Monday 28 January 2019

Why it's good to hire people with something to learn

As someone who typically is on the 'hiring' end of the recruitment process it's been an interesting experience recently exploring the market for personal opportunities. Reading job advertisements I have been struck by how specific many are around the need to have done exactly, and I mean exactly, the same role before somewhere else. The reason that I find it interesting is because this is something that I have never done. In fact it rather contradicts one of my guiding principles when hiring people which is

"Always employ people into a role where they have something to learn".

We need to be open to fresh ideas

More than one role that I've seen advertised recently has specified a requirement that the applicants not only had to have worked in the same role, or the same role and industry, but actually in the same role and industry in a directly equivalent project. Knowing how hard it is to find great people I find this approach frustrating. Of course it makes sense to require that someone possess skills and experience for a role, but this level of specificity didn't make a lot of sense and excluded people with deep related skills that could potentially have done an excellent job.

This is a good example of the attitude of many employers and agents. Why go to the efforts of training and developing people when you can simply hire folks from other companies who have been doing exactly the same thing? It seems like a sound approach, and yet I believe one that is out of date for modern employment.

More and more organisations are coming around to the idea that innovation is central to their long-term success. The research quoted in Burkus's "The Myths of Creativity" that I wrote about in this post suggests that successful innovation is not necessarily the outcome of deep established expertise alone, but rather the bringing together of expert knowledge with new ideas and perspectives in novel ways that inspire new approaches and opportunities. I've worked in businesses in the past where the majority of employees simply spent their time moving between the same roles in different companies within their specific market sector. If your company is in a cycle of simply trading employees with others in the same sector, where are your new disruptive ideas going to come from?

Give people room to grow

I always try to employ people who have something to learn.

  • It may be that they have a technical understanding of the business domain and need to expand their skills in the role
  • It may be that they have skills in the role and need to learn more on the domain
  • It may be that they have worked in a more junior role and domain and are looking to expand their autonomy and responsibility.
  • It may be that they have a lot of experience but not specifically using the methodology or process adopted by the recruiting company

In each case when they walk through the door on their first day they are going to have a combination of enthusiasm and nervousness that excites and motivates them. The opportunity learn gives them a compelling reason to both want the job and to throw themselves into learning when they start.

Contrast this with the person who is doing exactly the same job as they had in their previous role. Their attention on day one will be drawn to the differences with their last role, and particularly things that will hinder them in doing the same job. Companies not meeting employee expectations is a major cause of employee disengagement and if an employee feels like they don't have gaps to fill themselves then any failings on the part of the employer will be magnified.

It's a repeated pattern that I've seen throughout my career that my most successful hires have been the ones who I've been able to provide coaching to augment their own knowledge, whilst giving them the autonomy to really grow into a role in their own way. One of my most successful was someone who had strong support team experience but no commercial knowledge of Linux or databases. This was a risk given that the role was supporting primarily Linux database distributions, however, he was a great communicator and passionate about the technology. His enthusiasm meant that he developed his knowledge incredibly quickly, whilst providing excellent communication in the support role that allowed us to stand out in our field for the professional service we provided.

Sometimes hiring does go wrong

As someone with a good historical success rate in hiring, I can be honest about the fact that I have occasionally made mistakes. In these situations what I saw was that the reasons for the problems were very rarely just lack of direct experience. In fact, people with specific and relevant experience struggled as much as those with more to learn.

Hiring Product Owners into a new team in an agency, for example, proved to be very difficult. The challenging context unfortunately resulted in a higher turnover than I had seen with other teams. What marked out the more successful candidates was not directly transferable experience but actually their softer skills of communication, flexibility and assertiveness which came to the fore when the role became more demanding.

I have also seen people struggle when I've hired with the knowledge that the individual actually needed hands-on support to grow into the role, and then I have been unable to provide that support. I know that other hiring managers have had the same situation where they over-estimate the time they can devote to those who need deep support. Hiring people who have something to learn is not the same as hiring people who don't have the capacity to be self-sufficient and it's important to be aware of the difference.

We move too fast to stand still

New trends in the software industry come about with alarming regularity. It doesn't take long before today's 'bleeding edge' practice makes its way onto the job experience requirements for tomorrow and the scrap-heap of outdated methodologies the day after. This article published by McKinsey this month makes the relevant point that as Agile approaches extend from the development team out to the wider organizational hierarchy, the skills of adaptability and flexibility will have the highest potential to add value in future. It seems counter-intuitive not to adopt a hiring approach that takes such flexibility into consideration.

Instead we seem to want people who are flexible and adaptable for our Agile organization, yet when hiring we will only consider candidates who've done exactly the same roles before. This is something of a contradictory stance to take on recruitment, and one that is set up to fail. Passionate and motivated 'agile' employees don't want to take on roles that are exactly the same as they've done before. They want to be constantly progressing their careers, developing skills, building their personal profile and pushing themselves forward.

My position always has, and always will, be to look for people who can bring drive, motivation and different perspectives to a company and in return will learn new skills to challenge and progress themselves. When recruiting I'm far more interested in people that have pro-actively delivered change than ones that have necessarily operated in an identical role before. These are the people that I know will want to drive improvements and take the team forward in new directions in the future, irrespective of what that future might hold.

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