Iain McLaren/How to hire a superstar

Created Wed, 24 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Modified Wed, 24 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000
882 Words

Superstars are specialists


Photo: Unsplash

1. Superstars are smart and get things done

In 2000, Joel Spolsky wrote the Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing. By far the most sensible document that I have ever read about employing people. Some parts of Joel’s article only apply to the technology industry. But it is still worth reading the whole thing. As Joel says:

In principle, it’s simple. You’re looking for people who are:

  • Smart; and
  • Get things done.

Candidates with zero out of two of these traits are, frankly, a waste of money. As are smart ineffective people. But the worst hires are those who are not smart, but still get things done. These people actively break things. They can break your business.

Testing for smartness is relatively easy. But testing whether (or not) your candidate can actually get hard things done involves determining whether (or not) that person is a specialist. A genuine specialist. Let me explain.

2. The simple smartness test

If your candidate survives the resume cull, and has made it into the room with you, then the smartness (not just intelligence) test is quite simple.

We sometimes think it’s hard. Or overcomplicate our decision making process. But as Joel says (seriously, read the whole article), if we are in any doubt about a candidate then we should simply not employ them:

You’re going to see three types of people in your interviews:

  • At one end of the scale, there are the unwashed masses, lacking even the most basic skills for this job. They are easy to ferret out and eliminate, often just by asking two or three quick questions.
  • At the other extreme you’ve got your brilliant superstars …
  • And in the middle, you have a large number of “maybes” who seem like they might just be able to contribute something.

Sorry for repeating myself, but I’ll say it again. If in doubt, don’t hire:

The trick is telling the difference between the superstars and the maybes, because the secret is that you don’t want to hire any of the maybes. Ever..

I have made this mistake and it’s a big one. When we need to hire. And one candidate is both fine on paper, and better than the other candidates. But that person does not have a passion for the business. Or your team is unimpressed. Or hiring them just doesn’t feel right. Then just don’t hire them.

3. Only specialists get hard things done

Our prospective new hire may be smart, but can he or she get things done? We look for examples of hard achievements or accomplishments. We look for victories.

This might be getting into (and completing) a competitive University course. Or military service. Or setting up and running a successful business or charity. Or being an accomplished concert violinist. And it might be multiple achievements or accomplishments. We look for anything genuinely competitive or hard.

And to win. Or more to the point, to have won. Our candidate must have learned specialist skills. Our superstar candidate will already be a specialist CEO, or a specialist engineer, or an expert management consultant, or an accomplished musician.

Only specialists get hard things done.

4. A superstar may be a specialist in another field

Or possibly a few fields. But avoid the candidate who is apparently generally (and generically) great. Avoid potential hires who are not, and have never been, specialists in any field.

And obviously we would prefer that our new hire has a demonstrated passion for their new job (or at least industry). But this is not an absolute requirement, particularly for relatively junior employees.

Superstars are passionate about their area of expertise. And if your candidate is passionate, then the hiring decision should be obvious. Still in doubt? Help me out Joel:

Never say “Maybe, I can’t tell.” If you can’t tell, that means No Hire. It’s really easier than you’d think. Can’t tell? Just say no! If you are on the fence, that means No Hire. Never say, “Well, Hire, I guess, but I’m a little bit concerned about…” That’s a No Hire as well. Mechanically translate all the waffling to “no” and you’ll be all right.

Why am I so hard-nosed about this? It’s because it is much, much better to reject a good candidate than to accept a bad candidate. A bad candidate will cost a lot of money and effort and waste other people’s time …

5. Specialists do hard things and great things

By the time that you interview (or meet) your candidate, they (whether junior or not) will have already accomplished something demonstrably hard. And hopefully something demonstrably great.

Your candidate will already be an expert. Your candidate will already be a specialist. Your candidate will already have been accepted into (and completed) a competitive university course. Or they will have built their own rocket ship. Or whatever.

Oh … and … er … sorry … what do you mean:

Why would I want to hire a superstar?


Won’t they make my life difficult?

Ah, I’m sorry. I can’t help you there. But now that you mention it, maybe I should write another article about how to identify superstar employers …

This post originally appeared at iainmclaren.com. These opinions are mine. They are not necessarily those of my employer.