During my time as VP of Human Resources of SRS Health, I read a book, Good to Great, that would change my entire understanding of leadership. The author, Jim Collins, stresses that successful leaders start not with strategy, but with first “getting the right people on the bus.” These right people are not necessarily going to fit neatly into predetermined roles. They have hard skills, but it’s their underlying behavioral competencies of motivation, adaptability, problem-solving ability, desire to create something great, and positive attitude that makes them invaluable. They are the people you would say, without a moment’s hesitation, you’d hire again…and again.
For me, a leader in a small startup that was taking on the giants of the healthcare IT space, this concept was powerful. It translated into a hiring strategy that followed three principals:
- Weigh behavioral competencies and attitude heavily in the hiring calculus.
- Never overlook transformative talent in the hiring process, even if that means you bring that special someone on board in an undefined role.
- Be flexible in moving your best employees around until you find the role that makes optimal use of their talents.
As a result of following these principles, we had a team of incredible employees who helped us overcome great odds to become a significant industry player despite our comparatively small size.
At rater8, this philosophy again guides our people strategy. We built an organization filled with deeply talented people who bring passion to their work. What motivates them is a common desire to provide a level of service and product excellence second to none in our industry.
Weigh behavioral competencies and attitude heavily in the hiring calculus
When you’re looking to fill an open position and days go by without a strong resume hitting your inbox, pressure will build, and so will the temptation to hire the first applicant with relevant skills. Whenever possible, don’t compromise. Ensure your candidate has the right experience plus the behavioral competencies needed to be a strong fit in your organization. In fact, if you find someone who has a great attitude and the ability to learn quickly, adapt, and grow, you may even be able to sacrifice some of the hard skills needed, as they will be able to pick those up on the job.
To be clear, here’s what I mean by differentiating skill from competency…
The role of an Account Manager at rater8 requires product knowledge, an understanding of reputation management concepts and best practices, and the ability to follow a process. These are all teachable skills.
Great Account Managers (and our team is filled with them!) know how to flexibly adapt their explanations and approach depending on the aptitude, organization level, and demeanor of their audience. And they know how to tactfully diffuse difficult situations. They see patterns in the data and can recommend tailored, value-added solutions. These competencies are much harder to train, and I’d hire someone who possessed them over someone with just the hard skills required for the job any day.
Never overlook transformative talent
Transformative talent is rare to find. When it appears, my belief is that you have to act fast, hire quickly, and then worry about where you will find a role for that person in your organization. People before strategy in true Good to Great fashion! There is always a seat on the “bus” for this kind of employee. However, the challenge of hiring for talent alone is twofold.
First, it is likely you have no budget allocated for a person not assigned to a specific role. When justifying this added spend to your management team, remember that a “bus” hire will often deliver value right out of the gate. They may bring unique expertise, identify or create new products or processes, or solve what you thought were intractable problems.
Next, convincing someone to join the team without a defined job description requires both you and the candidate to take a leap of faith. The “bus” person needs to believe you will find a way to use their talents in ways that feel fulfilling and challenging to them. Meanwhile, you have to overcome the ambiguity of those first few weeks after onboarding. While they are learning and absorbing, you are assessing and working to figure out where they should be placed to make the greatest difference.
I experienced this situation at SRS Health when an unsolicited resume landed across my desk from Lynn S. who was retired but looking for an interesting opportunity. She had helped start the first HMO in New Jersey and knew healthcare insurance like the back of her hand. But what was I going to do with that skill set at an electronic health records company? After meeting Lynn, I was sure that her deep research skills and ability to undauntingly scour reams of data could be put to good use. Still, it was a risk to allocate payroll to a highly experienced person whose position would be somewhat ambiguous until we could figure out what to do with her.
Lynn dabbled in a few roles in marketing and special projects at SRS before becoming our VP of Government Affairs in charge of leading a major initiative at the company. Ultimately, Lynn’s uncanny ability to wade into uncharted waters, doggedly untangle complex government regulations, and lead our company’s response to the morass of “Meaningful Use” requirements was a boon to our organization. At rater8 we’ve been lucky to hire some “bus” people who’ve taken the leap of faith with us and in turn have become invaluable to our team.
Flexibly deploy your talent
Finding the right seats on the bus for your talent is definitely more of an art than a science. At SRS Health, we hired an incredibly bright intern (I’ll call him Bob) who eventually transitioned to a full-time role in one of our technical departments. Once there, Bob began to languish to the point that his employment was in jeopardy. We came to a crossroads and had to decide how to handle someone we knew had incredible talent and competencies but was not shining as we thought he would.
Instead of terminating Bob, we decided to see if a change in manager and role would have an impact. The switch made all the difference. Bob was motivated, engaged, and became a transformative talent on our development team. His career trajectory took a steep curve up. Fourteen years and six promotions later, Bob was running the entire 50-person department—clearly a star.
Of course, not every person can or should be kept and rehabilitated. However, given the time you’ve already invested in their training and the company knowledge they’ve accumulated, it’s definitely worth a pause and a thoughtful conversation about whether they can be redeployed to everyone’s benefit.
Going from good to great
Getting the right people on the bus is a challenge, but the reward is a win for everyone. Hiring teams must be able to recognize when they have an applicant or an employee who may have talents that go beyond a job title or a department. People are adaptable, and while they can certainly mold themselves to fit into a predetermined role, they’re more likely to thrive when they can exercise their strengths. When contemplating your hiring strategies, ensure your hiring manager is looking beyond qualifications for a cookie-cutter role. Consider qualities that demonstrate the promise of an applicant’s fit to the organization and their potential to grow within it.
The lesson I’ve learned from this is to not be afraid of moving high-potential talent around until you find the right place for them to excel. We’ve repeated this strategy at rater8 with great results.