As I See It: Estimable Hiring
September 17, 2018 Victor Rozek
One of the consequences of being wildly successful is that others are eager to imitate you. In a culture worshipful of winners and disdainful of losers, nothing, it seems, guarantees credibility quite as much as raging success. Whether expounding on mangos or mergers, the opinions of the successful always receive rapt attention. Their brains are picked, their writings analyzed, and every budding entrepreneur wants to harness the secrets of their success.
So when Jeff Bezos, arguably the most successful man on the planet, says that hiring the right people is “the single most important element” in ensuring Amazon’s continued success, mere mortals tend to sit up straight and take notice.
Of course the desire to hire the “right” people is not a novel idea, nor is it unique to Amazon. Who, after all, with the possible exception of the current occupant of the White House, publicly champions hiring the “wrong” people? Pretty much everyone is “right” at the time of hire; it is only at layoff time that we discover how many “wrong” people snuck in the door.
More accurately, the secret behind Amazon’s success is not just the ability to hire the “right” people, but knowing precisely what constitutes “right.” For Amazon that answer stretched back at least two decades. Twenty years ago, Bezos told his executives to consider three questions before hiring anyone. He must have stumbled onto something pivotal because today Amazon has more employees than Iceland has residents – from which we can conclude that Amazon knows a thing or two about fruitful hiring practices.
Setting aside the first question for the moment, Bezos’ second question is: “Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering?”
The reasoning here is to not be satisfied with “good enough,” but to continuously raise the bar. A recent Business Insider post quotes Bezos as telling his managers that five years down the road: “Each of us should look around and say, the standards are so high now – boy, I’m glad I got in when I did!”
This requires courageous management. The embedded request in Bezos’ statement encourages managers to progress from hiring competent journeymen to employing virtuosos. For some, this will inevitably mean hiring their replacement. But apparently, most managers profited from employing progressively better and better people, as the growth of Amazon will attest. Besides, there’s no sense in being afraid of people smarter than you, if your success depends on them.
Bezos’ third maxim is: “Along what dimension might this person be a superstar?”
Bezos likes the unusual, a trait reflected in his eclectic business interests which range from his aerospace company Blue Origin, to one of the nation’s preeminent newspapers, The Washington Post. As such, he values people with “unique skills, interests, and perspectives” whether or not those qualities are directly related to their jobs. He believes such people enrich the work environment and, who knows, could be the source of the next great idea.
Special interest hires can be tricky if their passion for their particular pursuit overrides their interest in their job. But as Paul Newman once noted: “If you find passion in one area of your life it will bleed into all the others.”
At the very least such people make the workplace more interesting and at best, they inspire those around them to bring a heightened level of enthusiasm and creativity to their jobs.
But the first, and by far the most intriguing of Bezos’ hiring dictums is: “Will you admire this person?”
Note the use of language: Bezos is not asking, “Do you admire this person,” but “Will you?” It’s asking for a projection, a value judgment based on first impressions and resume content.
This is a particularly difficult hurdle for first-time job seekers. In the context of job interviews, admiration comes from one of two sources: achievement or presence. People just entering the workforce typically are light on achievement, and have not yet developed the gravitas or force of character that would amplify their presence.
So by what criteria is a manger to judge whether a prospective employee will turn out to be admirable? I have no way of knowing if, or how carefully, Amazon scours social media to get a more intimate impression of job applicants. But certainly, personalities and beliefs, prejudices and preferences readily emerge from even a cursory perusal of social media.
Regardless, admiration by first impression is a purely subjective exercise. It’s common to react favorably toward people who share our worldview and conduct themselves by like standards of behavior. Conversely, those who do not embrace our values, or act outside our comfort zone, are greeted with caution, suspicion, even disdain. By the very act of concurrence, people who agree with us become smarter and more deserving of admiration.
That being the case, perhaps the most important element a candidate can bring to an interview is attitude. Are they enthusiastic or passive; do they listen and respond thoughtfully; are they optimists, pessimists, or realists. Attitude leaks out and is hard to fake. The more contagious it is, the more “admirable” you become.
I put “admirable” in quotes, because how many people, outside of historical figures, do any of us actually admire? We tend to admire particular skills and achievements, or to covet status and acquisition, mistaking envy for admiration, but those are secondary to the person creating them.
Ayn Rand succinctly described the essence of admiration: “Have you ever felt the longing for someone you could admire?” she asked. “For something, not to look down at, but up to?” An experience devoutly to be wished. But for a manager to project that level of admiration from a job interview would be challenging indeed.
Jeff Bezos wrote that “Life is definitely too short to work with colleagues you don’t admire. For myself, I’ve always tried hard to work only with people I admire, and I encourage folks here to be just as demanding.”
Undeniably, it is a great gift to work with admirable people. And the desire to do so leads to one overriding, and perhaps uncomfortable question: Assuming we find them, will the people we admire want to work with us?