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  • Writer's pictureMax Wenneker

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

In the last post I discussed the idea that pedigree and “rock star”-ness are not great indicators of potential in candidates. In this post I’ll go into detail on two more areas that I think should be ignored by companies looking for great talent: subject matter expertise (with notable exceptions) and “grinding”.

1. Subject matter expertise (with exceptions)

I’ll readily admit that subject matter expertise is important for certain roles that simply require hard skills not easily learned on a job. In manufacturing operations, for example, someone with experience running a factory or warehouse is far better-positioned to succeed than an operations generalist (like myself) coming from virtual marketplaces such as Uber and Instacart. Surely I would also make a terrible in-house counsel. However, oftentimes companies seek out subject matter expertise in areas where hard skills aren’t nearly as applicable, and the result is a focus on candidates with industry experience rather than on candidates who can actually do the job.

I once worked with a shipping and logistics startup trying to disrupt the trucking industry. They had brought on a trucking industry veteran to head up their driver support team. This person came in and knew exactly how truck drivers operated, had familiarity with all the industry terminology, and had seen driver support done in many other trucking companies. This company, however, wasn’t looking to copy what other logistics companies had done. They were trying to disrupt the space. This leader came in and tried to copy what they had seen in other trucking companies, but failed to question whether those were the appropriate solutions for this company, rather than just what has “always been done”. People with subject matter expertise, particularly in an area such as an industry, tend to replicate what they’ve seen. It’s not due to lack of intelligence, it’s simply due to a natural human bias towards our own set of experiences. In this case, this leader was unable to innovate on the industry standard, and was subsequently let go by the organization. Together, we adjusted their search criteria and brought in an industry-agnostic generalist who understood how to innovate on established practices. This person has been with the company and performing well for over a year now.

One good way to decide if a role truly needs industry expertise is to determine whether the role is a “generalist” or “specifist” (my own term) role.

Generalist role

Generalist roles are ones that do not have a requirement for a specialized skill set and generally benefit from a diversity of thought rather than a set way of doing things. Some good examples are virtual marketplaces (balancing supply/demand), and roles focused on user experience or engagement. Someone in a generalist role should be able to be attached to any problem and have the right critical thinking skills to solve it.

Specifist role

A specifist role is one where the skill set for success takes a long time to develop. These functions tend to have significant and not-obvious nuance to the way things work. I noted some examples above, but a couple more are workforce management, operational safety, and regulatory compliance. Someone in a role like this should deeply understand that area, and also have a history of delivering on innovation and improvements in that area.

2. “Grinding” or working insanely hard

The tendency of startups to promote a culture of working oneself to the bone is, in my mind, incredibly backward. I completely understand the desire by founders to find individuals as dedicated to the cause as they are themselves. And it is certainly natural to correlate hours worked to commitment. But a culture of working long hours creates a number of problems, both in the short term and the long term.

Short-term: inefficiency and poor prioritization

When employees feel pressure to be working all the time, either due to unwritten cultural norms in a company or because they’re being specifically told to, this does not necessarily lead to more work being done. In fact, in my management experience, those in my teams who worked the longest hours were without fail also the least efficient employees I managed. They were doing what they believed was expected of them by working all the time, but they also thought that by working all the time they were delivering large quantities of work. As a manager, I cannot think of one single example where that was true for someone reporting to me. Team members who worked longer hours were delivering, at best, the same as employees who were working fewer hours than they were. Most of the time they were delivering less than their more efficient counterparts. And the quality of their work was consistently worse.

When you think about it, this actually makes some sense. People who create time boundaries on their work have, by design, less time to do the work. This naturally results in the work being more efficiently done. People who don’t set time boundaries, who simply are at their computer at all hours of the day, do not have the same constraints.

On the quality side, this scenario also is quite logical. When employees aren’t setting healthy boundaries between their work and the rest of their life, they’re invariably not taking as good care of themselves and their mental health as those employees who do have those boundaries. Someone working all the time is probably exercising less, eating worse, and not cultivating their brain health enough through socializing and other joy-creating activities. Those employees’ brains are literally incapable of doing as high-quality work as employees who are taking good care of themselves.

The other issue that arises when employees are consistently pressured to “grind it out” is that prioritization falls by the wayside. An employee whose input is “the highest-impact work” will be more likely to prioritize the most important things to be doing with their limited time. An employee whose input is “hours worked” can easily run out of really important things to do, and then have a need to fill those hours with lower-priority tasks. The result isn’t better business results, it’s just more stuff being worked on.

Long-term: burnout and turnover

Working super hard for a long time will inevitably lead to burnout. Burnout is of course not good for the employee, but it’s also really bad for the company. Here are some symptoms of burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic: sadness, anger, irritability, alcohol or substance misuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to illnesses. All of these symptoms either directly impact company morale and productivity, or directly impact company costs.

Perhaps most impactful to the company’s long-term success, though, is burnout’s ultimate result: increased employee turnover. According to a 2019 Forbes article, “46% of HR leaders say employee burnout is responsible for up to half (20% to 50%, specifically) of annual workforce turnover.”

In my interviews I seek out candidates who can demonstrate to me that they set healthy boundaries between their work and their personal life. Then as a manager I do my best to ensure these boundaries are strictly enforced. In return, I’ve consistently had less than 5% annual turnover in my teams.

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