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Why you need to start hiring people who are ‘better’ than you

By Alistair Cox, CEO of Hays

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so that they can tell us what to do.” Steve Jobs, Co-founder, Chairman and CEO of Apple Inc

“I surround myself with people who have knowledge and talents in areas where I might not be so well versed.” Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group

“I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person.” Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Facebook

I’m sure you’ve heard one or more of these famous quotes before – in fact, it was only the other day when Jobs’ profound quote popped up in my LinkedIn newsfeed, amassing many likes and comments. But I’m sure some of you reading this would argue that these quotes are clichéd and that, actually, they aren’t saying anything particularly groundbreaking - surely hiring good people is just common sense? And they’d be right, it is common sense. But, worryingly I don’t think enough people heed this advice in reality.

So, in this blog, I want to explore why, in today’s ever-evolving world of work, I think it is now more important than ever before that leaders hire people who they believe have the potential to be ‘better’ than them one day, or, indeed, already have ‘better’ expertise than they do in certain areas. I’ll also take a look at what I think are the reasons why this doesn’t always happen, and lastly, what I think leaders should be doing differently when it comes to hiring.

What it means to hire people who are ‘better’ than you

First off, I want to clarify that hiring people who are ‘better’ than you doesn’t mean hiring people who you think can do your job right now. I’m not talking about hiring someone who could walk into your business and replace you today. Far from it.

In my mind, the word ‘better’ in the context of hiring can and should mean one of two things, or both:

1. Hiring those people, who, as Branson says, have skills in areas you don’t – after all, as successful leaders, it’s impossible for us to be an expert in every area we oversee. We, therefore, need individual experts to be our eyes and ears on the ground – Peter Drucker referred to these people as ‘knowledge workers’ and noted in his book, The Landmarks of Tomorrow, that these workers would be the most valuable assets of the 21st century organisation due to their high levels of productivity and creativity.

2. Hiring people who you think could do your job in 5, 10, 15 years’ time (possibly doing it better than you are currently doing it today). Or more challengingly, hiring people who you think could be your boss in 5, 10, 15 years’ time.

Why it’s becoming more important to hire people who are ‘better’ than you

When we start off in our careers, we’re very much learning our trade, therefore, our day-to-day technical knowledge is key. Then, as we progress through the ranks into a leadership position, our priorities and objectives naturally change and evolve. We often no longer have the time to be across every minute detail, and neither should we be in many cases. Instead, our focus is on strategy, setting out our vision, and motivating and directing our team of resident experts. This shift means that we need to hire people we can trust to get on with the day-to-day, those who we don’t feel the need to constantly micromanage, because we feel confident in the fact that they are the best people for the job. So, if you think about it from this perspective, it’s always been important for leaders to hire people who are somehow ‘better’ than themselves (particularly in terms of specific skills sets and areas of expertise). Quite frankly, if they didn’t, or don’t, most businesses would come to a standstill.

However, I do believe the need for leaders to heed the advice of Jobs, Branson and Zuckerberg is becoming even more critical today than it ever has been before, particularly when it comes to hiring those who have high potential. Why? Leaders need the best minds they can find to help them win the battle to innovate, and innovate better and faster than anyone else. They need the best minds they can find to help them think creatively and help solve the problems they didn’t realise they had. It’s, therefore, becoming more important for leaders to hire people, who, tomorrow (whenever tomorrow might be), could potentially do their job better than they themselves are doing their jobs today. Constant improvement in every aspect of your business is key to survival these days, and in my mind, constantly improving and raising the bar when it comes to hiring is no different.

So, if you’re a leader reading this blog, please recognise that you don’t need to be the most qualified person on your team. It’s not your job to be ‘better’ than everyone else, or indeed to be ‘better’ at everything than everyone else. And, actually, you shouldn’t be – if you are, you’re at risk of holding your business back – I think we’d all agree that that’s a scary place to be in today’s climate. As Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO puts it, “If you hire people less good than you, to make yourself look good, you’re going to fail.”

Why aren’t you hiring people who are ‘better’ than you?

Sounds straightforward right? Yes – but why doesn’t everyone do it this way then? For most of us, hiring people we think are ‘better’ than ourselves either in terms of specific skills or potential can be extremely challenging, even confronting. After all, we’re all human, and to varying degrees, we’re all competitive, so doing so can feel unnatural. As Madan Pillutla, Ph.D., a professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, states: "Even if people are well-meaning and well-intentioned, it's very difficult to act against your own self-interest by hiring someone who could outperform you.” Hiring someone we perceive to be ‘better’ than us almost goes against our primal sense of self-preservation and taps into the unspoken fear that we are somehow replaceable. It also feeds into the nagging feelings of insecurity we all experience from time to time.

Secondly, I think the ego also has a powerful part to play here. We all have an ego and of course, that’s not always a bad thing in business. However, as John Baldoni says in this Harvard Business Review article: "…often when we see business leaders making poor decisions it seems as if their ego is speaking louder than their voice of reason." Is your ego stopping you from making the best decisions for your business, whether those be decisions about people or otherwise? If so, perhaps it’s time to make sure it’s in check. As Matt Beeton, CEO of Port of Tyne, says in his TEDx Talk, “Sometimes it’s essential to take a tactical bruise on that ego for the betterment of an organisation.” This couldn’t ring truer when striving to hire the ‘best’ people you can.

