How to Hire the Wrong Person

Or conversely: how to avoid elementary mistakes that can harm your business

I’m happily living in Lausanne and looking for remote work opportunities so I can remain here. My niche is Product Management, so I’m essentially a jack-of-all-trades rather than a deep expert in any single business function. I know a lot about a lot of things, which means I can define opportunities, set direction, do marketing and sales, and advise on hiring the right people for specific tasks. I can also manage budgets and projects, avoid all the gotchas that newbies tumble into head-first, and rapidly resolve complex interdependent problems. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’m damned good at it now.

As I’m job-hunting I’m spending quite a lot of time on job boards.

Today I saw a job posting for “a CTO with a Technical background to help define business strategy…”

I’ve seen this kind of thing before.

It’s almost certainly a first-time entrepreneur who may have made some money as a dentist or lawyer or owner of a small traditional business. He (and it’s always a he, for some reason) has come up with what he imagines to be a world-changing idea that’s going to be bigger than Amazon and Google combined and he’s very, very excited. He doesn’t know anything about computers so he’s looking for someone who does.

But he’s got a very constrained budget. So he wants someone who’s got great technical expertise (whatever that means, because our entrepreneur doesn’t know anything about computers) but he also needs someone who can work out the business strategy so of course asking for both skills in the same person makes sense, right?

Except of course it’s a one-way ticket to burning through his modest budget without ever getting any further ahead.

A good CTO can do hands-on coding if they have to. But their real value is in defining a product architecture in response to well-described requirements. I’ve never met a CTO who would be any good at formulating a business strategy for a brand-new startup because that’s totally outside their skillset. It would be like asking the Formula One driver you just hired to double as master chef in a Micheline Guide Rouge three-toque restaurant.

For $12 per hour.

I’ve encountered some of these hapless wannabe entrepreneurs in my time and their journey never ends well. They are so enamored of their vision that they ignore every basic element that’s essential to having a hope in hell of building a potentially successful company.

OK, so there are some clueless would-be entrepreneurs out there who squander their nest-egg on hopeless dreams. But guess what: large organizations make the same mistake too.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a job posted courtesy of someone in the HR department who has zero comprehension of the role that is being filled, but who’s spent ten minutes on the Internet researching “must-have” qualifications and added them to the requirements list.

Anyone who’s gone through the Project Management Institute’s certification course knows it is as relevant to modern project management as teaching F22 combat pilots to fly by asking them to draw the wing struts of a Sopwith Camel biplane. But that doesn’t stop the majority of project management job posts listing it as a requirement. So the company turns down great project managers and hires someone who’s gritted their way through an irrelevant course to gain a meaningless qualification. Guess how that’s going to turn out most of the time?

Then there’s the company that’s looking for a world-class CTO to be their corporate visionary and create a company-wide technical architecture who is also a hands-on SQL programmer and can create management reports using Crystal and also configure their routers and fix the printer when it’s not working.

In the UK it’s not uncommon for companies to believe that their Finance Director (the UK version of a CFO) is “the right man for the top job” because, well, um… he sees the numbers for all the departments so he has the “big picture” in his head. Not surprisingly, few UK companies are innovative risk-taking commercial dynamos. But they do have perfectly formatted quarterly financial reports.

A lot of companies in a lot of places seem to have perfected the knack of hiring the wrong person. Even very big and very well-known companies seem to get it wrong more often than not.

The strange thing is, hiring the right people for the right jobs isn’t difficult.

Talk to half a dozen or more people who are currently performing the role you want to fill in your own company. Make sure these people are recognized as top performers by their peers. Ask them about the core skills required, the types of personality that tend to succeed in that particular role, and the things they need in order to be successful. See if there really are any must-have qualifications; if not, don’t ask for them. Draw up a list of commonalities. That’s your guideline for filling the position.

If you don’t have the necessary budget to hire the right people into the right roles, then rethink your premises. Just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you actually can do it if you don’t have the resources you need. You may really, really believe in that 20,000 ton bridge you’ve got sparkling and shining in your mind, but if your budget runs to only 3 tons of steel it is not going to happen. Period.

Never, ever, persuade yourself that you can roll two or three very different jobs into one. That SEO whiz you just hired isn’t going to be any good at also managing your trans-national logistics pipeline. It’s just not her forte no matter how much you’d really like it to be because then you could make the budget work.

So start with a realistic budget. Then look for the skills you need.

To make the right hire, you need to understand the requirements of the role. To do that, you need to talk to good people who are currently succeeding elsewhere in that role. Then try to hire someone who has the core skills that all your exemplars have identified as being crucial; ignore everything else.

Never, ever, hire someone because you like them or because they remind you of yourself or a family member. Never hire someone because of their gender, skin color, or any other irrelevant factor. Focus only on their skills and capabilities. As you’re unlikely to be able to assess these factors yourself, get a qualified person to do the in-depth evaluation. Even if it costs you a few consulting dollars.

Because isn’t it better to spend a few hundred now than lose hundreds of thousands because you didn’t know what to look for in your candidates?

And never, ever, involve HR in the hiring process. If people in HR knew anything about roles elsewhere in the company then they wouldn’t be trapped in HR. QED.

Obviously there’s more to hiring than I can cover in this brief and highly opinionated article. But what is here is based on 30 years of experience across a variety of large international corporations, medium-sized organizations, and multiple high-growth startups.

I hope it helps.

Good luck.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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