Tenwall's Views
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Tenwall's Views

On Leadership: Enwall’s Principle of Hiring

How to have your personnel cake and eat it too

Every manager at one point or another — or a dozen or hundred points — faces the excruciating decision of hiring a suboptimal person for a role they desperately need filled or forging on without a resource performing critical work.

Fortunately, there’s a solution I’ve employed successfully for more than a decade and falls under the heading: “Enwall’s Principle of Hiring”.

The principle starts with several observations.

Observation One: management is fallible (what?!?). Yes, true, we’d all like to imagine that management is 100% accurate in all of their planning, predicting and creating the future. That management is omniscient in their understanding of every aspect of the next six to twelve months of business operation. We create plans and budgets and annual operating plans. But, sadly, managers are just as human as everyone else and they can’t always see perfectly nor can they predict the external forces beyond their control (excess demand, absent demand, newly implemented tariffs, etc…). As a result a manager is frequently in a well-known place: newly identified work that must be performed to achieve the desired results and a lack of people to perform the work. I.e. the need to hire a new role into the business.

Observation Two: it is management’s primary responsibility to put the right person in the right role. Jim Collin’s famous “Get the Right People on the Bus” principle from his seminal book Good to Great.

Observation Three: it’s also management’s responsibility to secure the resources to achieve the results required. Missions and results require resources — people chief among them. A manager who doesn’t prioritize, with urgency and importance, securing those resources is often a manager on their way out of that role because it places undue burden on the rest of the team to operate without the necessary resources.

Observation Four: it takes time to put the Right Person on the Bus. In fact, it takes an unknowable amount of time. It could take only a week. The optimal candidate might happen to align universes with the hiring manager, the interview process goes quickly, the candidate isn’t currently employed and therefore doesn’t need to put in two weeks notice and can start on Monday. And, more likely, it takes months. Sometimes many months. Frequently, managers are myopic that their only option is to hire that optimal full time employee.

Observation Five: the pressure to handle the newly identified work increases exponentially the more time passes without the role being filled. Once the manager has identified the new work required and the new resource need the manager has only three choices available to them:

  • forego the work. If it’s important work, this isn’t really an option. And, if the work does go undone and it’s important work, then the passage of time creates exponential pressure to do something. Anything.
  • ask an existing employee to take on the extra work — to do “double duty”. The more time that passes with the employee taking on the work, the more the employee’s health and morale suffer, increasing pressure on the manager to hire anyone.
  • taking on the work themselves which, like asking the employee to do it, creates health and morale impacts on the manager which, again, increases the pressure to hire anyone.

The pressure to put the required resource in place becomes excruciating. And thus, the manager has fallen into the trap. They have a suboptimal candidate but, hey, that person can do the work and it relieves the pressure. So, they go ahead and hire. They’ve made a multi-year commitment and multi-year performance project for themselves.

Fortunately there’s an answer: Enwall’s Principle of Hiring which says:

When you first identify your need, take a week (maybe two) and fill the role with the best available contractor (who rises above some barely acceptable quality bar), while simultaneously conducting your regular full-time employee search.

I can hear you now. Here come all of the reasons why this is a bad idea:

  • we’ll have to train someone twice (the contractor and then the eventual full time employee)
  • the contractor will be more expensive than the full time employee
  • the contractor might perform work that is suboptimal

All accurate observations.

In my experience, though, each of these outcomes pales in comparison with either a) the profound cost and mistake of hiring a full-time person with a multi-year commitment who is subpar or b) the profound health and morale costs to existing employees.

Yes, true, a manager and colleagues will have to bring the contractor up to speed and then do a similar task again. Given the choice, though, of that colleague performing “double duty” or doing the initial training twice most employees will opt for saving their health and morale.

Yes, true, the contractor is often more expensive than the full-time equivalent due to the margins charged. The incremental cash difference between the full-burdened employee and the contractor, however, is often not all that great. Viewed on a monthly basis as an investment in your current employees health and well-being (or the manager’s), that incremental monthly amount begins to look like a pretty small investment for the well-being return.

And, yes, true, the contractor’s work might not be optimal. My view is that a contractor doing 80% or more of the work is far superior than 0% of the work getting done. Or, less than 80% of the work being done mediocrely by the over-worked employee or manager.

There’s another golden aspect of Enwall’s Principle of Hiring, especially when the contractor in question is either a sole proprietor or comes with a manageable “recruitment fee” from their employer: you might just find out that contractor is the Right Person on the Bus. With actual on-the-ground work experience with the contractor I’ve often found that person turns into the optimal employee. It’s happened a dozen times or more in my career with a zero rate of subsequent poor performance on the part of that hired employee. (And, we’ve also moved on from a contractor with the Right Person we acquired via our full-time employee search — again, with zero performance issues.)

Beware, though, of a frequent trap made by managers who go into a contractor relationship with the notion the contractor might become a permanent full-time employee: they stop looking for the optimal person. If they do this and the contractor turns out to not be the optimal employee then the manager has placed themselves right back at the beginning, into a situation where they’ve created the conditions to acquiesce to the pressures of hiring “anyone; just as long as it’s now.” Don’t do it — keep your search going strong.

“That might demoralize the contractor” you say. True, it could. In my experience, though, a simple explanation ensures the proper setup:

Manager: “you have an opportunity to earn the full-time role. You’ll be in the best position because we’ll be working with you day in and day out. Meanwhile, I can’t put the organization in jeopardy by not evaluating all potential candidates.”

Like all principles, there are exceptions — like when you can’t find a contractor who appears capable of doing at least 80% of the work at an acceptable level of quality. Or when the full-time employee isn’t really an immediate necessity, but more like a nice-to-have-right-now.

I’ve also seen first hand at scaling organizations how conventional-wisdom creates the conditions wherein a manager can’t execute Enwall’s Principle and ends up hiring suboptimal people which, for a rapidly scaling organization can spell disaster. Both sides of the coin illustrate just how pernicious the problem of “fill the spot” can be when it goes unfilled (by a contractor or a full-time employee). Resist the urge and the pressure. Pull the release valve, hire the contractor and redouble your recruiting efforts.

We’ve used Enwall’s Principle of Hiring to great success in several companies over the past 10 years. Some of our best employees have come on-board this way.

I hope you can put the principle to good use as well.

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Tim Enwall

Tim Enwall

Visionary leader with passion and skill in building startup teams who perform in the Top 10th percentile.