Hiring Brilliant Jerks Can Cost You the Culture That Brought Success

It may take time, but involve everyone, and find the right fit.
Hiring Brilliant Jerks Can Cost You the Culture That Brought Success
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Growth is important, but so is culture.

Hyper-growth in a dynamic industry is a good problem to have, but even a "good" problem needs solving. A recent Harvard Business Review article, for example, explained that “avoiding a toxic employee” can save a company a great deal of money -- even more than the company would make by hiring a star performer. But double- or triple-digit growth rates put recruiters under pressure to hire quickly without bringing problematic employees into the fold. So how do you accomplish finding the right hire quickly?

Ad tech hit a speed bump over the last year or so as venture capital investors have pulled back slighty. However, the sector as a whole continues to grow as more ad spending shifts to digital. The segment’s overall revenues are expected to triple by 2020 to $100 billion. That growth, and the programmatic space in particular, attract a set of workers who are understandably interested in joining an industry with a strong future. Yet when it comes to readily usable programmatic skills, it’s a sellers’ market.

Related: The 3 Most Common -- and Costly -- Hiring Mistakes

It’s the personality, stupid.

That’s why ad-tech recruiters frequently find staffing an issue. Factor in a generally fresher ecosystem with shorter tenure and quicker job rotations than in more traditional industries -- energy, banking or retail -- and you find yourself hiring younger or less experienced candidates than you normally would. 

Younger, less-experienced candidates offer many benefits, including agility, fluency with the most recent tech trends and comfort with the world as it is (or is about to be). However, experience-based assessment (i.e., assessing what they will do based on what they did) is less useful when candidates draw from a more shallow well of experiences. You may find yourself interviewing a person who has only a single internship to talk about. Predicting how such a person will behave in a full-time job is tricky. Sometimes you’ll offer a complex problem to learn how they might approach it, and they’ll talk about how they decided to study in Barcelona rather than London. I can’t count the number of candidates who have told me how they decided to break up with (or stay with) their girlfriend or boyfriend. So you have to work with what they give you. How are they tackling a challenge? Any challenge?

Related: Hiring Tip: Ask About the Candidate, Don't Talk About the Position

Weeding out brilliant jerks.

You need to make sure that each new hire will commit to the company’s vision and will quickly sync with the rest of the team. That requires knowing your company’s ethos and culture. If the new hire’s commitment is unclear, invest some time to make it clear.

One thing we (and now, Arianna Huffington and Uber) look to avoid is hiring the “brilliant jerk” -- a person who is bright, capable and unpleasant. Some companies enjoy hiring brilliant jerks because it fits with a competitive internal environment. But at many firms, as the HBR article referenced above noted, such hires cause a great deal of damage.  

Short of asking “Are you a jerk?” and hoping for an honest reply, there are a few questions that can suss out such tendencies. One is asking, “Tell me about somebody great.” The answer will demonstrate whether someone can be passionate, animated and admiring of others. You can see if they speak from the heart. If they don’t, you’ll get a better feel for what sets their gears in motion. Do they seem to view others as stooges, praising those who tell them what they want to hear, or do they let others shine?

You want someone who can explain his or her expertise in a way that’s approachable. If they can’t, their skills are likely to stop with them. At the same time, look for indicators of a person’s mindset. If something fails, rather than look for ways to make it better the next time, they look for someone to blame. That’s a no-go. 

Related: 11 Secrets From Top Entrepreneurs on Hiring the Best Talent

Trust in consensus.

No one should enter a company after fewer than four interviews, and they should first meet all of the key people they will work with. Everyone needs to agree the person will be a good hire. Those requirements are a service to the prospective hire as well as to the company.

Some will argue that such a process takes too long. Rigorous criteria can lead you to leave a position open for months rather than fill it with the wrong employee. Make sure you have a scheduling ninja or two, so you don’t lose qualified applicants to excessive delay.

The C-suite needs to understand that the quality of workers determines a company’s culture, reputation and productivity. This is especially true in a fast-growing company in a fast-growing industry. It can be tough to hire methodically when supervisors are begging for help. Thoughtless hiring, though, can undo years of hard work. No one wants that.

Take your time.