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  • Writer's pictureMax Wenneker

2 things that companies look for in candidates that don’t actually matter

In my last post I discussed some of the things that I believe are extremely important to include in a hiring process to separate good candidates from bad ones. On the other hand, there are qualifications or skills that companies often seek in candidates, but in my experience have not been factors in determining a candidate’s success at the company as an employee. If a company can avoid filtering on these criteria, it will be able to identify and hire talent more easily than its competitors.

1. Being a rock star

Companies I’ve worked with have often sought out exclusively “rock stars” when looking for candidates. This seems to be very common in the startup world; how many job posts have you seen where a hiring manager is looking for a “rock star” or “go-getter”? These “rock stars” are generally defined as people who are constantly going above and beyond expectations, taking on more responsibility than their role entails, and growing quickly in the organization. The problem is that having an organization full of this type of employee is not a sustainable setup. Nor, in fact, is it necessarily even productive.

In the book Radical Candor, Kim Scott talks about the concept of “rock stars” versus “rocks”. Rock stars are who many companies go after. But “rocks” are just as important to a company’s success. Rocks are the employees who are competent and dependable but, unlike rock stars, are perfectly happy to stay exactly where they are. Rocks do just as good a job with their responsibilities as rock stars do. They’re just not seeking more. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s necessary.

An organization is typically built like a pyramid. Higher levels naturally have fewer people in them, as managers generally manage teams of multiple people. Fewer people at higher levels of the organization means that there isn’t room for everyone to be promoted. Organizations actually need some people to stay at their current level. All the better if they actually want to. Instead of a bunch of “rock stars” jockeying for position and therefore taking actions that could be selfish and run counter to the company’s best interests, more people will naturally end up in the place they want to be (which might be where they already are). More satisfaction means better culture, greater productivity, and greater retention. All these things are good for the company.

2. School / Pedigree

I started my career as an analyst at a bank, and the vast majority of my analyst class came from 3 or 4 well-known schools. All of my classmates were smart and capable. Then I joined Uber, where my teammates had been hired from all sorts of backgrounds, and many came from schools I had not heard of. Once again, all of my teammates were smart and capable. As I’ve worked with more and more leaders and observed more and more teams and companies in my career, one thing has become very clear to me: where someone went to school has absolutely no correlation to their abilities or intelligence. And companies that agree with this opinion are able to access a humongous pool of talent that others simply filter out either explicitly through policy or inadvertently through unconscious bias.

Taking it a step further, I believe that not only does pedigree have very little relevance to potential, but that in fact ignoring pedigree is a competitive advantage. The most successful teams I’ve built, been a part of, or observed, were successful in large part because the individuals in the team had a diversity of perspectives to offer and could approach a problem from a number of different vantage points. Some of the most capable managers I’ve ever worked with were at Incredible Health. These managers were career nurses with no prior business or management training. But they came from a background where they were expected to juggle many responsibilities, react to rapidly-evolving situations, learn quickly, and care deeply. This is what made them great managers.

In mid-1864, during the American Civil War, Union forces surrounded the key Confederate city of Petersburg, Virginia, in order to hinder the Confederacy’s ability to move supplies from there to its capital at Richmond. For months, however, the Union was unable to take the city. A Union commander, who was a coal miner by trade, brought the Union army leadership an unusual idea to try to break the stalemate. He proposed secretly digging a tunnel underneath the enemy, laying explosives in the tunnel, and literally blasting away the Confederate front line. His superiors agreed to the proposal and let the commander and his unit (itself made up mostly of miners) dig the tunnel. The gambit worked: the explosion killed over 200 Confederate soldiers instantly and blew a literal crater in the Confederate line.

Unfortunately, poor planning by Union leadership for what to do after the explosion occurred caused Union troops to not exploit their advantage, and the ultimate result of the battle was a Confederate victory. There are many lessons learned from the Battle of the Crater about what not to do as a leader. But to me, one of the most important ones is a reminder that diversity in background is vital to a team’s success. It is unlikely that a career soldier would have come up with the idea to dig a mine shaft, and even less likely that he could have done so. The fact that this army had a regiment of miners was what led to this idea and its effective execution.

In my next post, I’ll dive further into this topic with a couple more items that, perhaps counterintuitively, are not critical to making good hires.

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