Hiring individuals doesn’t work

I’ve been married for more than 10 years. What keeps my wife and I together is more in our differences than what we have in common. My wife is a planner, and great at it. She’s discipline and focused. She follows a detailed list everyday. I’m the opposite, an improvisor. I can’t follow a list to save my life. I lack discipline and focus. But I’ve learned to embrace my improvisational style and it works for me.

What my wife and I have learned over the last decade is simply that embracing how we naturally tend to work is how we’re most productive. When a situation needs a good plan, or a ton of research my wife takes the lead. When circumstances change with an unexpected twist, or a the situation demands quick decisions, I take the lead. Basically, we play to our strengths which is not only more effective, but a lot less stressful.

I believe at work, my team benefits from the same principals. Now that might seem obvious, but it’s surprisingly lacking from the way many companies hire. It’s a common trend to interview the same way for a specific role because you’re looking for a set of base skills or qualities. The conventional wisdom is that if someone meets those criteria they will be productive regardless of their team. Frankly, that approach is lazy and short-sighted.

If you need someone to work in isolation then it can work, but when you’re building a team for the long run the methodology falls apart or more accurately the team falls apart. It’s all the rage these days to pick on tech companies for their failures in creating diversity, and importantly, it’s a fair criticism. But I believe we find ourselves in this situation not, generally, due to prejudice, but because we’re thinking about hiring the wrong way.

At Fanatics, my team is trying to improve. Our approach is based on one core idea:

People are not balanced but, teams can be.

We turned to the Gallup Strengths Finder which offers a test and associated language to define a person’s primary strengths. This type of test is not the be all end all of a person, but I believe it’s one angle, a data point. It also serves the purpose of creating a way to communicate these ideas in defined terms.

Reviewing our results, we quickly realized that we had some clear and easy to agree upon weaknesses on the team that we wanted to see filled by future members. For example, as a team we were very strong in the Strategic Thinking domain and very weak in the Relationship Building domain. You might imagine that makes sense, and to an extent it does; however, working as part of a larger organization Relationship Building always has an important role to play.

We sat down as a team and discussed these gaps in the teams strengths and then worked out a series of questions that we thought would help to identify the strengths we were lacking. We created an unique interview situation that would help us find someone who both understood software engineering but could also play the ever important role of helping to find balance and maintain relationships in a difficult discussion.

The result of that discussion was amazing. The team went from originally having the idea, “Well we want another software engineer.” To searching for someone with some specific strengths that filled gaps in how our team was thinking and approaching problems.

The person we ultimately hired from this first exercised has been an incredible addition to the team. She’s a great engineer and hard worker, but she has also plugged into the team in really wonderful ways. She helps keep us a bit more focused, she’s improved our designs. She comes with some different points of view and has caused all of us to step back and consider things we didn’t see previously.

I believe it was crucial to shift our thinking from “what individual to hire” to “how do we build the team.” By explicitly searching for someone who filled in weaknesses on the team, we hired someone who brought real diversity. We now have a more balanced team, which is good because as individuals we’re certainly not balanced.

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