Judgement, Character, Passion – Staffing a High Performing Team

There has been much hue and cry about the difficulty in finding qualified talent despite a demonstrable surplus of candidates. Traditional search is fine for many jobs and yields acceptable candidates most of the time.  But, when you’re looking to staff a high performance team to break new ground and achieve extraordinary results, the critical skills are not easily parsed by search engines or volume recruitment. Perhaps, to steal a song lyric, we’re “looking for love in all the wrong places”.  A quick survey of job postings across sources (e.g. LinkedIn, Indeed.com, and other aggregators) shows high importance placed on “top school”, “same job elsewhere” and a laundry list of specific must haves. While these criteria represent the safe bet envelope that lends itself to automated filtering, they aren’t a guarantee of top candidates.  The underlying strength of personal referrals is that they bring insight into the true critical success factors; Judgement, Character and Passion. Maybe flipping the search criteria upside down would yield better results faster.

What’s Wrong With A Narrowly Defined Search.

Well, nothing, if you just want a narrow pool of results. But that narrow pool is only the starting point, from which you must refine further, taking into account the following weaknesses of the traditional initial screen.

Formal schooling is the time honored method of accelerating experience.  As Warren Buffet has been quoted as saying: “It’s great to learn from your mistakes, better to learn from other peoples’ mistakes”.  In the end, however, learning the results and not experiencing the method is a shortcoming when it comes to a lean, high performing enterprise. It’s the unique balance of theoretical and experiential knowledge that marks the exceptional candidate. As years pass, the value of (and any premium from) type and source of formal schooling is diminished by a fullness and diversity of experience. You can’t teach how to be a combat veteran.  Only experiencing actual warfare accomplishes that.

That said, it’s not a given that the “same job elsewhere” should be weighted too heavily. The investment caveat “past performance does not guarantee future results” is apropos here. Someone’s track record is rarely a singular effort. The degree of support provided by other team members, employees, supervisors or mentors is difficult to discern from a CV or formal interview.  Only after a period of under- or non-performance in the new position does it become evident that an individual’s accomplishments were, in fact, not individual accomplishments. Needless to say, especially for lean entrepreneurial ventures, this can be fatal.

As for the laundry list of must haves, these often look like a piling on of all the wish list items a group sitting around a conference table could come up with.  Chances are only a few are truly must haves, and should be vetted against the near term objectives set for the position and the firm.  The rest should just be left off and used as bonus points later in the screening process. If you screen based on a laundry list of alphabet soup acronyms and buzz words for every communications protocol, your likely to miss a candidate who has deep understanding of applied communication theory, but maybe only applied to a portion of the wish list.  You may very well end up with a candidate who has worked with them all yet lacks the knowledge of when to apply which and why.

And, there are times when ten years of experience is just one year, ten times. All of which is to say, at the end of this process, you may still not have the fire starter or rainmaker you need.

And Now For Something Completely Different.

So, what makes Judgement, Character, Passion the key discriminators and how do you recruit and search using these criteria?

There are not many tasks left in the running of an enterprise that are cut and dried.  Those that remain are handled by computers.  To plagiarize the title of one of my favorite management books; the human side of enterprise is about adjudicating the dichotomies and ambiguities of day to day business.  This is where Judgement comes in. As important as it is to be able to use all the tools and analytics in a given situation, at the end of the day it’s Judgement that ascribes the weightings to the data and ultimately sets the decision. There is always an emotional component to a critical decision. Judgement is the art/skill that balances that component.

Successful teams bond on the basis of shared experience under pressure. This is the underlying principle of the various Outward Bound type programs, military basic training, and even the silly antics of fraternity/sorority hell week. But how do you screen for membership on the team in the first place. What if you don’t have the luxury of rotating a certain percentage of players out every few months.  What trait can be used as a predictor of performance in a team environment.  Character is, in essence, the measure of how you behave when no one’s watching.  It’s about how you react to pressure. It’s about how you treat people in general. Character begets trust and trust is a core value of high performing teams.

The essence of high performance teams is that they are extremely lean. That means constant ‘extra effort’. For people to put forth that effort on a consistent basis, they need to be excited about what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. Passion is the ultimate force multiplier.  The candidate who brings Passion to the team brings the contagious energy that fuels above average productivity. It also provides the momentum that carries though the inevitable down cycles and disappointments that are part of any meaningful endeavor.

So, Here We Are.

This is a case where automation doesn’t necessarily equate to efficiency or effectiveness. For all the ease of generating boilerplate resumes and cover letters, posting, distributing, sorting and screening electronically, the “soft skills” that make up critical success factors elude software.  A different approach may be called for.  What if, instead of crafting the detailed job description, requirements and company filler, a simple problem statement was put forth.  Candidates would be invited to posit approaches and perhaps relate relevant experience in a brief narrative.  Reviewing the responses would demonstrate Judgement (appropriateness of response), Character (stated inclusiveness of other contributors in either methodology or experiential narrative) and Passion (general tone of the response).  Preparing such a narrative would, in itself, be a limiting factor/filter on responses. The results would present a interesting set of candidates indeed.

Of course, nothing beats a trusted personal referral.


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