Why You Shouldn't Hire That Perfect Resume

Last Updated May 13, 2010 11:08 AM EDT

With so many brilliant college and business school graduates coming onto the market this summer, it's tempting to think that this is a great moment to upgrade your intake. Maybe you'll have to pay more for the Stanford grad -- but won't he or she be worth it? When it comes to hiring people, isn't it true that you get what you pay for?

I wouldn't be too sure. Partly I'm skeptical because I know that in the past I've overpaid for some people who went to expensive schools and had fantastic resumes but turned out to be quite ordinary. I'll never forget a young Brown graduate complaining of working late "just because there's a deadline." Sure, he was pretty smart, but he felt terribly entitled.

More inspiring is the way that Carol Latham built her firm, Thermagon. Working as a chemist for BP, Latham believed that she could invent a material to keep computers cool. Her employers didn't agree, so she left, rented out her family home, and moved into a tiny Cleveland apartment, funding her start-up on the difference. For a few years she labored in the wilderness, but she was right: she did know how to keep computers cool. Using boron nitride, she made a material that looks rather like bright purple cookie dough, and she estimated it was ten times more effective at diffusing heat than anything else on the market. So when Intel introduced its Pentium chip and it had major overheating problems, the entrepreneur's dream had come true. It looked like her business could ride Intel's wave to success. Except that, while she had a golden opportunity, what Latham didn't have was much money. She never took VC money, just small investments from friends and family. So she didn't have the cash to recruit a Silicon Valley workforce when she ramped up.

Instead, she opened the back door of her inner-city office and, she says, dragged in almost anyone who walked past -- mostly Latinos, many of whom hadn't graduated high school. She persuaded the Cleveland school board to send her teachers, and she set up a classroom inside the offices where her new workforce studied during office hours. One such recruit -- Mistelina Quinones, a single parent -- ended up managing all of production. What Latham built was a workforce that was dedicated, loyal and hard working. They passionately wanted the business to succeed because they understood that if it did, they did.

When people ask me what is the biggest mistake I see executives make, it's a hard question because there are so many answers to choose from. But top, or near the top, of the list is the failure to appreciate the potential of their employees. When we hire the perfect resume, we do so hoping we've found the holy grail: the employee who is so smart that no training, motivation, supervision or mentoring will be required. Problem is, the holy grail's a myth.

Hiring raw talent and the right attitude has always worked better for me. Not because I get the ego trip of changing their lives (though when it happens, it's highly rewarding). But because the energy, focus and determination that result from developing raw talent changes the company's culture. The supreme alignment between personal growth and business growth can't just be talked about; it has to be real and felt.

Hiring talent is easy; developing it is harder. Which do you do?
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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