Why should you hire people who are ‘better’ than you?

Aside from helping to drive innovation, as I’ve already mentioned, why else should leaders look to hire those they think have the potential to do their jobs in 5, 10, or 15 years’ time, or those who have skills in areas they don’t? Here are four more compelling reasons:

1. It will improve the internal perception of you as a hiring manager. As Liz Ryan states in her Forbes column, “Brilliant employees make you look like the confident, talent-aware manager you are.” And, as the politician, Robert Henry Grant once said: “When you hire people that are smarter than you are, you prove that you are smarter than they are.”

2. To communicate to the wider business that you’re focused on shared success, not just your own success. Acting for the greater good of the organisation can bring huge kudos and personal gratification, as Stacey Cunningham, President of the New York Stock Exchange explains in this podcast.

3. It will challenge your perspectives and traditional ways of working, forcing you out of your comfort zone and into a mindset of continuous learning. This may sound threatening at first, but, trust me, these people will only help you get even better at what you do and help set the stage for your next move.

4. To free up the space and time you need, so that you can focus on those areas in which you can deliver the most value. As Richard Branson says, “…finding people better than you to do the things you’re not good at…frees you up to do the things you are good at.”

How to change your mindset when it comes to hiring

So we’ve established that the more senior you are (and the more senior you want to become), the more important it is that you consciously hire people who you think are ‘better’ than you, whether that be in terms of potential, expertise or skillset. You must recognise that these people are key to your own, and, importantly, your business’ long-term success – particularly in a world such as ours which is constantly shifting and evolving in ways we can’t always predict. And I believe the first step in this realisation is to work to change your mindset.

As a leader, your job isn’t to tell people what to do. As Jobs once said, your job is to find the people who already know what to do (or have the potential to know) and create an environment in which they can perform at their best. As a leader, you shouldn’t be hiring people you think you can shape to fit an existing mould, a mould that hasn’t changed in years. You should be hiring people who have the skills and potential to break the mould. Those who can partner with you in driving your business forward, even if they end up leading you down a path you hadn’t previously anticipated.

Linda Hill, Professor at Harvard Business School reinforces this point nicely: “Your role is no longer to be an individual contributor…your job is to set the stage and by definition that means you will have people who are more experienced, more up-to-date, and have more expertise working under you.” Ultimately, you need to understand that you are just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle, but you are that one, important piece, which slots all the other pieces together and completes the picture.

Lastly, even the best leaders on the planet have weaknesses and blind spots. What makes them so brilliant is that they know what these are. They know what they’re good at, and what they’re not so good at, and as such are acutely self-aware. They don’t see their gaps or flaws as weaknesses or feel threatened by those who are better able to fill those gaps; they embrace them. They don’t feel quietly intimidated by those around them who have potential. Instead, they nurture and develop them – so that, one day, they do become better than them.

So, take some time to really understand what your gaps and flaws are, and, importantly, don’t be ashamed to articulate and share them with your team (and keep them in mind when you’re hiring). Also, let your defences down and take your blinkers off and see the potential right in front of your eyes when interviewing. Doing both of these things will help ensure you not only hire the ‘best’ people for your business – the people that that are the missing pieces of your own unique jigsaw puzzle.

How to hire people who are ‘better’ than you

So, next time you’re interviewing a candidate, I urge you to take a step back and ask yourself some potentially challenging questions - “How do they compare to me?”, “What can I learn from them?”, “Could they do my job in 5, 10, 15 years?” or even “Could they be my boss in 5, 10, 15 years’ time?&dquo;. Really, what I’m encouraging you to do here is to lift your head up from reading lines on a CV and going through a standard checklist in your head. Instead, look up and see the candidate’s true potential and the value they could bring - even if you fear they might tread on your toes one day.

Hiring the ‘best’ also requires you to flex your influencing skills. You must use the time in the interview room to outline your mission, vision and purpose for the organisation in a compelling way, and in a way that resonates with the candidate. In my experience, the ‘best’ people will want to know that they will be working for a business they are genuinely excited by, and one in which they feel they can add real value to every day when they come into work. Ask yourself this question during the interview: “This person is world-class, so why will they work for me?” You need to be able to answer that well, in a compelling way. But think about it. If you are the leader that puts the whole jigsaw together, one of the most valuable things you can ever do in your business is to assemble the talent it needs. So, what are you offering and why would that talent rather work for you versus your competitors? How are you differentiating yourself?

Lastly, always seek the opinions of others you trust in the business when making every hiring decision. As Steve Jobs said, ‘hiring should be a collaborative process’. So, listen to the right voices, and, importantly, involve those voices who will be working both above and below the candidate - this will help challenge any innate biases and ultimately ensure you hire the ‘best’ person you possibly can. Asking other people for input and advice is never a weakness in business, but in my mind, this is especially true when it comes to hiring.

I’ve always firmly believed that your people are your business’ most powerful asset. Therefore, as the leader of that business, you should always strive to hire people who are ‘better’ than you, no matter how unnatural that may feel at times. For your business to really blossom, I strongly believe that this should be a strategic priority for you, and one that never wavers.

So, I’d like to end this blog in the same way that I started it – with another quote which I think articulates the point I’m trying to make perfectly:

"If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants." David Ogilvy, CBE, Founder of Ogilvy & Mather

About this author

Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America.

In 2002, he returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.

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