Don’t hire people based on experience and performance, if you can help it.

Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters, from September

Being someone who’s run specialty coffee businesses over the years, without question, the one thing I’m proudest of is the growing list of people I’ve worked with. I write “worked with” and not “who have worked for me” because the idea that someone would work “for me” makes me want to barf. We necessarily assume our respective roles in order to accomplish our common goals, not in a pyramid to fulfill the whims of whoever’s above us on the organizational chart.

Those former colleagues have gone on to open their own coffee shops, win barista championships, and otherwise gain respect and admiration as top specialty coffee professionals around the country. Most of these folks (at least for the first ten years or so) weren’t planning to find careers in coffee at all. Most were just looking for a nice coffeeshop job. Others aren’t working in coffee anymore, but are making amazing things happen in their own fields. Either way, I won’t try to name any of them here because that would be silly. I claim no rights to them and their successes. I’m just glad to have enjoyed each other’s company when we did, and I’m so happy to have the team that Trish and I work with today.

I generally hate receiving compliments, but the one that I happily accept is when people acknowledge how extraordinary my current and former staff members are. I guess it’s different because it’s not really a compliment about me. But then again, there has to be something that I’ve been able to do that amounts to a track record, which in turn is what those people seem to be admiring.

I used to believe that it was about a certain sort of charisma. Be appealing, and you’ll attract appealing people. I also believed that it was the hard work I put in to learn as much about coffee as I could, so that I could pass that on to the people I work with (see number 2 in this article I wrote last year). I think those things are important, but I read something last week that helped me understand myself better.

A recent post on HBR led me to a 2011 article titled “Unlocking the full potential of women in the US economy.” It’s a worthwhile read on this important topic, but what especially caught my attention was this bit:

“Several diversity officers and experts told us that despite their best efforts, women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential.”

That’s when it hit me: I’ve really never hired based on experience and track record. I’ve always hired based on potential.

I knew I always tried to hire based on personality, since you can train coffee skills but not personality. But it’s really always been about potential. Focusing on potential over performance does put more pressure on me and the others in our organization to be able to teach the coffee part, but it also aligns everyone involved, the employee and the organization, in the shared goal of meaningful professional development. That alignment is key.

How you identify potential, attract great people, and develop a culture that promotes alignment is an entirely different topic. I do know that in every team I’ve had, at every level, my staff has pretty much always been more women than men. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe the culture we’ve developed is more appealing to women with greater potential.

Employing people is much, much more about your responsibility than it is about your authority. People put their trust in you when they come to work with you, and the more potential people have, the more work it takes to earn their trust every day. Thinking back to so many I’ve worked with, I guess it’s been a lot of work over the years. It’s also the best work I’ll ever do.