Don't Settle For Geniuses

When looking for a new hire, no company should have to choose between competence and passion. You can have both.

Dave Logan is a USC faculty member and writes a blog for CBS Money Watch.  You should read it.  It’ll make you think.

So when I take issue with Mr. Logan, it’s because he made me think.

Two blogs in particular caught my eye.  One is called “Why Companies Hate Geniuses” and the other, “Why Geniuses Don't Get Jobs.” Very provocative headlines.  Got me to read them.  Job one of a blog writer.

But I found the core premise in both blogs flawed.

“Why Geniuses Don’t Get Jobs,” was actually the first of the two articles.  In it Mr. Logan defines geniuses as falling into three categories – which I will rename the jerk, the hermit and the erratic.

The first type he calls "gregarious geniuses.” These guys are wicked smart but apparently don’t have a governor on their mouths.  They can walk into a business situation, see the flaws almost instantly and then proceed to explain that everyone associated with the original thinking must be an idiot. Genius, perhaps. Smart, no.

The second group is the "isolated genius."  This is that group that would rather sit in a room and think great thoughts than interact with the rest of the team.  Dave explains that they don’t interview very well, so they don’t get hired. If they are hired, they are usually relegated to solve problems off in a lab somewhere, which is apparently just fine with them.

The third type is the "unpredictable genius.” They are described as “unstable.” Much of the time they seem like ideal executives. But on other days they can be “moody, unresponsive, slow, and pessimistic.”

Frankly if these were indeed the only people who were geniuses, they probably shouldn’t be hired.  But are those really the only choices?

In his other piece Dave makes the case for hiring geniuses and advises companies to “hire for passion and fit first, and proven competence second.”

He does make a very good point that today companies want someone who has done the same job somewhere else. But he concludes that this is a matter of companies focusing on competence and requisite backgrounds instead of passion.  He goes on to say it’s a choice of constraint vs creativity. 

Who says that the choices are passion OR competence? 

Who says constraint is the antithesis of creativity? 

Why should a company have to give ground on these points?  I’ve interviewed enough people to believe there are passionate people who also have proven experience and proven competence.  I’ve also met passionate people who bring nothing else to the party but their passion. 

I’ve worked with truly creative people who seem to prefer having a target rather than staring at a blank sheet of paper.  Constraint is not a negative.  It can provide focus if done correctly.

I will agree that too many companies ask their recruiters to find someone who has done the same job, at the same level in the same industry somewhere else. But my view is that it is not because they are looking for “competence”.  In many cases this rearrangement of the deck chairs comes from a lack of understanding what is really needed to do the job. 

If you start with the perspective that every hire entails risk and most executives/managers are risk averse, then they look for the least risky criteria. Essentially they try to hire themselves.  If that won’t fit the job, they look for someone else’s player assuming that their competitors must have solved this problem.

A great example is “marketing” in the high tech space.  For a generation the people with marketing on their business cards were too often former salespeople who really didn’t understand the concept of marketing.  So hiring someone else’s vice president of marketing was no guarantee you’d improve your company’s lot. And the deck chairs kept moving around.

This was not a search for competence, but rather a search for previous job titles. The assumption has been this is a safe bet.  Bad assumption. 

What you should expect from your executive search consultant is that (a) they have a full understanding of your business – not just the specific job you want to fill, (b) they have the experience to provide you with guidance on the skills and experiences you actually need in the specific role, and (c) they have access to talent with those skills.  It’s not a matter of whether the candidate held the very same role down the street.  It’s whether they have faced similar challenges and have proven that they have the smarts and experience… and, yes, perhaps genius… to attack your challenges. It not just what they have done, but how they have done it that translates from one company or industry or role to another.

Net, net no company should have to settle for a passionate genius who talks down to his peers, hides in a corner or is an emotional time bomb.  No company should have to choose between competence OR passion.  Take the time and find a talented, proven AND passionate genius and then help them succeed.
To do that, what you do have to do is understand the skills and experiences it takes to succeed in a given role and then find people with that combination. But do yourself a favor and look outside your comfort zone.  That’s where the real geniuses lie.