Monday, December 17, 2012

Why hiring smart is not enough

Warren Buffet once said “In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don’t have the first one, the other two will kill you.”Clearly integrity is the first requirement when hiring. But right behind it, and just as critical, is intelligence, but intelligence comes with it's own baggage.

Obviously intelligence is essential when hiring into a fast growing company. Intelligence enables quick problem solving and brilliant, innovative ideas. Intelligence allows people to work autonomously when they need to cut through to the solution and many smart people can work faster and still get to a great result. Smarter employees take less time to train, less time to positively impact your business.

But smart people can also have a hard time learning. Chris Argyris' article in the HBR, written in 1991, "Teaching Smart People How to Learn" outlines the basic dilemma and ways to think about solving it. (It's a must-read in my opinion) The dilemma is that the smartest people in the organization, who are assumed to be the best at learning, may actually not be very good at it.

"Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the “blame” on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most"

Brittle behavior, defensiveness and blaming kill a team's ability to solve complex problems together. When you are changing quickly and learning a market (which is a continuous process when growing fast) it's important that everyone on the team can learn from the facts that are emerging, and when things don't turn out exactly as planned (which they never do) don't blame, just get on with finding the next solution.

And the key to not blaming is to be able to be introspective and look inside first - What are my assumptions and beliefs that are holding me back from learning from this situation (and so contribute to learning as a team)? Very smart people who do this naturally learn fast in complex business situations. Very smart people who are arrogant about their intellect typically don't. Struggling early (in school, in your first job); and/or experiencing failure is humbling. It makes you go inside, and with practice people develop the ability to check their internal assumptions first, before blaming someone else.

It's tricky, but you can figure this out in a candidate interview. Chris Argyris's article points out that: "One of the paradoxes of human behavior, however, is that the master program people actually use is rarely the one they think they use. Ask people in an interview or questionnaire to articulate the rules they use to govern their actions, and they will give you what I call their “espoused” theory of action. But observe these same people’s behavior, and you will quickly see that this espoused theory has very little to do with how they actually behave."

The way you can determine a smart person's real behavior, not their theory of who they are, and whether their default reaction is defensiveness or blame is to spend time with them on their failures. Can they describe to you a time they failed? What did it feel like, what lead up to it, what would they do differently, what areas of growth are they still working on improving that hurt them then as well as now? When I look back on the bad hires I've made (and I've made plenty), for many of them I can think back to the interview and I missed the introspection step.

I'm still always surprised when I ask the question "so tell me about a time you failed and what you did that contributed to the failure", shortly followed by "and what is the area you still need to improve, where you keep screwing up and you're working to fix it" that very smart people cannot, or will not, answer in a meaningful way. Or give all the reasons why it wasn't their fault. Conversely, it's powerful when a candidate can tell me what they are working on (in personal development) and how they are looking for a team of complementary skills, or an environment where they can grow and learn.

Note, this is not about EQ. Being charming in an interview and being the person I'd like to hang out with in a bar is not the same thing as being good at learning with a team.

So the first step is to test if the candidate is smart, and smart enough for the job you have. Technical tests, or emulations of real life situations (eg. for sales) are necessary to find the high IQ candidates. But it is also important to make sure you are hiring someone who can learn as your business changes and learn from circumstance without becoming defensive.

To quote my father (not always a good idea on a blog, but sometimes worth the risk) "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"

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