There seems to be a direct correlation between how smart people are and how stupid they are when it comes to making hiring decisions.

The smartest ones seem to want to only hire other super-skilled smart people regardless of the job. For example, I showed this graphic to a bunch of hiring managers in engineering, sales, marketing, finance and operations.

I described it by saying you have the choice of hiring one of two people. One of them had all of the skills and experiences listed on the job description. The other person had a track record of accomplishments doing the work that actually needed to be done. Then asked:

“Who would you rather hire?”

Surprisingly, the engineering people – who were IQ-wise the smartest of the bunch – were the most narrow-minded. Most of them wanted to hire the most brilliant, highly technical people. This was despite the fact that most of the jobs they were trying to fill required exceptional organizational skills, the need to negotiate product requirements with marketing, establishing launch plans with operations and developing budgets with finance.

To overcome the natural tendency to overvalue skills, experience and competencies, when I take search assignments I always ask the hiring managers these questions:

  • What are the most important things the person in this job needs to do to be successful during the first 6-12 months?
  • What would the person need to do to get up-to-speed in the first 60-90 days to be reasonably assured the person will be able to achieve the big performance objectives?
  • Describe the teams the person will be working on and some of the big team challenges?
  • What are the biggest short- and long-term problems the person is likely to face on the job?
  • How are the most important technical skills used on the job?
  • What’s the one single thing this person must be able to do that you can’t compromise on?

These questions generate 6-8 performance objectives. They all contain action verbs, include a task, deliverable, some measure of success and a timeframe. For example, “Complete and get the product requirements document approved with engineering and product marketing within 90 days.” (Note: Job-seekers should ask recruiters and hiring managers the same questions during the interview.) I then have the hiring manager put the objectives in priority order. This prioritized list is called a performance-based job description or performance profile.

When I compare the lists side by side and ask the “Who would you rather hire?” question, only the engineering managers balk. Without hesitation everyone else loudly proclaims, “RESULTS!”

While not universal, engineers more often than not opt for skills and technical brilliance over superior performance and exceptional results. In this case I offer a compromise. I suggest they meet a few candidates with all of the skills and a few who have achieved comparable results, and then they can select whom they want to hire. This actually works quite well unless the engineering leaders focus on technical brilliance rather than the candidate’s track record of exceptional results during the interview. In this case the search project ends up as a failure at least as far as I’m concerned. Hiring the most technically competent person instead of the most performance-qualified person is never the best hiring decision.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss this problem with a brilliant – yet extremely practical – professor at Harvard University. His work is focused on human performance and individual achievement. As part of some related project work I asked him if he’s experienced this type of inward vs. outward thinking. He said it’s classic human nature. Some brilliant people only reinforce what they know while others seek to challenge what they know. I guess that’s why some very smart people can seem pretty stupid while others are open-minded, engaged, inquisitive and logical.

Based on this, whenever I take search assignments I first figure out if the hiring manager is too smart for his or her own good.

Who would you rather hire?