Say it with me now: your products and processes are great, but your people do matter

Here’s a new academic working paper, summarized here, that basically says if you hire a “star” — a great performer,then — your department will be 26 percent more productive. Now, there’s a huge caveat to this study: it focused on evolutionary biology departments. Those are much different places than corporate Applebee’s, so the results may not extrapolate. The broader idea does roll up with Steve Jobs talking about how “A-Players” (the best people) want to hire and work with other “A-Players,” thus getting two or three top people in the door can ideally lead to an influx of other top people.

This paper came out around the same paper as a bunch of breathless profiles of Nate Silver, former New York Times and current ESPN / 538 editor. Here’s one that looks at his hiring process and notes that since last summer, he’s spent 90 percent of his time focused on hiring for 538. Wait, what? A top guy focusing on hiring 90 percent of the time? That’s insane. Well, here’s the quote from Silver. It’s both (a) accurate and (b) depressing given how most organizations are ultimately structured:

Hiring—it’s not the kind of thing that should be left to HR reps.

I’ve written about this whole thing before, so I won’t go into it too deeply here. Over time, most organizations have conceptualized Human Resources as either “personnel” or “secretarial pool No. 2” or “compliance” or “office cops.” Those are all potential roles, and there’s value in each to an extent — but when the focus is in those places and then the idea of hiring (i.e. bringing in the people who will actually make your products and processes work) is left to the same people, there’s a potential issue/disconnect there. Consider this: if you’re a person primarily focused on compliance-type issues and making sure just the “right” person comes in the door, could you possibly feel this way?

Many of the best people I’ve hired didn’t have perfect resumes and would not appear to be ideal candidates on paper. But to create the high-powered, learning, collaborative, flexible and adaptable teams needed to be successful in our evolving knowledge-based economy, you need to take non-traditional approaches totalent management and development.

Nope. Non-traditional is scary to others, especially many within HR (that I’ve worked with/interviewed with). Hiring managers want to fill jobs; HR wants to hit the right checkmarks on the job description; people above the hiring managers want a “talent strategy” that involves the best people. No one’s really talking to each other. The system should change — and whether that means top guys like Silver at bigger organizations than 538 taking a broader interest in hiring, so be it. Consider this too: as recently as February 2012, Larry Page (CEO of Google) still approved virtually every hire at the company.

Invest in people — but really do it. They may seem interchangeable or like parts that will eventually leave you, but if you focus your energies there instead of (or in concert with) your products and processes and customer retention strategies, you will succeed.

Ted Bauer

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