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How to Avoid Disaster When Hiring for Key Positions

Avoid Disaster When HiringI constantly see boards, executives, and managers hire or promote people who completely lack the requisite knowledge, experience, and skills to do a job. I'm not talking about "close calls," I'm talking about people who aren't even in the ballpark. Anyone remember Jerry Yang and Yahoo?

Why do they do it? Lots of "reasons" we'll get to in a minute. But if you ever wondered why so many newly hired managers and executives fail so spectacularly, this will explain why. You see, cutting corners by hiring or promoting folks with the wrong background for a key position costs far more than just time and expense. We're talking opportunity cost, customers, market share, and in the case of Yang, the worst case of executive turnover and botched executive decision-making in memory.

The way to avoid all that is to learn the simple lesson behind the expression, "Use the right tool for the right job." If you don't, the lesson can be expensive indeed. Believe it or not, I actually learned it from, of all things, construction.

You see, I used to be cheap and scrappy when it came to tools. And the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) projects and repairs I attempted usually turned out badly, but I had no idea why. Then I had the unique opportunity to observe dozens of contractors on the construction of a new home. That's how I learned that there are all kinds of tools for specific functions. They're expensive, but in the long run, they pay off. Not only that, they keep disasters from occurring.

It's the same thing in the corporate and business world.

In Silicon Valley, for example, CEOs are always hiring or promoting engineers with zero marketing experience to head up marketing. Sometimes executives use generalists, like corporate attorneys, for highly specialized functions like intellectual property. I've even seen scientists pegged to run sales, people with zero finance or accounting background as CFOs, it goes on and on.

Not to say that folks can't cross functions or shouldn't be given a chance to prove themselves, but you've got to be smart about it and at least know the risks you're taking. And that's the problem. Too many executives and managers cut corners and expect things to turn out fine. There are dozens of excuses for doing that, for example:

  • She's cheap.
  • He's not working out in 'x' so let's try him in 'y'.
  • She knows the technology and we've got this gap in marketing.
  • I don't have time for this; let HR do it.
  • He's a good manager and we've got this gap in manufacturing.
  • He's been around forever and wants to do something different.
  • We've got to do something with him.
  • I know somebody who doesn't have the experience but she's really smart.
  • Well, he's a founder; we've got to put him in charge of something.
  • We're having trouble finding someone and we've got to fill the position now.
I've seen or heard every single one of these excuses in the real world, and the one thing they all have in common is they all failed. And, in the process, they cost the company dearly in terms of time, expense, opportunity cost, lost business and customers, failed product lines, lost legal battles, and even failed companies when it's the CEO.

So, when you're looking to fill a key position, here's some advice to remember:

  1. Learn to listen for excuses for cutting corners, especially when they're coming out of your own mouth.
  2. If you're thinking about hiring someone who, for whatever reason, doesn't have the experience, knowledge, or skills for the job, don't do it; it'll cost you far more than you realize.
  3. If you believe that hiring is a low priority or an HR function, guess what? It isn't. It's your job. Make it a priority and take it seriously.
  4. If you think it's essential to fill a position quickly, just imagine how much more time it will take to refill the position when the wrong person inevitably fails.
  5. If you've got some ridiculous notion that, for whatever reason, things will work out, guess what? They won't. It's that simple.
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Image CC 2.0 via Flickr by robynejay