internet) will help. 


To provide you with more ammunition for these types of conversation, here are a few more hard-learned leadership lessons from my own career. I’ve found them very helpful pillars to lean on and I hope they will serve you well too. While this may seem like overkill, I want to illustrate the extent to which hiring is our most important endeavor.

You're Only As Good As Your Team

Being a strong humanist leader is an exercise in calculated helplessness. Your job is to surround yourself with the best of the best and then let them do their jobs. This can be a terrifying proposition for anyone who cares deeply about the work they are doing. 

Why do we do it? Because it works. We’ll dive into the detail on this in future chapters but the bottom line is that if you don’t let your people own the work they’re doing - have agency over their subject matter - you won’t achieve maximum output and they won’t be your people for long.

The flip side is that you better hire well. Knowing that you’re going to turn every implementation, every campaign, every task that you direct over to a qualified individual means that you need to trust implicitly the decision making acumen of those you hire. If you don’t, you either won’t trust them in the heat of battle or you’ll get sub-par results when you do. 

Hire well or your output will suffer. Bottom line.

Hiring the Best Leads to Hiring The Best

Have you ever noticed that when a particularly good engineer, artist or designer goes to a company, they’re often followed by a number of other exceptionally talented individuals? This isn’t a coincidence. Talent follows talent.

When the best of the best are considering their options, a big part of the equation is on-staff talent. If they know and trust the people working in an organization, they are much more likely to join up. 

Similarly, when interviewing high end talent, be aware that it’s a two-way street. Those individuals are assessing you as much as you are assessing them. If you send your best into the interview to spar with them on their specialty (in a friendly and positive manner of course), you’ll earn their respect and impress upon them the reality of working with your exceptional team. 

For this reason, it is extremely important to hire well, especially with your early employees, as they will be doing a lot of the early team building alongside you.

Good People Will Stick Around

Sometimes, extenuating circumstances will lead exceptional individuals to bail quickly on promising opportunities; it happens to the best of us. In my experience though, the best collaborators share one trait: the ability to finish and finish strong.

This trait - this borderline obsession - will often motivate best-in-class talent to stick around longer than your average individual. The same strong-finisher trait that made them great in the first place will lead them to work with you through thick and thin (and there will be both) and help you boost your employee retention, one of the most crucial elements of success for Humanist leaders.

You Will Spend Inordinate Amounts of Time Fixing Bad Hires

It’s human nature. You see a problem, you work on that problem. When you have a highly functional team comprised of exceptional individuals, you’re working with your entire team to move the project or service forward.

When you have an under-performing resource, it’s only natural to spend a great deal of time trying to help that person succeed. This is especially true if you hired that person, believing they are or have the potential to be a world class collaborator. You’ll pour hours upon hours of your time - of your team's time - into those resources.

This is why, if you are ever in doubt as to whether a resource will be a good fit with your organization, always defer to voting "No" on a hire. You can always keep searching for a perfect resource, but a bad resource will suck a great deal of your time...and worse...

Bad Hires Will Ruin Your Team & Your Project

A key pillar of the Humanist Methodology is allowing your subject matter experts to own their areas of expertise. This empowers high performing resources to do their best work and inspires them to invest long-term in the project and team at hand. This can be counter to the traditional Command & Control method made famous by visionaries like Steve Jobs. 

The specific risk with making bad hires in any system - especially this one - is that by giving your collaborators a ton of leeway to make decisions, own their projects, and exert their influence on the project and culture, you’re giving them freedom to make bad decisions. In a Command & Control structure, this can be easily countered by the specific direction of a strong leader. In our type of management structure, bad collaborators can do vastly more damage, further weighting the importance of hiring well.


I hope this section has done a thorough job of impressing upon you the vast importance of hiring; that it is (ad nauseam I know) our most important task.

Now that we've established our priorities, let's start addressing them!

Up Next: How to Hire Well


Coray Seifert is a writer and producer at Krakensoft Games. We make awesome indie games and help awesome companies make their games more awesome. It's pretty awesome.