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Companies don’t Innovate, People do… So, Watch how you Hire!

Posted on Saturday, Nov 17th 2018

By Guest Author Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

Almost every company pledges to value innovation, a topic that lends itself to all sorts of grand planning strategies and methodologies as well as lyrical musings. Yet to actually be able to deliver on innovation goals, organizations must often get back to earth, i.e. look closely at the multiple aspects of the management of the company’s human infrastructure, and focus on the most foundational of them: the way we hire. In her new book, Everybody Wants to Love Their Job: Rebuilding Trust and Culture, Marylene Delbourg-Delphis invites executives to pay attention to their company’s recruiting practices—and more specifically to two of the key principles that prepare companies for continuous inventiveness, hiring employees for their potential rather than only their current skills, and hiring people for the company as a whole rather than for a manager. 

Hiring for potential

Most companies adopt a tactical approach to hiring: it’s about finding one person for one task or one purpose. It’s like telling people that their raison d’e?tre is to fill holes. But then, how can you reasonably expect that they will ever be creative? By only focusing on short-term pressures, chances are you’ll evaluate people solely based on the fixed skills you think you need right now and not on what they could do if they performed at their maximum. You’ll just end up lowering the bar and settling for the minimum. If you give low goals to your salespeople, they won’t surpass them. That’s true for anybody when nobody is motivated to be exceptional, let alone imaginative… As Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy, the authors of Judgment on the Front Line: How Smart Companies Win By Trusting Their People, summarize it: “If you buy a turtle and put it into a small aquarium, it will stop growing to accommodate its limited living space, regardless of how large it might have potentially been.”

Hiring for potential is hiring strategically. The new hire might be a reasonable match for the short term, perhaps not quite checking all the boxes at a given stage, but her resumé will show an ability to learn that will enable her to catch up quickly, keep on acquiring new skills, and eventually walk into unchartered territories. That’s what you do if you are confident that people can learn and evolve and if the leadership’s culture is one of growth, rather than fixed, mindset, to use Carol Dweck’s wording.

Let’s say you need a marketing manager: Will your best candidate necessarily be somebody who “studied” marketing and communication? What about somebody who is familiar with video games and is mentally ready to look at your current and future products in both physical and virtual terms? So, a candidate who took classes in cinematography or scriptwriting and loves the magic of being immersed in multiple worlds may be a much stronger choice. It may not take much time for her to get up to speed with what you see today as required skills for a marketing manager.

Hiring for potential is building up the springboard that enables you to think ahead and be continuously ingenuous in a fast-paced business environment. Seymour Cray, who designed the fastest computers in the world for decades, liked to hire inexperienced engineers as Tracy Kidder recounts in The Soul of a New Machine, because this approach brought him people “who do not usually know what’s supposed to be impossible.”

Hiring for the company, not for a manager

Employees join a company, not a person: You don’t want to create silos where all the people hired by one manager have profiles that only meet the expectations of that particular hiring manager, no matter how remarkable she may be. If you let this happen, you’re much more likely to create a collection of cliques and barriers within your company and never encourage the cross-functional communication mindset that sustains design thinking. You want employees to feel free to connect with other departments if they wish to expand, diversify their skills, or participate in other projects in a different department.

Stop a terrible practice called “talent hoarding,” which keeps an employee in her current role and prevents her from exploring other opportunities in the company. Keep an eye out for the tricks managers use to do so. Some of them are: explaining to top employees that they are “close, but not quite yet ready” for the next position, underrating those employees, limiting high-visibility work assignments outside the team, restricting employee development/training opportunities, and punishing employees interested in other teams for being “disloyal” or limiting their access to information revealing internal opportunities. According to Aberdeen, 50% of managers admitted they prevented their best employees from seeking out other roles or opportunities in a company. Meanwhile, 45% of employees who changed companies in 2014 and 2015 said they left because they didn’t have advancement or lateral move opportunities.

Hire for potential and hire for the company, not for a manager or a group. Decompartmentalize the organization to make it a playing field where nobody feels removed from the innovation function. While it’s true that innovations, even small, incremental ones, don’t come by the barrel, the ones you lose will inevitably go somewhere else. And sometimes, they’re huge! Think of Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, who couldn’t get into his own company’s Associate Product Manager program because it only accepted candidates with degrees in computer science!


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