"Space Station" Hiring: How to set priorities when selecting candidates for high-performance teams
"Ok, let's define the profile for this new vacancy we're opening. We need someone with 10 years of proficiency in SQL, who has managed 5 or more teams, with immense leadership potential, experience in consumer tech but also B2B sales, strategic vision, a perfect cultural fit with our organization, who can start on Tuesday."
This is a common beginning to many recruiting processes — the search for the perfect candidate. The problem is that these "perfect" candidates almost never exist, and since we don't discuss priorities and compromises up front, we end up making poor hiring decisions later on once the process has dragged on beyond its expected duration.
Given this challenge, what should we look for in employees? I believe an interesting "rule of thumb" is focusing on hiring people I would be able to live and work with on a space station for hundreds of days.
Why a space station? Space stations are environments of limited resources, where high performance is mandatory, and the close quarters require team members to communicate clearly, manage conflicts that come up, and maintain focus on the mission objectives even during stressful times or malfunctions. It is the extreme version of an office or company!
In this scenario, you must be very thoughtful about selection and hiring. If I were hiring for my space station, I would look for the best candidates according to the following 5 characteristics:
- A powerful desire to do what is right: On a space station, or any environment with limited resources, many decisions will come down to ethical or moral considerations — what is the right thing to do here? Should we ask our junior researcher to stay longer on a space walk even though it might risk their health? Should we take this crane to its operational maintenance limits and risk a dangerous malfunction? In any professional environment, it is an absolute priority to work with people who have a strong moral compass and a clear point of view on what they believe to be the right thing to do for the long term benefit of all, even if it might compromise short-term gains. The right thing is always the best long-term decision.
- A focus on excellence and "pride-worthy" work: On a space station, there is no room for anyone to do "ok" or "acceptable" work. There are so few team members and resources that everyone needs to perform at their best possible level in order for the objectives to be achieved. Everyone must look at their efforts and be able to say "this is excellent work, I did the best I could given my ability and resources". This doesn't mean long hours or unsustainable pushes — taking care of ourselves and our energy, including resting and personal time, is a critical part of doing "excellent" work when the time comes. This balance is not easy, but there's no other way.
- Self-awareness and openness: To me, all members of the team need to be able to look at themselves honestly and evaluated if their behavior is the best for the good of the group of our main objectives. Am I being too selfish? Am I making decisions for the good of my ego and not for the good of the group? Am I being fair? Am I doing my best? Who can help me improve? There is no right answer for these questions, so it is crucial for all team members to ask themselves what they can do better and to seek help in improving, even if it means having to admit mistakes or limitations.
- Intrinsic energy, healthy ambition and curiosity: An internal source of energy and the desire to always learn is a critical part of being a high performing team member in any environment, especially a space station. Energy does not necessarily mean extroversion or little sleep, it means proactively identifying and tackling critical problems, combined with the curiosity to learn necessary solutions or skills when needed. This is the "fuel" which makes everything else possible, so to me it is one of the most important aspects of selecting candidates. This is most powerful when combined with a healthy ambition — which takes into account not only the candidate's career goals but also achieving what is best for the group, in order to help them apply their energy and curiosity to the most high-impact issues.
- A minimum effective level of technical baseline needed to perform the work: Even though I am arguing for lowering the technical or experience-based focused that candidate selection usually carries, it is important to set a "minimum effective level" of technical knowledge required. Instead of a specific data analytics package or statistics language, maybe it is a broad exposure to data and statistics in a previous role, or experience with similar analytical challenges in another field. Space stations need biologists and flight engineers, but the truth is even after they are selected astronauts must go through years (3 to 4!)of specific training to be able to go to space, so the most important technical aspect is the minimal proficiency — the rest can, and must, be taught.
Of course these characteristics are not easy to find — but they do open up a broader range of possible candidates vs. creating an enormous and limiting list of required experiences and technical certificates!
How to find, select and hire these candidates? How to onboard and train them? These are equally important topics for another time!
Disclaimer: I have no insider knowledge of working or living on a space station — all of my information comes from science fiction books (ex: the amazing Seveneves) or YouTube.