What's wrong with hiring "the best," and why "good" is better for your startup
Hiring for your startup is tough and will, at times, feel like the most impossible task on your desk. Early-stage startups can live or die by their ability to recruit the talent they need to achieve the job at hand: get to market as fast as possible and scale at expected multiples. If you don't have the people - you can't operate.
In the past ten years, recruiting has evolved into one of the success pillars of the company. Every leader or manager is expected to have a plan and spend much of her time interviewing new talent. The board is updated monthly on the progress of recruiting by each VP and is constantly pressuring the CEO to bring more talent on board urgently. Let me rephrase the last statement: The board constantly pressures the CEO to get the best talent urgently.
The best talent.
What does it even mean?
If you pause to think about it, you'll find that recruiting the best is almost an impossible goal. How do we know a candidate is the best? What are the criteria for evaluating best? Is there a list somewhere ranking every potential employee from bad to best so that managers could point to the best column and say: "I'll take that one"?
I've had many conversations with CEOs lately about recruiting talent. All of them, yes, ALL of them declared that their company only recruits the best, and they are willing not to fill the position until the best person is found and hired. The mantra was repeated by VC investors who chanted in unison that the most successful startups only recruit the best talent and evaluate founders and CEOs by their ability to attract only the best.
Let's pause again. Think about the company you work for right now. Notice your colleagues. Are 100% of them the best? Can you honestly say that YOU are the best talent the company could have recruited for the position? Is your CEO the best? Is your VP of Product the best head of product?
We gladly buy into this concept as new employees because it boosts our egos. "Out of hundreds of candidates, I was hired because I am the best," we tell ourselves. "Because I am the best, I can ask for a larger compensation package. I can demand more benefits, more perks, more... everything." The company will comply because talent is scarce, and it must compete for every candidate.
The message managers send throughout the recruiting process by making candidates go through a battery of fit interviews and skillset assignments is that they need to make sure the person they hire is the best. What recruiters and managers don't tell the candidate when they joyfully call to let them know they got the job is that they were chosen mainly because they were identified as the most suitable candidate at that specific moment. In reality, what they should say is: "we needed to hire talent, we had x people to choose from, you were the one we felt is most likely to fit and succeed. You're hired. Congrats!"
And so another generation of new best employees start the onboarding process and will soon sit at their desk and be expected to deliver. Fast. Because they are the best. And that's what's expected from the best. To immediately start producing the best results.
The unfortunate byproduct of this message is that the new employee expects their career to race forward. Their career, not skillset. They expect a rapid promotion path. When asked about their development plan, there will be a conflict between the company's expectations and the employee's view of their progress. They will focus on management skills, and their managers will focus on advancing their technical or functional skillset. This approach also promotes the imposter syndrome, which many professionals struggle with.
If you're lucky, you hired the best, work will be done smoothly, and the new employee will be happy and thrive. IF you're lucky. In real-startup life, expectations are often too high. The new employee will struggle to deliver, triggering performance reviews, endless feedback loops, and ultimately questioning whether the new hire is a fit. All because we expected the best and we got just good.
What's wrong with good? I ask. Why can't companies settle for good?
The truth is none of us is the best. All of us are the product of our natural talents, education, experiences, and ability to adapt and develop over time. Our skills and capabilities develop as we gain more experience. We are not the best; we become better as we progress through our professional careers.
If you hire good and invest in developing their skill set, the right talent will become the best - the best for your company.
In this article published on Inc., Jeff Haden discussed the value of employees who reduces their manager's stress, don't create drama, and don't need special attention from their managers. He declares the 'invisible' employee as the most valuable on the team.
Hiring Good can be the best strategy for our company if we are honest with the candidate and create a recruiting process to understand what they are good at and what areas they still need to develop.
Good talent is:
Talent hired to do a good job.
Expected to deliver, not overachieve.
Talent who know from day-1 what areas of development they should focus on.
Talent with a growth-mindset attitude strives to be better, not perceived as the best.
Concentrated on being good at their job.
More capable of being a team player.
Expecting reasonable rewards.
A team made of primarily good talent will:
Achieve goals without unnecessary drama.
Develop a long-term tenure at the company.
Appreciate a stable work environment.
Not feel threatened by overachievers.
Experience less burnout.
Be easier to manage.
Be happier and thrive.
What should managers do?
Design a recruiting process focused on evaluating skillsets.
Set realistic job performance expectations.
Start talent development from day-1.
Encourage and reward the job expected to be done.
Communicate that you are building a team expected to do the work, not overachieve.
What about the best talent? I still want them on my team!
Of course. And you should have them on your team. Just know that a team made of 100% "the best" is really just another good team, and is much harder to create and manage.
The best talent, or the natural overachievers, are easy to detect. They will shine whether you expect them to or not. Good hiring managers will be able to single them out during the recruiting process and will tailor the message for them.
Natural overachievers, when smartly integrated into the team, will serve as a beacon of higher standards for everyone. A team needs a couple of "ideals" to look up to. What they don't need is the feeling that THEY are expected to be "the ideal" and should live up to the expectations.
In summary - focus on the good.
Startups must move at incredible velocity to thrive and succeed. In the early phases, you can't afford the best talent. You just don't have the funds to hire them. Embrace that and focus on developing good teams. Teams that will deliver the work you expect them to deliver. Create a stable talent infrastructure. Give everyone what they need, when they need it. Don't set goals that don't fit the talent you have.
Over time, as you develop your product and gain market share, you will have the funds to uplevel your talent. Just look around you. The world is not made of 100% best talent. All the successful startups and unicorns you see were created with good talent. You can do it too.