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The ABCs of Hiring July 1, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , , ,

Few of us get to assemble our teams from scratch.  Most likely, we acquire a team as we move into a new position.  Much like a college football coach that inherits players recruited by his predecessor, we have to play the game with the team with have.

Over time, we get to reshape the team to our liking.  As folks move on to new opportunities, or as you “assist” folks in moving on to new opportunities, you’ll get the chance to bring new people to your team.  This is a big test for any leader.  People understand that you are not fully responsible for the team you inherit, but they won’t be as compassionate when someone you brought to the team drops the ball.

There’s a simple rule for hiring that should shape these decisions:

A people hire other A people.  B people hire C people.

When asked, every leader will insist that they hire only the best, brightest candidates.  But do they?

The best leaders surround themselves with people smarter than they are.  The best teams to lead are those where you are the dumbest person in the room.  If you are the smartest person in the room, your team has a serious problem. Find experts in the pertinent domains, create a culture that supports their efforts, and get out of the way.

Sadly, not every leader is the best leader.  Lesser leaders hire lesser people, intended to make themselves look good.  The result is a team of people that collectively rank just below the skills of the leader.  Given that any leader following this strategy is less than stellar, the entire team winds up being mediocre at best.

Few leaders will admit that they are intentionally hiring sub-standard candidates to make themselves look good.  Where, then, is this rule being applied? By everyone around you, that’s where.

People will closely scrutinize your every hiring decision.  Their assessment of each new candidate will reflect on you.  If you make good hiring decisions, people will notice.  If you make bad hiring decisions, people will notice and talk about it.  You may claim (and even believe) that you are hiring A players, but every C player you bring aboard knocks you further down the scale to becoming a B leader.

This ABC rule goes beyond technical ability.  It’s even more important when people consider the fit of your candidates into the current culture.  The ease with which your new team members integrate into the culture says a lot about how much you respect that culture.  If you diminish the importance of culture in your hiring decisions, you can lose the support of your existing team.  You may also make it much harder for your new people to succeed in their new role.

No one wants to be thought of as a B or C leader.  Seek out the A candidates while hiring, and you’ll go a long way to ensuring your own success as an A leader.


1. mike wade - July 1, 2009

Great message. Value your thoughts.

2. Steve Berg - July 1, 2009

Chuck – you’re exactly right. It’s usually pretty easy to spot the A v C leaders based on the quality of people on their teams. What I’ve noticed is that it is typically people who have been promoted into management roles that are not natural leaders that feel they have to outshine their reports.

3. sbooher - July 1, 2009

Chuck, thanks for this post, completely agree with the A/B/C concept you lay out here. I’m interested in how CIOs are either driving/owning this process, or letting HR drive it for them, particularly around variation in pay grades, etc. Do leaders feel that there should be real variation in pay for the A players, or they driving to the median?



4. Susan Mazza - July 1, 2009

Great points Chuck. It also seems though that when an organization that values technical expertise above all else the other elements of fit with the culture, managerial and leadership skills are missed not just because of someone wanting to look good, but rather because how can a person in a leadership position adequately recognize that which they do not have themselves? What do you think?

5. Linda G - July 2, 2009

A couple random thoughts on this topic:

Sometimes an A player from one company turns out to be destructive and a horrible fit in a new culture. Lots of research on how often “high performers” fail when they change jobs, mostly due to that culture fit. This is usually a big surprise to both the hiring manager and the former high performer.

Not only do the new players need to fit into the culture, every person you hire changes that culture a little bit with their spin on ‘how we do things around here.’ Especially important in a small company.

6. Joe Williams - July 4, 2009

Right on! Although I did not pick my team (except for one member), I was blessed with a leader who chose my team members wisely. For my next assignment I will have more input into my team members, so I will make sure I’m the dumbest one of the bunch 🙂

7. Chuck Musciano - July 5, 2009

@Steve: It is really sad when leaders try to outdo their team. Why would anyone try to undermine the very people on whom their success resides?

@Scott: The HR/IS interaction is always interesting. In my company, HR does the initial vetting of all full-time hires, checking all aspects of the candidate except the technical stuff. Once through the HR screen, the IS team techs them out and checks for culture fit in our team. The process works really well.

@Susan: Very interesting premise. How can you hire someone for a trait that you yourself do not have or even comprehend? I suspect this happens all the time, and would be very difficult to correct. Until the leader is replaced by a more savvy person, I think the team would be doomed to hire ineffectively.

@Linda: Culture fit and culture shift are a big deal, especially (as you note) in small teams. It can be a double-edged sword: leaders looking to change a culture can make incremental shifts as they hire over time, steering a team to a new without a big cathartic change.

@Joe: I had a similar blessing: inherited a team that was built by a guy who knew what he was doing. It gives you a chance to see what you should do when you get your chance to start hiring.

8. Wayne Bogan - July 6, 2009

Chuck, great post. Here are a few items I consider when I get the opportunity to hire an A person for the team.

1) In order to try and hire only the A people, I spend a good deal of time in the interview asking questions that pertain to how the person would fit into our culture. If people aren’t familiar with what questions to ask, there are multiple books and training classes. I found the book “High-Impact Interview Questions: 701 Behavior-Based Questions to Find the Right Person for Every Job” had a good list of questions that I can use. I have many of the questions for each of the different subjects typed up and printed for the interview. I then go through questions in the various sections and choose the appropriate next questions based on responses from the candidate. This let’s me focus on the strong and weak areas in order to learn more than what a resume will tell you. My notes after the interview paint a picture that I didn’t see when I used to interview people and just ask “what if” scenarios.

2) I try to set a very clear set of goals and objectives for the new individual. I didn’t do this well at first, but continue to hone this skill. This allows me to set informal 30 day reviews and a 90 day window for the first review formal review. If the candidate is not reaching the A potential within that first 90 days, then it is time to find a new employee. Most managers don’t want to have to admit their mistake, but doing so within the first 90 days is best for everyone involved.

3) I also spend time with the other executives and managers to ensure that the new employee is working well with the team. This allows feedback from an outside perspective that is invaluable in assessing how the employee performs. I may only see the good side of what is presented by the employee to me. Other employees will let you see the who picture.

Hence, the hiring process doesn’t end on the day you bring in the new employee. Within 90 days, you should be able to tell if the employee is meeting the needs of the team and complimenting you weaknesses or only increasing your strengths.


9. Chuck Musciano - July 6, 2009

@Wayne: Great, great advice! Like everything else, interviewing is a skill you can work at improving. Unfortunately, in this climate, we aren’t getting a lot of chances to interview. I also like the idea of setting explicit goals for review at specific intervals to ensure that the desired fit is, in fact, occurring.

Sometimes people are so anxious to land a job that they forget that good interviewing protects them as well. A bad fit is bad for everyone, not just the hiring company. Why be miserable in a bad situation? If everyone works to create a good fit from day one, both the new employee and the hiring firm win.

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